Dear PoP – Who is Responsible For This?


“Dear PoP,

Here’s a question for you and your readers. We own a house in Columbia Heights, that we lived in for several years before moving abroad. Now we rent it out, with the help of a rental management company. Well… recently, we found out that the property next door to us was razed and in its place a 4 story (including basement) 2 condo unit will be built. Right now it is a hole in the ground.


When the neighbor’s house was torn down, it ended up exposing the inside of our porch roof, eliminating the railing we shared with the neighbor (which was on their side), etc. The photos actually illustrate better than I can explain it. Shortly after the house was torn down, our tenants reported leaks in the roof, which we had repaired right away. The roof was old, so it wasn’t a shock to us, but the leaks were related to a separation of the flashing from the roof. Ultimately, I think it was probably related to the activities next door.


All of this long-winded description leads to my questions:

1) Do the owners of the property next door have any responsibility re: the exposed side of our porch roof, railing, our exposed wall, etc.

2) Do PoP readers have any suggestions for us to keep any eye out for?

3) Any other thoughts?”

It certainly seems like the property next door should have some responsibility for this. Have you tried contacted them? What do you guys think?


30 Comment

  • I would like to see what a lawyer would say. Remember that when your tree falls on their property it’s their problem, not yours. I’m not sure about this.

    • Unless it can be demonstrated that the “tree owner” failed to take usual and reasonable care of the tree, and such neglect contributed to it falling.

  • Yes, call an attorney.

  • Oof, I walk down this block everyday and couldn’t believe they actually tore that entire house down to the basement.

    Also, to the owner above, I was a tenant in a condo (in a converted rowhouse) on Clifton a few years back where developers dug a hole in the ground next door for a new building. We had all sorts of fun times, like when they sealed over our external heating vents with no notice — during the first week of January. We couldn’t turn on the heat for weeks while my landlords hired contractors to rebuild the vents through a new part of the condo, and I know my landlords had to negotiate and/or sue the developers next door to pay for it (they also bought us four electric radiators for the house and reduced our rent for two months). So I’d certainly recommend you keep an eye on all your vents — heating, vents from bathroom fans, your w/d, etc. My landlords ended up buying us an electric w/d because they could no longer vent the gas w/d properly.

    Also, after construction began, the vibrations knocked over a 3 foot brick retaining wall in the front yard, so just keep a close eye on any structural damage (however seemingly minor) that might be going on.

    In other words, yeah, get an attorney and a good inspector who will come by regularly to check on things.

  • DCRA requires that adjacent property owners be notified when doing any work that will disturb its neighbors. Assuming that you were not notified, I would call DCRA. Don’t expect much however… Next, I’d try to work it out with the developers. Then call a lawyer.

  • This happened to me when a developer dug out a basement and built a monstrosity next to our rowhouse. You need to keep a very close eye on everything while the work is going on – we had leaks, a foundation shift, the plaster fall off our wall, bricks fall out, doors wouldn’t shut, they cut the wires for our alarm system, venting problems, the list goes on. We got them to fix some of the damage but ended up sucking some of it up ourselves. You need to get in regular contact with the developers to get them to fix the problems they cause. I am sorry but this will be a huge headache for you.

  • I wouldn’t call a lawyer because a lawyer is going to cost more than jsut repairing it (I am a lawyer). I think they are clearly liable for ruining anything that you own and have maintenance responsibility for (including the messed up brick).

    What you should do is call the developer, be nice, explain that *your* flashing etc was ruined, and make a reasonable demand that possibly attempts to “back out” and costs from time, depreciation, normal wear and tear. THe more reasonable you are (meaning you dont have an angry, you better pay for everythign attitude) the more likely they will just cut a check. Based only on your pics, I would get an estimate to waterproof anything that needs it based on the removal of that structure, and replacement of the flashing they ruined. Offer to meet them ther (or have someone meet them) the discuss it. Be nice and friendly.

    They might refer you to an insurance company, and you will need to be persistent. If you put anythig in writing, always add a disclaimer that actual damage may exceed your demand, and that you are making this demand in the interest of quick settlmeent. If you don’t get money in 60 days, file in DC small claims court for the MAXIMUM jurisdicitonal amount (prob around 2500). Chances are they won’t even show up, but if they offer to settle at that point be sure to add the filing costs to your demand.

  • i hate when people tear down old rowhouses. there are only so many and when their gone, their gone!

  • Second the advice to approach the developer in a reasonable friendly way, but you also need to find out what their intentions are re the larger redevelopment in addition to requesting the immediate repairs you need. If they intend to excavate further than the basement depth that is currently there, then they will have to get your permission as an adjacent common wall owner in order to “underpin” the foundation properly.

    If the developer needs your consent (for underpinning or anything else), I would condition that consent upon a written agreement that they agree to repair any damage they cause to your property and also agree to pay your attorneys fees in the event they don’t honor their agreement and you have to sue. A construction of the magnitude you are describing could easily result in damage to your property—you need to protect yourself.

    I would also try to talk to the developer via eMail so you have a written record of what’s being said between the parties.

  • Thanks to everyone for the responses and suggestions. I really appreciate it. I spoke with DCRA and am scheduling an inspection of any damage that might have happened (or be happening) to my property, which our rental management company will do with them. Our management company will also send a letter to the owner / developer letting them know who we are, that they should contact us if there is any work that might impact us, and that we will let them know of any damage. Hopefully this will not be like Heather and 7:49’s experiences, but we have got to be prepared. Thanks again, and any other suggestions are very welcome!

    BTW, I forgot to mention, for those interested, on the permit it said that they will be constructing a 4 story building (basement + 3 stories) – 2 condos of 2 stories each with 2 parking spots.

  • One more question… any idea how this makes financial sense? The house they tore down, while note renovated, was by no means a shell. I can’t imagine that they bought it very cheaply, even in this market, and then the cost of construction.

    • It doesn’t make sense does it? In fact, it doesn’t really sound like you’re getting the full story does it?

      I know of a house that was supposed to be split into 3 flats but ended up being 6 apartments and it was built to the end of the property line without the right permits and DCRA cut the developer a deal so he didn’t have to tear it down. Total violation of everything and somehow the wheels of bureaucracy got greased.

  • Also, a recommendation. You need pictures of the “before”. Especially for foundation and cracking issues. If you dont have pictures showing it wasnt messed up before the demolition and construction, you cant prove that the construction caused any problems.

  • I would start by talking with the owner of the property – (again, friendly, not threatening etc. and keep records of all emails & calls) They ought to be worried that a contractor who shows this severe lack of attention and concern to your house is probably going to screw up their own project as well! No property owner wants this sort of trouble.

    My neighbor put up a new concrete wall between our back yards as part of a patio reno and from day one she came over to show me plans and permits, introduce me to the contractor who gave me a special phone number to reach him any time with any problems.

    You should have been “in the loop” from the beginning, even being out of the country. If your management company can’t handle this, perhaps one of your tenants would be willing to take on a more active roll as liaison in return for a bit of a rent reduction.

    Good luck!

  • This is one of the reasons why developers have insurance. It’s also one of the reasons why you have insurance. You should call your insurance company and report the damage. It may be covered by your policy. If it is covered, your insurance company will (and if it is not cover, the company may) take the lead in contacting the developer’s insurance company to make a claim with them. I would also report all of this to DCRA.

  • Definitely take pictures of the interior walls, ceilings, floors, etc. BEFORE construction starts next door. Get a structural engineer in as well before, during, and after.
    I remember when the Green Line was being tunneled out to College Park, under Queens Chapel Road. Many of the residents in University Park had damage to their basements, but since they didn’t think to take pictures before digging started, they were SOL.

  • To the owner – After hearing what the height of the new building that is going to be built, there’s one more bit of information you need to be aware of. If the new building is going to be taller than yours, there is the possibility of snow drifting on your lower roof caused by the height differential. The developer and their structural engineer is “supposed” to ensure that the roof of each adjacent property can support the calculated snow drifts. It’s hit or miss with DCRA but I would certainly raise the issue. I’m an architect and have run into this on scenario on several projects. I also just had to provide calculations to DCRA for my neighbor’s roof for a solar array we just installed on our house that had the potential to cause snow drifts. Good luck!

  • I’d contact your councilperson. Especially if your councilperson is Tommy Wells. His staff works magic when it comes to DCRA issues.

    As an amusing aside, my CAPTCHA is “chicana fund”

  • Several good pieces of advice above from ‘Marcus Aurelius’ and ‘JohnnyReb,’ but based on the explanation this seems like a private matter and DCRA’s authority is limited unless construction codes were violated. You should contact your insurance company immediately and they can assess damage and they can make contact with developer and developer’s insurance and typically these situations are worked out.

    We do recommend you begin taking photos so you have evidence if damage is caused by the construction. Hope this helps. Email me at [email protected] or call 202-442-4513 if you have any additional questions.

  • Wow, did a human being from DCRA actually respond? POP, I’m going to take all my city problems to you from now on!!!! I’m really impressed.

  • Thanks so much Mike! I will follow the suggestions you recommend and will get in touch with you if I have any other questions.

  • I’m a developer here in DC, and although I don’t know the developer at the house next door to you, I would encourage you to talk to them before you pursue any other action. Things get messy when you start talking about lawyers, code violations, etc, when in reality the damage to your house is minor and could be fixed by the contractor for a few hundred dollars, if even that much.

    Rowhomes in DC are obviously very close to each other and it’s nearly impossible to work on one without touching a neighboring property. I’d bet the contractor hired a subcontractor to do the demo and probably doesn’t even know about the damage.

    I’ve gone to great lengths to appease neighbors, even doing extra work that had nothing to do with my project, but is worth fixing in the effort of keeping goodwill.

    Good luck!

  • If it’s any consolation, there’s been a stop work order on the site for the last two weeks. Seems like DCRA has their eye on this one.

    Believe it or not, after demolishing the home and digging out the basement, they left without securing the property. No fencing, railings, caution tape. It took a week before they put up ply wood and an orange cone.

  • Dave – Were you required to let the neighbors know that you were demolishing the rowhouse next door? I was told by DCRA that they do need to do that, yet I have never heard from them. Also, I am not sure if notification means a certified letter or just filing papers (or somewhere in between). In any case, I find it a bit surprising that I never heard anything from them, even though they installed temporary wooden fencing on my property (see above). I think this is probably exacerbated by the fact that this is a rental property and I live abroad.

    But ultimately I agree with you. I would much rather work with the contractor than get into a conflict.

  • Sasha-

    I personally don’t know if they were required to notify you. My educated guess would be yes, because I know whenever we excavate- like when we dig out and underpin a basement- we need to get a signed letter from the two adjacent neighbors. This used to not be enforced, although now it almost always is required by DCRA. Also, when we work in historic areas we often need to notify everyone- basically the entire block and the block behind the property- so they can come express concerns at an ANC meeting. However, I think this is more related to the fact that it’s a historic district (which I’d imagine you’re not in, because they were able to demolish the house).

    Have you been able to contact the developer? If you give me the address I could help you determine who bought the lot, if you’re interested.

  • Hi Sasha,
    When any work is planned that will affect the common wall and especially if the developer is excavating and/or underpinning, they need to notify you. I’ve had this occur on two properties and the owner (you) or your agent needs to sign a DCRA form document that you are in agreement with the work and the suggested remedy if any damage is done to your property. I’m pretty sure that form goes back to DCRA for permits (especially if they are excavating or need to underpin).

    If your management company did not know of this work or inform you of it, well…you can look at my website if you are interested in a new management company.

    • So let me ask you a question Scott, what is the ramification of the developer not notifying me? Frankly, I don’t have any interest in making their life miserable, but I just want to protect my property. Is it worth pursuing the fact that I was not notified?

  • Sasha — I too am shocked by the missing house. But you asked about having the developer “notify” you. I have to suggest that it would have been pretty hard not to notice the hole in the ground there. I think the entire block was “notified” that the house was not there any more. Your management company did not do the right thing by you.

  • Hi Sasha,

    It seems from another post here that DCRA already stopped the construction so any immediate danger has been averted. Someone such as your property manager or a local friend or perhaps an attorney could contact the developer if you wish to work it out directly with them. You also may want to check with the renters in your house just to make sure they did not sign something on your behalf in error, because it seems unusual that such significant development would start without this paperwork.

    If you prefer, you could go the route of DCRA and claim that they interfered with your rights and endangered the structural integrity of your property (although that is not certain at this point). I know it must be frustrating being abroad and not able to deal directly with it, but as long as the developer has a structural engineer on the project certifying that the work is safe for the surrounding structure, there should be minimal risk to your property (maybe some cracking). Then there is the issue of correcting damage to your house shown in the pictures. Either they will remedy it promptly, or you’ll need that document to enforce it.

  • On the notification issue, as already mentioned anytime you are doing work on the property line you have to give the neighbors notice, but outside of having the kindness of going directly to your neighbors and discussing it with them it isn’t necessarily meaningful. By law it has to be sent by certified mail (so you can prove it was sent), but if the actual owner isn’t living there and it gets returned to the developer, as long as they sent it a certain number of days before starting construction, they have met the requirement. This is frustrating for someone who actually could have been notified by someone going to your house (i.e., they could have stopped by the house and told your renters or found out who your management company was). On the other hand, it has the benefit of not holding things up when a house has been foreclosed or is vacant next door and it is near impossible to determine who the owner is (what happened to me). So ultimately, it is very possible that they gave the legally required “notice,” but you never received it.

    Having also done renovations on my house, including an addition, I have had an opposite problem, which is being blamed for every problem (including loose interior framing on a door that is not even near any of the construction) on a neighbor’s house that hasn’t been maintained for probably the last 20 years. I’ll probably end up spending a fairly significant amount of money to fix their house just to keep the peace (as discussed by a previous developer), but it is probably about as frustrating as what you are going through. I’ve also run into a situation where parts of their house were actually built onto my property and had to be dealt with in order to build the addition, which is never fun to have to discuss with a neighbor. One of the difficult sides of living in connected houses.

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