I’m sure that many building inspectors don’t give themselves enough credit for the important job that they do, making sure that structures meet the standards of the building code. Because of this important task, homeowners don’t think much about the safety of their homes. A couple in Southborough, MA weren’t so fortunate. The Metrowest Daily Newspaper reports that after buying their dream house they discovered that:
The garage was too small to fit their car. Weeks later, water began flooding the basement. Over time, doors couldn’t be shut, and floors started creaking. The Culleys didn’t know it, but their house was shifting.
Now the couple and their lawyer, Michael McLaughlin of Boston, say the house was built illegally on top of poor-quality fill material, and because the soil is shifting unpredictably, the structure is sinking into itself. To make matters worse, a retaining wall they say used to run in a straight line along the rear of the property is failing, slithering across the edges in serpentine fashion.
The builder didn’t even own the land when he took the couples’ deposit. The couple contended there were never any real building plans. The state Department of Public Safety’s Board of Building Regulations and Standards, found 22 building code violations. A temporary certificate of occupancy was obtained fraudulently. The engineer who signed a statement which said that the house had been built properly reportedly received $100 to do so but had nothing else to do with the project. There was no permit for the retaining wall. In a deposition, the building inspector admitted that he didn’t issue a cease and desist order when he discovered work had been done without a permit and he admitted he was never given any building detail design data. While a jury awarded the couple $1 million in damages, the judgment was set aside by the judge. It appears that the couple will be appealing.
The Chicago Tribune has a very good article about how vacant properties (due to the foreclosure crisis) are decimating poor communities because of the increase in crime. This is something that I speak about at length when I teach my class on the relationship between law enforcement and code enforcement. These vacant buildings are crime magnets and can’t be torn down quickly enough. Vandals steal everything and anything from these buildings so people who might want to invest in and rehab them walk away in frustration. The remaining residents live in fear as the neighborhood gets even worse. It’s a pretty depressing tale but important to know about.
Building officials are constantly trying to get people to get permits for structures built without them. This becomes tricky when the construction occurred decades ago. In Austin recently there was a crackdown on illegal carports. Many of the owners didn’t own the properties at the time the illegal work was done. This is always a problem because when the construction occurred years ago, the statute of limitations has run and the current owners can’t be charged with working without a permit. If a structure was built contrary to the building code, there might be the possibility of charging the owner with occupying a structure without a certificate of occupancy. Most towns try to get voluntary compliance, even waiving fees. The goal is to make sure the structures are safe and code compliant. But, when there is a widespread enforcement action, local officials should expect forceful opposition from homeowners. When I encounter a problem like this, I like to do an education campaign first. My recommendation is to notify the owners of the problem but explain why compliance is important for their sake. I’ve found that this approach often gets compliance for 90% of the illegal structures. It shows the court that you’re reasonable and that you’ve tried everything before starting enforcement action. You’ll always end up with some people who don’t believe anyone can tell them what to do to their property but, thankfully, they are in the minority.
This story is too delightful not to post. Bank of America filed a foreclosure lawsuit against a homeowner despite the fact that the homeowner bought his house in cash and had no mortgage. The lawsuit was dismissed but Bank of America was ordered to pay his legal fees. After waiting awhile for the check, the homeowner decided to use one of the remedies available to creditors, having the Sheriff seize the debtor’s property. The Sheriff went to a local office of Bank of America in Naples, Florida to seize furniture, etc. but the bank manager managed to come up with the money owed the homeowner. You can find the story at news-press.com.
What if an unlicensed contractor does work and then the homeowner decides not to pay the entire bill? How do the courts treat such a situation? If you’re in Hawaii, the courts won’t help you. Hawaii state law provides that:
§ 444-22 Civil action. The failure of any person to comply with any provision of this chapter shall prevent such person from recovering for work done, or materials or supplies furnished, or both on a contract or on the basis of the reasonable value thereof, in a civil action, if such person failed to obtain a license under this chapter prior to contracting for such work.
In Jones v. Phillipson, 92 Hawai”i 117, 987 P.2d 1015(1999) the court decided that while the unlicensed contractor could not sue a homeowner, the homeowner could sue the contractor for breach of contract. Consequently, it’s foolhardy to risk being unlicensed because in addition to getting charged by the local jurisdiction, the contractor may not be able to seek court help in enforcing a contract.