Many states have seller disclosure laws. Disclosure laws require sellers to make certain disclosures to buyers about the condition of their property. In some states, like California, sellers must complete a state-mandated seller disclosure form which asks specific questions about the property.

Other states don't have mandatory disclosures, but some have voluntary seller disclosure. Some realty companies require sellers to complete a seller disclosure form before they will list the property for sale, even though state law may not require it.

Although there are differences in each state's laws of disclosure, there has been a general movement away from the concept of caveat emptor, or "buyer beware", which used to be the home buying rule. Caveat emptor placed the burden of discovering property defects on the buyer. In the current era of consumer awareness, "seller beware" might be the more appropriate caution.

Usually, sellers must disclose any known material facts that are not readily apparent to prospective home buyers. A material fact is one that affects a buyer's decision to buy, or the price a buyer will pay.

An example of a material fact that is not readily apparent to a buyer is a leaky roof, if there are no telltale signs of leakage. Maybe the sellers painted over stains on the ceiling while getting the house ready to market. In this case, the buyers wouldn't know that the roof leaks unless the sellers told them.

Real estate agents also have disclosure obligations. Agents are supposed to disclose known material facts to buyers. They can even be held responsible for failing to disclose facts they should have known, but didn't know.

For example, a seller who was transferred out of the area years ago might not know that a shopping center development is being built across the street from his house. But, his agent, who actively sells homes in the neighborhood, could reasonably be expected to know this information. Since this information could impact a buyer's decision to buy the house, or the price a buyer would pay, it should be disclosed.

A strong argument for using an agent who specializes in the area where you want to buy is that you are more likely to get disclosures on neighborhood conditions that could affect your home buying decision.

FIRST-TIME TIP: Home buyers who are buying in a state that doesn't have a seller disclosure requirement should consider asking the sellers to complete a disclosure form. Your real estate agent might be able to provide you with a seller disclosure form if his or her brokerage company requires sellers to complete such a form. If not, ask the sellers to make a list of any known property defects for you.

One way to get the seller to disclose defects is to include a condition in your purchase offer which requires the sellers to provide you with this information on or before a certain date. If there are multiple offers on the property, however, and seller disclosures are against local custom, you might not want to take this approach.

If you find yourself in a situation where you feel uncomfortable asking the sellers to itemize property defects, wait to raise the issue until you have a ratified contract. You could require that the sellers provide you with list of known defects as a condition of removing your inspection contingency.

THE CLOSING: Buyers should have all their questions about a property answered before closing, not after. Complete disclosure before closing tends to minimize after closing litigation. Full disclosure protects everyone involved.