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Fixtures, Furniture, And Finishes: Misunderstandings That Kill Home Sales

Furniture included in purchase agreement
What you see isn’t always what you get when it comes to home furnishings. Here’s how to navigate this often-touchy subject.

Most sellers realize that staging — spending time and effort getting a house looking its best — helps sell homes. Staging often involves paying a professional to move in furnishings that aren’t yours to help sell an empty house — and move out some of your own furniture if there’s too much of it. But if you have fixtures, furniture, and finishes that already play up your home’s best features (or treasured heirlooms you don’t want to put in storage, like your grandmother’s antique cranberry glass light fixture), your home might already be show-ready.

There’s one potential problem, however, when sellers have killer furnishings: Buyers want them. It’s common for certain appliances to be included in a home sale, but then again, the seller might intend to take them to the new Durham, NC, house for sale they’re hoping to close on. Therefore, sellers often spell out whether appliances stay or go ahead of time, in the listing or on the seller’s disclosure form. But other items, from built-ins to light fixtures, can cause confusion if a buyer expects them to stay (and makes an offer with those things in mind), while the seller fully intends to pack them up.

What’s a fixture, and what’s its significance?

A fixture in a home can be anything, as long as it’s attached to the property, and attached in such a way that its removal would cause damage. “The general rule of thumb is this: If it takes a screwdriver to remove the item, it is generally considered a fixture of the property,” says Jeff Knox, a Texas real estate agent.

  1. Appliances: Dishwashers, built-in microwaves, cooktops, and sinks almost always stay with a house. But the fridge and the washer/dryer are often up for discussion, as might be a drop-in range. Typically, if it’s built into the cabinetry, it stays. Free-standing? It goes with the seller … usually. “These are items a buyer would need to get clarification on from their real estate agent,” says Knox.
  2. Light fixtures: What about that beautiful chandelier in the foyer? Even if the seller acknowledges that the home comes with one, it might not be the same chandelier that impressed you during your initial visit. “The buyer could be dreaming of the Baccarat chandelier they saw during the showing, but at the walk-through, there is a [home improvement store] chandelier in its place,” says Michael Camacho, a New York, NY, real estate broker with Douglas Elliman. “Things such as light fixtures or ceiling fans will usually remain as part of a sale,” says Kellie Tinnin, a New Mexico agent. But it’s still best to get clarification from your agent.
  3. Window treatments: Typically, blinds and shades stay, since they are custom-fit to the home’s windows. But many sellers have high-end curtains and drapes that match their furniture, making window treatments a hot topic for sellers and buyers to discuss with their agents. Again, if you’re attached to the window coverings, make sure it’s clear which treatments stay and which go.
  4. Flat-screen TVs: A flat-screen TV mounted on the wall can make a perfectly happy real estate agent want to head for the hills. “Technically, this is a built-in fixture,” says Knox. But try telling that to a homeowner who regularly has people over to watch the big game on that 75-inch screen. The solution? If you, as the seller, plan to take your TV and mount with you, exclude those items from the sale.
  5. Backyard storage shed: A buyer looks around the backyard, is impressed by the storage shed, and immediately envisions a home for their future riding mower. But what if the seller has the means (and the equipment) to take it with them when they move? Usually: It stays. But sellers and buyers can always clarify; most items are negotiable.

How would a buyer go about obtaining furniture that isn’t a fixture?

If, as a buyer, you spot furniture or stand-alone fixtures that you really want, simply include those items in your offer. “Make it so that these nonrealty items are left with the home at no additional charge to [you],” says Knox. Another option is to wait and use those items as a negotiation tool if the seller counters your offer. “Accept their counter if they throw in (fill in the blank),” says Janine Acquafredda, a Brooklyn, NY, agent. “Just make sure the items are included in the purchase contract, and make sure to do a final walk-through before closing to be sure that the items were, in fact, left behind.”

What if the seller wants to leave furniture and free-standing fixtures?

Sometimes sellers don’t want to move big items across town, let alone cross-country, so they might prefer that the buyer keep them — but not necessarily for free. After all, you might want to recoup some of the costs of that baby grand piano, but you might not want to incur the expense of hauling it to your new place. “Do not ever advertise that you are willing to sell or leave any items with the home until you agree to a price on the home during contract negotiations,” Knox advises sellers. Make the home transaction and the furniture transaction two separate deals. After you’ve sold the home and signed the contract, “You can then offer other items to the buyer at an additional price.”

What are finishes, and how do those apply?

Home finishes refer to decor — how the home looks when it’s decorated. Paint is considered a finish, for example, but paint color obviously stays with the walls. Although sellers don’t take finishes with them, buyers might be able to negotiate a lower purchase price if they’ll need to repaint a neon-green living room or replace cracked tile countertops. On the other hand, buyers need to be careful not to be fooled by an older home with brand-new, pretty finishes. Those new finishes could be masking less obvious problems, such as cracks in the foundation or water stains on the ceiling from a leaky roof.

Ultimately, sellers and buyers should avoid assumptions. Put all items of interest or concern to you in the purchase agreement. “Most issues about personal property, furniture, or fixtures can be resolved by being upfront, asking for what you want, and being open to reaching an agreeable solution,” says Kellie Tinnin.

Have you had a sale fall through from a misunderstanding about fixtures or furnishings? Let us know in the comments!