Dear PoP – Next Door Construction Concerns

Photo by PoPville flickr user mmphillippi

“Dear PoP,

I live in a 90 year old semi-detached row house on Capitol Hill. The lot next door to my row house is currently under construction and the permits disclose that the owner intends to built a duplex that will be about 5′ from my house. Last week they tore down most of the 1890’s duplex that had been there previously leaving large piles of rubble. Today I woke up to my entire house shaking, as a bobcat and font end loader were pushing large piles of the rubble (mostly brick) against the party wall between the properties to fill the buckets. This cannot be good for the brick party wall or my house. I now have a few small cracks in my ceiling (mostly at the dry wall tape) that are new.

I stopped them from doing this and the site manager and he promised to be more careful, but I am usually working during the day and not home to stop damage from occurring. I called 311 to try to figure out who should be monitoring to make sure that the construction company is not doing harm to my property. I spoke with someone at DCRA and they told me that no one can do anything as long as there are valid permits. Apparently once a company has valid permits, the district has no authority and does not monitor work in progress.

Next week they start excavating the basement and we will be out of town. How can I make sure that they don’t damage our house? Who can I call if I see them doing something unsafe or that might put my property in danger — the police? Are they really allowed to do whatever they want if they have a construction permit? I really don’t want this to be a repeat of Morgan Street or a long legal battle if they damage our house or foundation.”

Specifically the reader wants to know what are his/her rights? Is the company doing the work responsible to fix any damage they cause to the neighboring house? What should the owner of this do before going on vacation? Take photos of the entire property? What else?

31 Comment

  • You may well not have a vacation as you planned.

    You need to meet with your neighbors go over his/her plans and find exactly the scope of the work to be done in the next few months.

    Ask the extent of the foundation work to be done for their new construction and whether they will be underpinning your house as part of this foundation work and how the party wall will function as part of the new structure.

    You may well not have a vacation as you planned.

    They are responsible for repairing the cracks you describe.

    I would not go on vacation. This is serious stuff.

  • at the very least, it sounds like you want to have a trustworthy relative or friend stay at your place while you’re gone. Preferably someone who owns a home or knows something about construction!

  • Real world experience. My adjoining neighbor built and addition onto his house while I was on vacation for three weeks. He did not have permits. He did not have plans. He did not tell us about the work before it started. When I got back form vacation I saw that he had added a substantial addition to the back of his house that directed rain flow onto my property. Now, after 6 years, scores of letters to DCRA, a BZA hearing, letters the DC AG, the structure remains in place. DCRA did give the owner a couple of fines, but the structure, which was deemed illegal construction, stays in place. My letters to DCRA went right to the top with responses from Linda Argo the director and the two directors before her. I also met several times with Matt LeGrant. In the end, nothing significant was done. Now, even though my neighbor received an order to change the structure to redirect the water flow, he has at least two years before DCRA and the BZA would connect him about being in violation of the BZA order. After that he would still have another year or so to just begin the work. Thus, he could squeeze this out to 8 or 9 years after the construction was built. My advice to you, especially since your neighbor already has plans, is to go on vacation and enjoy it. Staying home really won’t make that much of a difference in the long run.

  • If this was simply a renovation of the old house, I’d say suck it up and think about how your neighbor’s work will help accelerate your house’s appreciation in the the long term. BUT…basement digs / foundation work is quite tricky and there are only a handful of contractors that are capable of doing this right the first time. I agree there’s nothing you can do to stop it if the permits have been obtained, but I definitely would not go on vacation. I would camp out with a video camera and capture every second of their work — and make sure they see that you are capturing every second of their work.

  • Find someone fresh out of law school (and jobless, thanks economy) and pay them a couple hundred to house sit. Guaranteed that anyone fresh off of their bar exam will be delighted to unleash the tenets of property law crammed into their heads for the past 3 months on the construction folks.

  • What you were told on the phone is not true at all! Simply getting a valid permit does not give a contractor cart blanche to run amuck once the permits are issued. Since you recieved no help from 311 (shocking) or DCRA (even more shocking) I would get in touch with your ANC commissioner (if they are effective) and your councilmember.

    I also question how they were able to raze an 1890’s property on the Hill….

    • “I also question how they were able to raze an 1890’s property on the Hill….”

      They did most of the demolition without a permit. The demolition was mostly complete before the building inspector got around to issuing a stop work order.

    • I don’t know the OP, so I could be way off here, but based on the description, I might know where this house is and, if it’s the one I’m thinking of, it’s technically a block north of the historic district.

  • If your council member is Tommy Wells, his staff will be invaluable in helping you with this.

  • Part two of the saga:

    In the heavy rain this morning, all of the gravel and construction dirt flowed toward our house and straight into our basement stairwell. The gravel and dirt clogged the drain and our basement was flooded. We have pulled a few buckets of dirt out of the stairwell, but it is still clogged. Do we have any recourse to get them to clear our drain? It was full of their dirt from yesterday’s construction!

    The basement is unfinished, so I don’t think we meet our deductible for our homeowner’s claim with the damaged things, but it sure is a muddy mess.

    • That really sucks, but I wouldn’t call my own insurance company. Your premiums will go up. You need to talk to the other homeowner, and/or his insurance company.

  • Don’t go on vacation, and don’t call the damned police! Grow up, and take lots of photographs NOW of your property. Get an engineer in today to evaluate your foundation. This is (probably) your biggest investment – YOU need to protect it. Do you own any of the land next to your end wall? If so, erect some sort of temporary fence to keep construction crews from getting near your wall. If not, well, take photos and pray to the Man in the Sky that things don’t go wrong…
    When Metro tunneled under my neighbors’ street 23 years ago, several foundations were damaged, but because an engineer hadn’t inspected the houses before construction, Metro claimed it wasn’t their responsibility.

  • My neighbor is doing a gut rehab on the building next to me, as well, and I just got back from vacation to find some debris in my yard, so I understand your anxiety. But, I’d take some pics, find a friend to check the house, and then go on vacation.

    That said, this type of construction happens quite often. You need to talk to the owner and contractor at the same time. Good communication is key, but they also need to show you proof of insurance. The owner/developer definitely wants to avoid inspections or a stop work order and satisfy your reasonable concerns like with the bricks and the front loader.

    It is not unusual to put in a foundation or dig out a basement without it damaging the neighboring structure, and there are plenty of GC’s who can do this work in DC. Contractors usually have no problem making minor repairs, and cleaning up things like the gravel and flooding so you should request that they do that. They don’t want you to make an insurance claim, because your company will go after their company.

    After demolition and foundation work is done, the next hassle is likely to be them trying start work too early or parking, which is more likely to be solved by a good relationship than any outside legal recourse.

    • I wish I had more faith in them, but they are an awfully shoddy operation. They have already knocked the top of our chimney with a tree branch and then razed most of the historic property with out permits. We had a 5 week reprieve while they sorted out the stop work orders issued for both properties.

      Now in three days of construction they’ve rammed our house repeatedly with a bobcat and flooded our basement.

      They had promised to come by this morning to look at the chimney, but they didn’t show. Figures.

  • +1 – get off your butt and take action!

    • To do what exactly? They have done minimal damage at this point and certainly nothing worth even filing a claim over. There is just a great potential…

      • but if you hire a lawyer now, they can navigate the bureaucracy with the permits and all that and tell you to do things to make sure you’re protected so you don’t have a shitstorm of retroactive damage control later. it seems to me that with what’s at stake, you’d be crazy not to at least consult with someone.

        • If you do not consult with a lawyer or some other knowledgeable person NOW then you deserve what happens to you LATER

        • Sorry this is off topic, but I often hear people recommend “hire a lawyer” or “get an engineer” or “talk to an accountant” now! How do people generally do that? Not the yellow pages, I assume.

      • Like I said earlier – get an engineer in; s/he can put in some of those fancy monitoring devices to record any shift in your foundation. If there is any more “minimal damage” to your house, file nuisance lawsuits in small claims court. Show the builder that you won’t be pushed around. Protect your investment!

  • take pictures of your house NOW. Find old pictures. Get a lawyer. Complain to the city again. Record your conversations with the builder, and note the dates, times, etc. Be proactive.

    If you do not you will be irrevocably and irretrievably fucked. Hard.

  • take pictures of your house NOW. Find old pictures. Get a lawyer. Complain to the city again. Record your conversations with the builder, and note the dates, times, etc. Be proactive.

    If you do not you will be irrevocably and irretrievably fucked.

    • Do you have a satellite image off of google maps or street view? You can prove that a structure was in place before they began.

      IF DCRA isn’t going to help you, it’s time to get a lawyer and get a stop work order issued.

    • ah

      fucked hard, or just fucked?

  • you need an underpinning agreement with your neighbor as well as a construction management plan. they can do the work, but they are liable for damage to your home. document before and after!

  • We are unable to monitor each construction site which is why the licensing – with the bonding and insurance requirements – and permitting processes are in place. We strongly recommend to everyone that they photograph their home before construction begins and record any damage to their home. They are also required to notify you ahead of time. If there is any damage- which is sometimes the case where the homes are so close – even minor you have these recorded for insurance purposes. Document and record everything.

    Please feel free to email me at michael (dot) rupert (at) if you want to discuss further.

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