Water Rights: Let the Buyer Beware.

November 4, 2014

Water rights issues are cropping up with increasing frequency as water becomes a diminishing commodity. In the Puget Sound area this is a somewhat ironic concept, as flooding seems to have been on the uptick and the drizzle for which the area is renown has certainly not disappeared. Flooding however is often attributed to logging and development which causes rainwater to become surface water, rather than groundwater, available through wells. The expansion of the population beyond areas served by water systems has created a proliferation of wells, drawing from largely unknown underground estuaries. This increased burden on the supply of water diminishes the quantity of water available to wells, sometimes with disastrous results.

Care must be taken when purchasing water rights or acquiring property with water rights. The value of property is often dependent on water rights but too often property is purchased without a thorough investigation of those water rights. Scrutiny of a title report may give the buyer false confidence in the availability of water.

In verifying the validity of a water source the inquirer enters into the Byzantine realm of Washington water rights, which defy easy explanation. Broadly speaking there are three levels of inquiry. First water systems must be permitted by the State Department of Ecology. However, there are certain exemptions from state permitting requirements and water systems that predate the water code of 1917 need not be permitted. Roughly 166,000 systems claim to have originated before 1917 but very few claims, if any, have been adjudicated. Next the county determines compliance with health requirements and conducts routine inspections. This is usually a fairly straight forward inquiry for the purchaser.

The last common level of inquiry relates to the assignment of water rights. The right to draw water is assignable. As to any water source that is off-site, the validity of the transfer of water rights must be verified. If there is a well on site, all documents transferring rights to others, or allocating rights of use, must be verified. When creating a joint-use well a great deal of difficulty can be avoided by carefully delineating each user’s rights and duties. This warrants as much care as the determination of the rights and regulations governing a home owners’ association.


Traps for Unwary Real Estate Buyers

July 7, 2008

I was asked to briefly summarize some of the legal considerations that a buyer might keep in mind while venturing into the real estate market in Washington. I think something like this might prove to be helpful so long as you keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive list of all possible difficulties. Here is a short list of legalities that might be helpful to buyers of real estate to keep in mind.

New Construction. Washington has an extremely harsh “statute of repose.” Six years after the final permit is issued all recourse against anyone working on the project is barred, exect as to damage that has already arisen.

If for example you buyer a building, or bridge that collapses six and one half years after the last permit, you have no recourse against anyone in the construction industry.

The Washington statute of creates false expectations in the minds of consumers.

If you buy a building with a useful life of forty years you expect it to last that long. In Washington you can only count on six, assuming that you are buying a new building. If you are buying a used building, it is very likely that the six years have passed and you have no recourse whatsoever against anyone involved with the construction of it.

People who spend money to retrofit buildings , to make them earth-quake proof, must remember that they have no recourse against the engineers or builders if the work is faulty, assuming that the earth-quake occurs more than six years later.

This puts a premium on investigation and study before buying. It also puts a premium on the purchase agreement and the ability to look to the seller if there are latent defects. With respect to construction, owners should consider taking these things into account in negotiating contracts.

Building Codes. Many residential buyers put stock in representations that the building complies with code or they just rely on the fact that the building had to be inspected and approved by local government before it could be occupied. This does reduce the chances of defective construction but it is a long way from assuring the purchaser that the construction is not defective and there is no assurance that the building in fact complies with code. There is no recourse in the usual case against the city or county if the building was approved in spite of noncompliance — and this happens.

Form 17. The Seller’s Disclosure Statement required in residential sales has recently been interpreted (see my last entry) as unenforceable by one of our three courts of appeals. This can be cured by modifying the standard forms, but it certainly opens the door to using the form as a tool of deception.

Bad Materials and Workmanship. There are a number of cases in Washington in which purchasers have been held to be without recourse when the property they purchased was defective. The “economic loss rule” is invoked to hold the buyer without recourse. This result can be avoided contractually.

Verbal agreements. The form purchase and sale agreement in common use says that there are no other enforceable agreements. That means that agreements — even written agreements — outside the purchase and sale agreement are at least of questionable enforceability.

“Merger into the Deed.” When the transaction closes many of the terms and conditions of the agreement are terminated. Discovery after closing of a false representation may be too late if the representation or assurance is deemed to have been merged into the deed. This can be avoided by care in writing the contract.

There are of course other issues that arise but this at least gives you a sense of the care that must be taken in protecting an important investment such as buying real estate.

Please note that in the last legislative session a very modest bill was introduced to confer limited rights on home buyers. The bill was killed by the Democrats, particularly Frank Chopp.