You’ve finally found the home of your dreams. It’s perfect, the price is right, the neighborhood is wonderful (and walkable!) and it has some really awesome appliances. But when you go to your final walk-through, you’re shocked to discover that those awesome appliances have been removed, with absolutely no clue left as to their current whereabouts. Well, that certainly can’t stand! Where are the appliances?
You stop in your tracks. Dead in your tracks. And you utter the words no Realtor ever wants to hear, “I’m not closing.” Your Realtor calmly pulls up the listing information on their phone to check the status of the appliances. Then they have a heart to heart with you about appurtenance.
Appurtenance and Private Property
There are few concepts within the real estate world that bring more tears, screaming and actual legal fights than appurtenance. This is basically a sort of wavy line between where real property (like a house or a piece of land) starts and private property (like a bird feeder or a stove) ends. Because so many homes are shown while occupied, there are usually a lot of things inside that don’t go with the house when it’s sold.
You’d never assume that piano stayed or that the couch was a gimme with the home, those are fairly clear-cut pieces of private property you know not to plan on owning. But there are also things that are a lot hazier. For example, that freestanding range or the neat light over the kitchen bar. These things are less straightforward. After all, every kitchen needs a range, right? And that light fixture, it’s just a light fixture, so whatever — you’ll just replace it with something cheaper when it’s time to move.
That’s not actually how it works, though. Appurtenance means, essentially, that an item belongs to the house. It’s not yours or the new owner’s, but instead it sort of travels with the property. In a very basic example, you could say that a pool and the pool house are appurtenant. They clearly go with the property indefinitely, until they’re destroyed. No question there.
The Appurtenance Litmus Test
A pool is one thing, but that stove, that light fixture, even a satellite dish, these are quite different questions. How do you know when they stay or go? First, you should always check the listing carefully — often your answers are spelled out right there. But if they aren’t, there’s a litmus test you can use to help better understand what “belongs.”
Ask yourself, “Is this item meant to be permanently attached to the house, and if so, will it damage the property if it’s removed?” It’s a two-part question that is always in the same two parts. First, it has to have been attached with the intent of being permanent. Secondly, it has to cause cosmetic or structural damage if it’s taken out.
This means that the freestanding stove, which is only plugged in and pushed between two cabinets, is in no way appurtenant. The light fixture, however, was installed in a permanent fashion, so it is appurtenant. The piano is still completely off-limits.
It’s not that this concept by itself is so difficult to understand on the surface, it’s more that some people have different ideas of what “permanent” and “damage” mean. Let’s look at another example. Say there’s a really cool television mounted above the fireplace in the house you’re interested in buying. You assume it’s appurtenant because it’s attached, right? It’s mounted in the brick, so taking it down would damage the fireplace.
Yet, the seller takes that television when they move, but they kindly leave you the brackets so you can install your own television in the same spot. You scream bloody murder. Your Realtor points out that there’s no damage and the bracket is still attached to the fireplace. In this case, the television itself wasn’t actually appurtenant, but the bracket was.
A Few Tips for Determining What Stays
Buying a house is stressful, and there’s nothing good about making it more stressful by introducing concepts like appurtenance, but it’s also no fun to be blindsided at your final walk-through, either. Even if you’ve never done a single DIY project in your life, these questions should help you figure out if that thing you really hope is staying will actually hang around after closing:
Is it plugged in? Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, if something’s plugged into the wall, it’s not appurtenant. Garbage disposals break this rule because they are often plugged in, but they’re also permanently attached in other ways, so you can generally assume they’re going to be waiting for you like a puppy dog after a long day at work.
Was the surface material broken to install it? Let’s say the thing you’re now worried about is a satellite dish and it’s installed on the chimney. You can see from the ground that it’s just strapped up there with sturdy plastic straps. Because the method of attachment is considered non-permanent (aka. It doesn’t damage the surface material), that satellite can be removed by the seller. If they leave it, you should seriously think about having one of your HomeKeepr pros attach it more solidly, though.
Is the item required to make the property function? This is a little weirder of a question, unless you’re already thinking about your house as one giant thing made up of lots of little systems. All those little systems have to be in balance to make it work, from the gutters to the soffit vents. Let’s say that your sellers ran off with all the downspouts from the gutter system (this would also be a weird thing to take, but this is a very fictitious example). Although they’re not permanently affixed to the house, they are a part of the gutter system, which is required to keep water from running under your house and into the basement. Those downspouts could be argued to be appurtenant since they’re part of a necessary system.
You can think about this concept in terms of items that belong to your house, if that makes it easier, but you have to keep in mind the intent and damage aspects, too. If you’re going to try to fight a seller for an appurtenant item, however, make sure it’s worth the cost. These battles can literally take years and cost much more than it would to simply replace the item. Sometimes it’s worth the effort, sometimes it’s not. Your agent can give you advice on what to do if your walk-through turns into an alarming episode of cataloging missing pieces.