To Be - or Knot to Be
An up-close photo of Japanese knotweed. 
Photo by Erwin, Pixabay

To Be - or Knot to Be

In late October I received from a few friends and social media acquaintances a link to a BBC article about Japanese knotweed and the near impossibility of ridding it in the United Kingdom, where the herbicides we rely on here to help control knotweed cannot legally be purchased. And perhaps not surprising for a country that prides itself on gardening knowledge and prowess, there is legal protection for U.K. property buyers to safeguard them from knotweed’s potential devastation.

According to the BBC, homeowners in the U.K. need to declare the presence of Japanese knotweed to real estate agents who are then legally required to disclose the presence of this invasive plant to potential home buyers. “In the U.K., the presence of just a single stem can instantly knock around 5 to 15% off the value of a house, and lead many banks to refuse a mortgage. The plant has even been known to render properties effectively worthless.”

No similar buyer protection or seller disclosure exists here for Japanese knotweed or any other destructive invasive plant. As Elyse Harney Morris told me, she “hasn’t had someone not buy a house because of the invasives but we are seeing more and more awareness of the issue.”

Amy Raymond, who heads up the mortgage lending practice at Salisbury Bank, has not seen the issue come up and it is not currently a factor in their lending. Nor does it appear to be a factor for property assessors. As Ross Grannan, an assessor from Canaan explained, the reason is that “market value is relative; assessments compare like properties. If someone buys 10 acres and 8 are woodland, I don’t factor that in because there is parity; (invasives) are everywhere. So I don’t factor that into the appraisal.”

Similarly, the inspection service I spoke with had never been asked to factor in the exterior property condition in an assessment.

Invasive-related property quality is not just an aesthetic or environmental issue. Bittersweet vine can kill trees and force down branches both which can fall on houses and people. Barberry harbors rodents, and the ticks that love them, which can infest a human living area. Phragmites can change the soil pH turning woodlands into a desolate monoculture. Japanese knotweed roots can force themselves through concrete foundations. (In this case you would expect an inspector to notice the issue but given the rate at which the plant spreads and its ability to remain dormant in the ground for over a decade it is worth spotting and taking action well before a root makes its way into a foundation.)

It appears that nobody in the chain of activities that take place during a property transaction — the assessor, the inspector, the mortgage company, or the seller’s real estate agent — is directed or motivated to disclose the issue and its potential risks to the seller. Currently the issue of property quality will only come up if the potential buyer, or the buyer’s agent, is aware of the issue and knows what to look for.

Media is increasingly covering the invasives issue, widening attention to this issue. A Nov.  25 opinion piece in the Washington Post on the topic of invasives, “I’m losing the battle against the so-called ‘brush.’ I’m not alone” received 2,400 comments in 3 days before the comment section was closed. Most of the comments were in commiseration.

In lieu of buyer protection legislation, real estate agents and banks will eventually have to decide if and how to handle the issue. Perhaps even make it a sell-side feature, marketing the quality of land as a positive. Looking again to the U.K., homes on the market are given a grade for their energy efficiency. This kind of disclosure allows buyers to get a handle on what the running costs might be and allows them to ask the right questions. Many new home buyers coming to the Northwest Corner from urban areas cannot distinguish between the green leaf of a tree and that of the bittersweet vine choking it. This awareness comes later, often leaving the buyer with the expensive and/or time-consuming chore of remediation. As the saying ‘caveat emptor’ implies, a buyer can only be aware if they know what to look for.

 

Dee Salomon “ungardens” in Litchfield County.

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