Paper Trail

The Baltimore Sun

Before Steve Sheldon and Brenda Neuman-Sheldon moved into their new home, they knew where to buy the bags that fit the central vacuum and when the warranty for reglazing the bathtub would expire.

They knew when and where every appliance was purchased, thanks to notes on each manual. They knew how to reach the handyman and the electrician who'd previously worked on the Pikesville house. They knew that Monday was trash pickup day and how old the window treatments were.

That's because the sellers prepared a fat green binder with that information for the couple when they bought the house a year and a half ago.

"It was one of the best gifts anybody ever gave me," said Neuman-Sheldon.

"When we walked into this house, we knew where everything came from and where everything was," she said. "When you move to an area, you don't know who to call."

The binder holds plastic sleeves with an alphabetical list of resources, product information and warranties. With it came a small box of labeled keys.

In contrast, Neuman-Sheldon said, when she and her husband sold their previous house in Roland Park, "we basically handed over our junk drawer."

What the couple got at their new house is known informally as a house bible or house file - an organized source of house information. It helps homeowners with record-keeping and with getting ready to sell, and later assists new owners.

Previous owners Jeff and Debbie Waranch maintained a detailed house file. From that, Debbie Waranch said, she pulled the binder together for Sheldon and Neuman-Sheldon. Her file included names of reliable contractors, repair dates, service contracts and warranties.

"My friends, if they needed somebody, they knew where to call," she said.

Once the sale was set, Debbie Waranch plucked out what she thought would help the buyers and bought a binder in the color associated with cash and ecology.

After they settled in, Sheldon and Neuman-Sheldon hired the handyman and electrician, both of whom remembered the house, and updated the binder when they bought new appliances.

"Whoever gets this house from us will get this [book]," Neuman-Sheldon said.

House books that organized are uncommon, said the couple's real estate agent, Suzie Tiplitz, of Coldwell Banker in Roland Park.

Agents often encourage sellers to give buyers relevant house information at the time of the sale. It may be a pile of papers or a folder with strictly the basics of the house and appliance information. Or, it can include everything from decorating details to neighborhood resources and takeout menus.

Being able to provide a potential buyer with useful information culled from a house file may give a seller an edge, several agents said. Potential buyers' questions can be answered with documentation.

Mike Beaver said a dossier of work done on a Catonsville house put it above others for him and his wife, Nicole Leister. The sellers offered to go through a file cabinet of records, down to the paint chips, with them upon settlement next month. Beaver said the records of steady maintenance and improvements tell him that the owners took care of the house.

A closer look

Many basics - new windows or a kitchen-remodeling date - are in a sales listing or provided at an open house or a showing. The records, plus a home inspection, come later, allowing the buyer a closer look.

"The buyer really wants to get one with the house first," said Creig Northrop, who leads a Long & Foster team based in Clarksville. "First, you've got to get the buyer interested."

A plat, which shows the placement of what's on the lot and the orientation of the house; a group of photos showing trees and shrubs in bloom; key features; and, if meaningful, something on the house's history, also may be among basics, he said. The interested buyer, however, may want more information.

"Some people will do remodeling pictures, before and after," Northrop said, which offers a behind-the-scenes peek for the curious. They also give homeowners a sense of being part of the history of the house, he said. They show such things as materials and workmanship that went into the job.

Jane Kuhl and Drew Denton have several house books, which they compiled as documentation to obtain state tax benefits for restoration and renovations of their historic Guilford home.

Details on ductwork

The more they added to the books, the more useful the books became for later work and maintenance, Kuhl said. They kept the plans showing where behind the walls of the 96-year-old house the ductwork for the air conditioning they added is hidden. An invoice tells when the fireplaces were last cleaned. Landscaping drawings on a plat show the location of hundreds of bulbs and perennials, and the drawings are accompanied by a book of photos.

"It's disclosure, disclosure, disclosure," said the couple's agent, Carol Taylor of Coldwell Banker in Cross Keys.

"It is a huge benefit for the sellers. You can reduce capital gains [tax)]" on the sale with proof of improvements, she said.

When the house, designed by noted architect Laurence Hall Fowler, returns to the market this spring, a prospective buyer who seeks documentation of work done on the house would see what is behind the list price of the house.

A buyer, Kuhl said, would have plans with approvals by the Maryland Historical Trust and know where to turn for consistency in maintenance, materials and repair. Architectural plans and a neighborhood history book provide further information.

Good documentation can contribute toward a lower homeowners' insurance bill and it helps an insurer assess reconstruction costs in case of disaster, said Lisa Fuller, a certified insurance counselor and owner of Fuller & Associates Insurance in Churchville. Blueprints, with photos, especially of a custom home or addition, can show construction details and should be stored away from the house in case of fire.

"You have no idea of the number of new homeowners I talk to who don't know ... when the fireplace was cleaned last," said Fuller. "It's not legally required, but it's nice information for the buyer to have."

The advantage to having that information? It tells the buyer if it's wise to hire a chimney sweep before putting a match to kindling or if there's no reason to pay for that.

Fuller advises homeowners to keep records of roof repairs or replacements, and furnace repairs, replacements and routine servicing, among other records. what to include

Looking to organize your home information in a house file or house bible? The advantage is having a one-stop reference source when you need it now, and then later, having information to pass along to a new homeowner. Here are some items to include:

* Names and phone numbers of repair workers, landscapers, painters and insurance contacts.

* Color names and makers of your paints (or paint chips) and wallpapers.

* Appliance and product model numbers, sales and servicing information with warranties.

* Measurements of rooms, counters and windows, plus a plat.

* Details about remodeling projects.

* A drawing showing the location and names of bulbs and perennials.

* Convenience telephone numbers, such as for the lawn service and pizza delivery.

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