After house-hunting, negotiating a price and working out details of his move, Patrick O'Leary was ready to tackle the real work: understanding and operating the various mechanical systems in his new, 6,000-square-foot home.
He was relieved when the former owner offered to meet him at the East Greenwich, R.I., house to go over its theater equipment, sprinkler system and pool. The seller left O'Leary a list of companies and contractors who have worked on the home in recent years.
"They put all the bells and whistles in this house. It would have been difficult to just walk in and understand everything," he said. "It definitely gives a comfort level."
No law obligates sellers to help buyers learn the idiosyncrasies of a house, but some go to great lengths to help the new owners settle in. Buyers should ask about everything from the day-to-day operations of the house to landscaping details to the names of neighborhood baby sitters, said real estate agent Ron Phipps.
"There's so much data you can collect," said Phipps, who sells real estate in Warwick, R.I., and is first vice president of the Chicago-based National Association of Realtors.
"It's unfortunate if a buyer doesn't have access to a seller to explain things," he said.
Typically, the amount of information exchanged depends on the character of the negotiations, Phipps said. Falling home prices and tough negotiations in recent years have made some sellers less likely to provide additional details, he said.
Real estate agent Gregg Whitney has found it easier to provide buyers with information about contractors and home professionals himself than to rely on sellers.
"We realized we could make sure they're taken care of," said Whitney, of La Jolla, Calif. "It's really important to have somebody you can call and get questions answered."
But nothing can replace seller insights, he added.
"Invariably, every house has a little something," he said. "It's not that the seller didn't disclose something; it's just how the mechanics work."
That's why it never hurts to ask sellers for information, said Donna Batdorff, a real estate agent in Grand Rapids, Mich. She encourages buyers to put together a list of questions after the deal has been negotiated. She suggests asking everything from the names of paint colors to the names and details of immediate neighbors.
Batdorff even asks sellers to fill out a form during closing offering information about garbage pickup, appliance warranties and vendors who have worked on the house. The document often leads to the exchange of additional useful information, she said.
"Buyers and sellers don't do this all the time," she said. "It helps if the real estate agent facilitates the conversation."
Sellers who are sentimental about their home often appreciate the chance to share details, added Judi Scull, a real estate agent in Westminster, Md.
"A lot of times, people just love their house," she said. "They don't want to give it up to people they don't know."
She recently oversaw a meeting where a buyer walked the new owner around the home's meandering property line, pointed out interesting varieties of trees and shared the location of a generator hookup. The seller also gave the owner a lesson on how to operate the thermostat and a tip on how to start a balky dishwasher.
Scull still remembers when she was 13 and received a nice housewarming present from the girl who moved out of the house her family moved into.
"She drew up a map that listed where all the cute boys in the neighborhood lived," Scull recalled. "It really helped me feel good and fit in."