Which Fixtures Can a Seller Remove in a Short Sale?

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Question: Which Fixtures Can a Seller Remove in a Short Sale?

A reader asks: When we bought this place 5 years ago, my wife had to get the cherry wood cabinets and plush Berber, so we spent $60,000 on upgrades. From plantation shutters, to our surround sound system, all of this crap cost us plenty. Now, our house is upside down and underwater. We owe twice as much as it's worth. To get back some of our money, I plan to take the Bosch dishwasher with us, and maybe the shutters, too. They're just screwed to drywall. Will I get in trouble? Which fixtures can a seller remove in a short sale?"

Answer: It's a good thing that you asked about stripping fixtures from this short sale before tearing them out. It also sounds like you might be a little irritated now that you spent so much money on those upgrades. Upgrades in a new home are usually where the builder's biggest profit margins lie. You are not the first short sale seller to regret spending more than you wanted to spend on upgrades.

The problem is upgrades become fixtures after they are installed. That wall-to-wall carpeting is a fixture. Can you rip up the Berber and take it with you? Sure, you can. But it's theft. And it's 5-year-old carpeting to boot. There is not much of a market for selling used carpeting. Maybe a nonprofit could use it for the platform of a parade float?

Those plantation shutters? They might have cost you $10,000 to install, but they are custom made for each window and won't easily transfer to another house.

Their street value is maybe $200. I know of a short sale seller in Lincoln, California, who removed her frosted-glass pantry door in the kitchen. She gave it to her next door neighbor in exchange for her neighbor's standard builder-grade door, which didn't quite fit in her opening.

I sense that some sellers are angry when doing a short sale.

They are very angry with their bank for not helping them. Often, when it's a husband and wife who are doing the short sale, it's the husband who is the maddest. Many women seem to better handle the concept of a short sale and its cold reality. I'm not sure if it's because traditionally men want to provide for their families and feel like they have let them down, which makes them a failure in their own mind, or why so many men harbor such intense feelings of hostility. I simply know that many of them do.

It might be that men are often in the position of control. Losing equity in a home is a loss. If that loss is compounded by a personal hardship, it can very stressful to think about doing a short sale. Here are common feelings in a short sale:

  • Denial. Sellers think the bank should help them and do not want to be reminded that the bank did not put a pen in their hand and make them buy this house. They hope the economy will improve, but they don't see any recovery on the horizon. They wait for the situation to get better, and it doesn't happen.
  • Anger. They want justice. They want to get even. They want control. They're not going to get any of these things. They don't want to find a new place to live. Tearing out that chandelier, even if they'll only get 25 bucks for it on eBay, should make them feel better but it doesn't. That fuels the flames.
  • Depression. They mourn the loss of their home. The dreams they had when they moved in are now shattered. What they had hoped for is gone. That future does not exist. It's like somebody ripped out the rug from under their feet, so they decide to literally tear out the Berber.

Types of Fixtures That Stay in a Short Sale

Although short sales are typically sold in an "as is" condition, that doesn't mean it's OK to remove fixtures. Fixtures are permanently attached to the home. It doesn't matter if you replaced a light fixture by installing a remote-controlled ceiling fan, once that fan was attached, it became a fixture.

The security for your lender's loan is the home. The lender might have recourse against you personally but the first place a bank will look for repayment is at the home itself. Everything that is attached to that home as real estate is part of the bank's security.

If it is damaged, the bank might file a claim with the insurance company. The insurance company might go after the sellers who caused the damage or stole the appliances. The appliances are not yours to steal.

If you can unplug it and wheel it or cart it away, it can go. If it's affixed to the property or growing in the ground, it should stay. Here are sample types of fixtures that should remain in a short sale home:

  • Attached light fixtures and ceiling fans.
  • Carpeting, wood, tile, bamboo, vinyl, cork or ceramic flooring.
  • Cabinets, attached bookcases and shelving.
  • Windows and doors.
  • Attached window coverings.
  • Built-in fireplaces and chimneys.
  • Built-in appliances.
  • Water heaters, HVAC Systems, plumbing, copper and Romex
  • Cat-5 wiring and surround sound
  • Counter tops, vanities and sinks.
  • Crown molding.
  • Toilets, bathtubs, medicine cabinets, towel racks and mirrors.
  • Subfloors, ceilings, walls, joists, studs, sill plates and foundations and roofs.

Above all, remember when you bought your home how excited you were? That's how a new buyer will feel about your home, if you don't destroy it. You're not hurting the bank by removing fixtures and appliances. You're penalizing the new buyer. The buyer you once were. You're hurting yourself. And you're hurting the poor buyer who didn't do anything to you except want to love your home as much as you used to love it.