When the Historic Home is NOT Historic

Real Estate Agent with Long & Foster Real Estate, Inc.

Whoops!  That historic two-story colonial in North Bethesda, Maryland, purchased for a million dollars in 2006 by Montgomery County government with state funds, is NOT quite so historic, after all.  At least, not in the context for which it was purchased by the county.

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Citizen activists urged the county to purchase this property because the attached log cabin was reportedly occupied by Josiah Henson, whose memoirs inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe's title character in her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. The resolution authorizing the county to make this purchase described the cabin as "a perfectly preserved slave quarter". 

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission applied for and received state funds, apparently without any verification of the oral history.  Yet, according to an article in today's Washington Post, an accurate history of the site prepared by the county's preservation staff was "readily available".

While Henson did live on the 3,700 acre Riley plantation, he occupied slave quarters, not the cabin or house.  The cabin standing on the property now was an addition to the original kitchen which, along with the slave quarters, is long gone.

"That inconvenient truth," as today's Post article calls it, "presents an immediate challenge to county officials: what to call the place. The site's official name is still Uncle Tom's Cabin Special Park." 

And, of course, there's still the little matter of the county spending a million dollars to purchase the property and another million to expand it after closing on the property without first performing appropriate due diligence to verify the historical significance.


This story presents an interesting case study for those of us in the real estate business.

  • Did the seller and/or listing agent (if any) advertise (or even mention) that "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was located on this property?  If so, was it done with/without disclaimers as to the accuracy of the information?  
  • Was the county represented by a real estate licensee as a buyer broker?  If so, did the agent recommend to the buyer a feasibility study period for verifying the oral history?
  • Did the appraiser (if any) give any value for historical significance?  If so, what documentation would he require?  How much more value would historical significance add to the property?
  • If you or I were the listing or selling agent in this transaction, what 3rd party documentation would our Broker require for our file as to any historical significance?  Would Errors & Omissions insurance protect us if it turned out the oral history was just plain wrong and we did nothing to verify it on behalf of our clients?

What about you... how would you handle a situation like this, then (at contract) and now (after the error was discovered), if you were involved in the transaction?

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This infoMargaret Wodarmation was provided to you by Margaret Woda, an Associate Broker with Long & Foster Real Estate in Crofton Maryland. Contact Margaret today for general real estate information or to learn how she can help you buy or sell a home in Annapolis, Bowie, Crofton, Davidsonville, Gambrills, and Odenton. 

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Re-Blogged 2 times:

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  1. Jesse & Kathy Clifton 10/04/2010 04:58 PM
  2. Jeff R. Geoghan 10/06/2010 09:16 AM
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Joan Whitebook
BHG The Masiello Group - Nashua, NH
Consumer Focused Real Estate Services

What an incredible story.  The questions raised look like something from an law exam.  What are the duties for investigation, disclosure and due diligence.  I will be back to see how this discussion develops.

Oct 04, 2010 04:42 PM #1
Jesse & Kathy Clifton
Jesse Clifton & Associates, REALTORS® - Fairbanks, AK

Oh. My. Goodness. No matter the buyer or property, it's hard to overstate the importance of due diligence.  Here's an interesting question... was it appraised?  Regardless, there have to be some red faces among the Montgomery County government officials... and rightfully so. 

Oct 04, 2010 04:48 PM #2
Steve Shatsky
Dallas, TX

Hi Margaret... what an interesting tale of intrigue, as well as the potential mismanagement of public funds and general incompetence.  There are clearly lessons to be learned here... otherwise history will, indeed, repeat itself.

Oct 04, 2010 04:51 PM #3
Pat Haddad, ABR, CRS, ePRO, GRI
Keller Williams Indianapolis Metro NE - Carmel, IN
Carmel, Fishers, Westfield IN Real Estate Expert

Margaret--I guess I would hope my  E and O was paid up and then I would roll up my sleeves and do all I could to get to the bottom of it---to get the facts.  Pretty embarrassing to say the least!!

Oct 04, 2010 04:56 PM #4
Jon Zolsky, Daytona Beach, FL
Daytona Condo Realty, 386-405-4408 - Daytona Beach, FL
Buy Daytona condos for heavenly good prices

Margaret, I came from Jesse's reblog. What a fascinating story. So many angles. I still think that there is historic value and i think it was very naive even to expect a cabin to survive until today.

But the government was sloppy. Not verifying historic facts, even not turning to readily available information is surprising

Oct 04, 2010 08:24 PM #5
Liz and Bill Spear
RE/MAX Elite 513.520.5305 www.LizTour.com - Mason, OH
RE/MAX Elite Warren County OH (Cincinnati/Dayton)

Margaret, Interesting challenge on this case!  Wish it surprised me that the government didn't perform due diligence before spending $2 million.  Not even sure as an agent how we'd even begin to verify or deny the oral history of a unique listing like this!

Oct 04, 2010 11:05 PM #6
Kathryn Maguire
GreatNorfolkHomes.com (757) 560-0881 - Chesapeake, VA
Serving Chesapeake, Norfolk, VA Beach

Oops!  I am really surprised that no one did any fact checking before committing that amount of tax payer dollars.  Oh wait a minute...what was I thinking!

Oct 04, 2010 11:27 PM #7
Bill Gassett
RE/MAX Executive Realty - Hopkinton, MA
Metrowest Massachusetts Real Estate

Yikes I would hate to think I was buying something with historical significance and then find out I bought the average Joe's home:)

Oct 05, 2010 01:16 AM #8
Gary L. Waters, Broker Owner, Waters Realty of Brevard, LLC
Waters Realty of Brevard, LLC - Rockledge, FL
... a small office, delivering big service!

You know it does bring up some good questions that need to be answered and serves as a reminder to us all - do your homework!

Oct 05, 2010 01:50 AM #9
Margaret Woda
Long & Foster Real Estate, Inc. - Crofton, MD
Maryland Real Estate & Military Relocation

Joan, I guess I've been a real estate agent too long to read an article like that and NOT think about those risk management issues.  I don't know if there were any real estate licensees involved, but I can see some valuable lessons in this case for other transactions.

Jesse and Kathy, Yes, you're right... the article (the link for Washington Post goes to it) gives a lot more detail and there are a lot of people pointing fingers.   (And thank you for the reblog!)

Steve, I'd like to see this case become the core of a continuing ed class which examines many of the issues I raised.

Pat, it would be (and is) embarrassing... and everyone is pointing fingers at someone else.  You know the buck would stop with any real estate agent who had even the most miniscule role in this, don't you?  LOL.

Oct 05, 2010 01:54 AM #10
Margaret Woda
Long & Foster Real Estate, Inc. - Crofton, MD
Maryland Real Estate & Military Relocation

Jon - Sloppy is a good way to describe the handling of this.  I guess folks relied on the oral history, didn't question it, and rushed to purchase the property.  Think 2006... it was a bubble year, and if they waited or put conditions in their contract, the property could have sold out from under them.

Liz and Bill - I'm with you... 'don't know that I would have thought to seek out the history of the site from the county's preservation staff.  But I'd like to think I would have covered my butt in a disclaimer and made sure it was in the contract.  Something like, "Buyer shall rely upon their own resources to determine the historical significance of the property, if any; seller and listing agent make no representation regarding the historical significance of the property, if any."

Kathryn - Again, it was 2006, and any contingencies probably would have been laughed at by the seller.  Surely there were a dozen more buyers who could have snapped it up, and the county didn't want to lose "Uncle Tom's Cabin" to another private owner - or worse, a developer.

Oct 05, 2010 02:05 AM #11
Margaret Woda
Long & Foster Real Estate, Inc. - Crofton, MD
Maryland Real Estate & Military Relocation

Bill - I know, wouldn't that be a shocker?  The fact is that the property does have historical significance in that the house was the main house on the 3700 acre plantation where Josiah Henson lived.  It's just that the cabin was believed to be "Uncle Tom's Cabin" rather than an addition built on the kitchen after Henson was no longer on the property.  For it to be represented as a "perfectly preserved slave quarter" is obviously inaccurate, but still... it's a 200-year old structure that the county might want to preserve.

Gary - I could barely read through the article because these questions kept popping into my head...


Oct 05, 2010 02:12 AM #12
Jeff R. Geoghan
Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage - Lancaster, PA
REALTOR, Marketing Manager

VERY interesting article, Margaret! You get my "Reblog" award for the relevant issues you raise in this piece.

Oct 06, 2010 09:14 AM #13
Debe Maxwell, CRS
www.AtHomesCharlotte.com | The Maxwell House Group | RE/MAX Executive | (704) 491-3310 - Charlotte, NC
Charlotte Homes for Sale - Charlotte Neighborhoods

Interesting, Margaret!  I'm wondering that if whomever 'touted' it as historic... was a native of the area and had always known it to be 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' would still suffer the consequences of sharing inaccurate information.  

I was also attached to one of your spammer posts and got the 'disabled' note!  I went to quickly say that I had reported your spam earlier today!  LOL  And, you DID cut us off!  I report them and immediately delete them from my posts because I don't want them benefitting from my post's SEO (large or small as it may be)!

Hope you're coming to Charlotte on the 28th for RainCamp!  I say you and Pat hit the road again for a nice fall drive through NC to see the foliage, if nothing else!!


Oct 06, 2010 05:20 PM #14
Margaret Woda
Long & Foster Real Estate, Inc. - Crofton, MD
Maryland Real Estate & Military Relocation

Jeff, thanks for the re-blog.  It does make us think, doesn't it.  All that continuing end must be sinking into my hard head, after all.

Debe - The spam seems to be worse than ever, doesn't it?  By 5:30 this morning, I'd already reported two for today.  Im thinking AR might have to change their business model and only allow comments by paid members.  (Just guessing the spammers won't be willing to pay)

Oct 06, 2010 10:48 PM #15
April Hayden-Munson
Brookfield, WI
Brookfield Wisconsin Real Estate

Hmmm very interesting indeed. Margaret - I think we always need to disclose, disclose, disclose "per seller".... Our state contracts have a paragraph that warns the buyers to independently verify any and all information about a property.

Oct 08, 2010 09:03 AM #16
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