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Yesterday a reader wrote in asking advice about the above situation. I am happy to announce a new partnership with Griffin & Murphy, LLP who will answer your questions. I will make this a weekly feature. Please send any legal questions relating to real estate, buildings, renovations or rentals to princeofpetworth (at) gmail (dot) com. Following is this week’s advice:
This case involves a D.C. row house which, until recently, shared a common wall with its neighbor. The neighbor tore down a portion of the common wall.
COMMON WALLS MAY OR MAY NOT BE PARTY WALLS
The common wall may or may not have been a “Party Wall.” A Party Wall is one which straddles two adjoining lots. Most common walls are Party Walls. Sometimes common walls are not Party Walls because they have been located improperly on only one lot when built. If a common wall is not a Party Wall, certain rules apply. If the common wall is a true Party Wall, then a different set of rules apply. Party Walls have to be maintained and supported equally by the adjoining property owners. If a portion of a Party Wall is demolished, it must be replaced at the cost of the property owner that took it down. If the replacement is to occur at a later date in connection with the construction of a new structure on the adjoining lot, then the portion of the Party Wall still standing must be protected as soon as practicable from the elements and, if needed, it must be adequately secured so as to prevent any structural damage to the house still standing. Common walls that are not Party Walls must also be properly maintained by adjoining property owners, but the rules for enforcing this requirement differ from the rules that apply to Party Walls. Continues after the jump.
DISPUTES INVOLVING PARTY WALLS
Disputes involving Party Walls are common, whether they are being demolished or not. The disputes typically involve lawyers and occasionally experts, but no one likes to pay for lawyers or experts if they don’t have to. Therefore, the first step for the complaining party to take is for them to call their insurance company. If they are properly insured, the insurance company will negotiate the settlement of the problem, usually with the help of a lawyer and, if needed, an expert, paid for by the insurance company, and the insurance company will pay for any damages suffered by the insured. The insurance company will then try to get these damages back from the adjoining property owner, demolition company, construction crew, etc.
THE USE OF BUILDING LOCATION SURVEYS AND BOUNDARY LINE SURVEYS
When the property owner purchased the house, they probably received a Building Location Survey at their closing. If there is a question as to whether the common wall is a Party Wall, and the Building Location Survey is not clear about this, then a more detailed survey should be obtained. This type of survey is known as a Boundary Line Survey. It is slightly more expensive than a Building Location Survey.
DAMAGES TO ANY PORTION OF A HOUSE NOT CONSIDERED TO BE A PARTY WALL.
Damages to the house caused by the adjacent demolition and not involving damage to a Party Wall (such as the damage to the front porch in this case) are the responsibility of the party demolishing the adjacent structure, provided that the damaged portion of the house is located on the lot of the person claiming to have been damaged.
ACTION LIST WHEN A PORTION OF A PARTY WALL IS BEING DEMOLISHED
* Call your Insurance Company IMMEDIATELY and see if you are covered for this type of damage under your Home Owner’s Policy.
* Contact DCRA and make sure the demolition next to you is being done in accordance with a validly issued permit. Ask for an inspector to come out and make sure that everything is being done in accordance with the law.
* Locate and review your Building Location Survey.
* Locate and review your Title Insurance Policy and make sure that the standard “survey exception” was removed because you purchased a Building Location Survey.
* Take pictures of everything as it occurs, if possible, and date the pictures.
This response was prepared by Mark G. Griffin and Patrick D. Blake of Griffin & Murphy, LLP. The material contained in this response has been prepared for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as legal advice or as a substitute for a consultation with a qualified attorney. Nothing in this response should be considered as either creating an attorney-client relationship between the reader and Griffin & Murphy, LLP or as rendering of legal advice for any specific matter.