Contracts for the sale of residential real property often require the seller to deliver the premises "broom clean". And leases for residential apartments almost always require a tenant to surrender the unit "in broom clean condition" at the end of the lease term. A recent dispute, concerning the condition of a home at the time of delivery, is equally applicable to the condition of an apartment at the end of a lease.
Phillip and Janet Witter sold their house to Daniel and Erin Nitschke but remained on the premises pursuant to a post-closing occupancy agreement. The Witters claimed that they surrendered the property in broom-clean condition, and are entitled to release of a $2,000 escrow deposit. The Nitschkes sought $400 of the escrow deposit to reimburse them for the cost of having the premises professionally cleaned. A hearing to consider the claim and counterclaim was held to determine the competing "small claims" in the Penfield Town Justice Court. Both sides appeared without counsel.
The Witters entered into a purchase and sale contract with the Nitschkes for the residential property located on Saint Ebbas Drive, Penfield, New York. The parties agreed in the contract of sale that the Witters "shall have the right to retain possession for 18 calendar days after closing". The contract further provided that the property shall be in "broom-clean" condition at delivery of possession to the Nitschkes.
A post-closing occupancy agreement specified that the Witters were permitted to remain in possession of the property until August 28, 2020. It further required the Witters to deposit $2,000 upon the signing of the agreement, to be held in escrow by the Witters' attorney.
The Witters surrendered the property on August 28, 2020. Philip and Janet Witter both testified that the property was in broom-clean condition, as required by the contract. And they introduced several photographs to support their claim.
Daniel and Erin Nitschke both described the property as "filthy", testifying that they observed hair in the bathrooms, dust and crumbs in the kitchen drawers, and cob webs and a dead fly on a window sill. They introduced several photographs to support their claim. The Nitschkes further testified that they found it necessary to hire a professional cleaning company to clean the property before they moved in. The invoice from the cleaners indicated that the kitchen and three bathrooms were cleaned at a cost of $400. The Nitschkes did not oppose the release of $1,600 of the money being held in escrow.
Small Claims Court was designed to provide litigants with a simple, informal and inexpensive procedure for the prompt determination of claims. And while procedural rules may be relaxed, cases must still be decided according to the rules and principles of substantive law.
Here, the parties, both of whom had attorneys, negotiated a contract provision providing that the property shall be in "broom-clean" condition at delivery of possession to the buyer. Although the term "broom-clean" was not defined in the contract, it is commonly used in real estate contracts. The obligation to surrender premises in "broom-clean" condition has been interpreted to require that the premises be free of garbage, refuse, trash, and other debris at the time of surrender.
Courts have concluded that property is not "broom-clean" if the sellers fail to remove their possessions from the premises. Thus, to satisfy a "broom-clean" condition the seller is required to remove property such as furniture and appliances, as well as debris such as empty paint cans from the premises. Here, there was no serious allegation that the Witters failed to remove their possessions from the premises. The evidence revealed that they left a few pots and pans and one tray of silverware in the kitchen. This was clearly a de minimus violation not warranting an award of damages.
The closer question concerned the cleanliness of the premises. While a buyer would certainly prefer that a house be professionally cleaned and move-in ready at delivery of possession, there were no cases suggesting that a "broom-clean" condition required the seller to have the premises professionally cleaned before vacating. The cases where a court found sellers responsible for the cost of professional cleaning were rather extreme. Here, the Nitsches' testimony, which included complaints that there was hair in the bathrooms, dust and crumbs in the kitchen drawers, and cob webs and a dead fly on one window sill, fell short of the type of conditions that would require the Witters to reimburse them for the cost of professional cleaning.
In short, "broom-clean" does not impose the duty on the seller to have the property professionally cleaned. Where the parties agree to a "broom-clean" condition, the buyers should anticipate that they may need to hire professional cleaners before moving in. If the buyers want to have the property professionally cleaned at delivery of possession, they must have negotiated a "professionally clean" condition, rather than a "broom clean" condition. Where the contract includes a "professionally clean" condition, the buyers may reasonably expect that the premises will be truly move-in ready.
It is a fundamental tenet of contract law that where parties set down their agreement in a clear, complete document, their writing should be enforced according to its terms. The court may not void a provision of a contract merely because it appeared unwise or violated the courts subjective view of fairness. The court's function was to enforce contracts unless they clearly contravene public policy.
The Court was satisfied that the Witters met their contractual obligation to surrender the premises in "broom-clean" condition — free of garbage, refuse, trash, and other debris. Accordingly, the Witters' request to compel the release of $2,000 from the escrow account was granted. And the Nitschkes' counterclaim seeking $400 from the escrow account to reimburse them for the cost of cleaning the premises was dismissed.
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