Welcome back to Curbed's Horror Stories where we hear about a true tale of things gone horribly wrong.
A reader wrote in with this Horror Story from the seventh circle of bureaucracy hell. Shortly after buying a new condo filled with problems that the developer refused to address, the homeowners tried to get the officials from the city to work on the case. Anyone out there want to guess how that went? What follows after the jump is a perfect storm of four fissures within the housing laws that led to these homeowners looking at fifty thousand dollars in repairs for a condo that cost slightly under three hundred thousand.
Crack #1: Developer accountability
We bought the condo in December 2011 and within a week or two of moving in we noticed there were problems. Specifically, we noticed there was a sound problem. Between floors, we could hear people carrying on a normal conversation. We could hear the person in the unit below us walking or having the television on. We can also hear our next door neighbor's conversations. After getting the runaround with the developer—he claimed that building codes are not enforceable—I contacted the Department of Consumer & Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) in mid-February, as they are the agency charged with overseeing and enforcing inspection codes and violations. We, and some of our neighbors, also submitted complaints to the Office of the Attorney General in hopes of working with their "Dispute Resolution" department. That went nowhere fast.
So, even though we started communicating in February with the DCRA, it wasn't until June that representatives for the city came out for the first time.?? In June when they came for the inspection they said there were a number of features that might not be up to code. I told them that the property was advertised as being built in 1938, and when we had the home inspection before we closed the inspector said that because the paperwork said the building was built in 1938 there were a few things he had to let fly because they're acceptable for a building in that time frame. But that day that they came from the city the DCRA inspectors said this floor was an addition and it didn't exist in 1938. There was no way it should have been advertised as being built in 1938. In fact, on the building permit application, the property is described as built after 1978. We learned this well after purchasing the property, and it was the result of a Freedom of Information Act request.
Crack #2: Inspections
While they were onsite, the city representatives said records show that the buildings have only had one inspection by a third party inspector [note: third party inspections are commonly used in DC]. When I called that company to ask for details they said that when they came to inspect the sheetrock and drywall were already up so they could only do a visual inspection. On the Property Information Verification System [PIVS] website it shows all the inspections and DCRA never did the periodic checks during the development. There were a couple on electricity, but nothing on structural inspections being deemed okay. And the one final one was just marked "final inspection".??
What bothered me the most was when the DCRA told me that this property wasn't inspected properly. I'm like, "Okay, you just admitted to me that it wasn't inspected and now it is our fault if it isn't up to code. We didn't even own it when these inspections were supposed to have taken place."?? I've been contacting them since within two months after we moved in. It took forever to even get an email back despite the many I sent. During all this time the other units are being sold.
Crack #3: Response Time
Finally, after DCRA came out in June and said I should hear back shortly, I went through another round of back and forth with them. After several months and several emails with no response, I sent another email and copied our Ward Councilmember on it. I heard back that same day from someone telling me they would contact me within a week. And after more than a week of waiting they wrote me an email just last week, saying I had waited too long. From the email sent September 26th, 2012:??
"The times at which DCRA could have been of assistance to you was during the construction phase of the building or after construction concluded but prior to your purchase or after your purchase but prior to the sale of the last unit in the building. Now it is too late because all of these times have past and construction code violations are charged to the owner of record."?? They're telling me, "oh, you waited too long!!!" I have an email chain where I've been contacting that guy's boss. He said he would contact me 'tomorrow', weeks would go by and I still wouldn't hear from him. The last unit in the building was sold at the end of August, over six months after I initially contacted the city about the problem.??
Crack #4: The homeowner is always liable.
They told me that my only recourse is to sue the developer. Surprise, due to the DC Condominium Act about condo conversions, the developer isn't liable. We learned during all this that in DC the homeowner is held liable when their property doesn't meet code, even if they didn't own the building when it was built. To me it seems that the city bears at least some responsibility. They never enforced the provision of the DC condo law that requires developers to post a warranty bond. They never did the inspections when they were supposed to. They allowed a third party inspection that does not seem to have been thorough enough. At every step of the way the city has failed in their responsibility to protect the new condo purchasers.
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