Form 17 — an addendum to the contract?

As always, this is not legal advice. If you want legal advice, consult an attorney, not a blog.

Is the Form 17 part of the purchase and sale agreement (PSA)? Should it be listed in the “Addendum” paragraph of the PSA? In a word: NO! (At least if you’re the seller — if you’re the buyer, then YES!)

First, some background: Here in Washington, a seller is required to provide a fairly comprehensive Seller Disclosure Statement to any buyer of real property. Our local MLS provides this to sellers as its “Form 17,” so everyone in the biz refers to this legally required disclosure statement as the Form 17. Pursuant to the statue, the Form 17 “is for disclosure only and is not intended to be part of any written agreement between the buyer and the seller,” i.e., it is not supposed to be part of the PSA. On the first page of a PSA, there is a section in which the various addendums to the PSA should be listed so that there is a clear description of the complete contract and its terms.

In practice, many agents (and unrepresented parties) will list the Form 17 along with the various addendums that are typically included in the PSA (e.g., financing contingency, title contingency, inspection coningency, etc.). If you are a seller, this is a significant mistake. Conversely, if you are a buyer, this provides you with some leverage if the seller fails to disclose or misreprsents a defect in the house.

By listing the Form 17 as an addendum to the contract, the parties incorporate the Form 17 into the contract notwithstanding the statutory language. In that event, if the seller fails to disclose or misrepresents a defect, then the seller has arguably breached the contract. This would give rise to a breach of contract claim against the seller, which is an easier claim to prove than a claim of fraud, the typical claim arising out of a seller’s misrepresentation. Moreover, the PSA contains an attorney’s fees clause. Thus, if the buyer were to prevail on the breach of contract claim, he would also be entitled to an award of his fees and costs incurred (which will very likely exceed the cost to repair the undisclosed defect). Fees and costs typically are not available on a fraud claim (although the case below calls that proposition into doubt, a topic of a future post).

A very recent case helps to illustrate this point. Stieneke v. Russi, decided July 1, involved a seller’s failure to disclose a leaking roof. At trial, the court concluded that the Form 17 was part of the contract, even though the buyers signed it four days after mutual acceptance. The trial court reasoned that a seller should not be able to easily avoid liability for the contents of the Form 17. The court found that there was “an understanding” between the parties that the Form 17 was “part of the deal.” Accordingly, the seller was liable for breach of contract.

On appeal, the appellate court reversed the trial court. The appellate court focused on several issues, including the fact that there was no mention of the Form 17 in the PSA itself. Had the PSA referenced the Form 17 in the “Addendums” section, thus specifically including the Form 17 in the terms of the contract, the appellate court would have had a much more difficult time concluding that the Form 17 was not part of the contract.

So, if you’re a seller and you receive an offer showing the Form 17 as an addendum, prudence would dictate that you strike that term and present the counteroffer back to the buyer. There is no reason to include the Form 17 in the contract, and indeed the legislature did not intend for it to be part of the contract as indicated by the statutory language. On the other hand, if you’re a buyer, go ahead and list the Form 17. Why not? It is common practice among agents and there is a good chance the seller will accept this term. In that event, you will have some additional protection to insure that the contents of the Form 17 really do reflect the actual knowledge of the seller. If the Form 17 does not reflect the seller’s actual knowledge, then you will have a good claim against the seller for the costs you incur as a result.

[Footnote: the damages in the Stieneke case, the cost to repair the leaking roof, was $72k, but the attorney’s fees and costs were $175k. Clearly, as a buyer it is really, really good to preserve any ability to recover your fees and costs in the event you have a claim against the seller. In a future post, I’ll discuss other interesting aspects of this case, including the basis for this award of fees even though there was no breach of contract claim.]