Dear PoPville: Help–sewage backup in basement–is the developer responsible?

“Dear PoPville,

In late December we closed on our first home, a rowhouse in the Petworth area. One reason this property was attractive to us is because it was being completely renovated, and we very much liked the idea of an older home with new amenities. The other reason being that it has a separate legal (also newly renovated) English basement apartment that we estimated we could rent for $900-1000 to help with the mortgage.

Fast forward to the problems: It was a flip. We knew that, but we didn’t know just how poorly it was being flipped and that this company has a piss poor reputation. It’s not just fit and finish things that could be swapped out over time, there are major things that were done improperly (or not done at all). Yes, we had a home inspection and he caught several things that were worked out with the developer prior to closing, but we believe there are many more that he should have caught but didn’t.

Here’s where I hope to pick your readers brains for advice, suggestions, and recommendations on our current and biggest issue to date. There was an elder family member living in the basement apartment until about a month ago. We were uncertain as to whether she would be returning so had not proceeded to prep the apartment for renting. As of this past weekend, she has moved to a nursing home and we need to rent the space as soon as we can. But we can’t. There is now sewage backing up in the tub and from the drains at both the front and rear entries. The bathroom floor has been flooded and to top things off the new laminate floors the developer installed are ruined, even buckling in some places, so clearly water is underneath the entire floor, not just at water sources. And the place is obviously un-rentable.

My question is, do we have any recourse to sue them or get them to pay for damages? Or is it just our problem now? Our neighbor told us the house has always had sewage backup problems in the basement—if a neighbor knew, wouldn’t a developer? Can their company be held responsible for this?

If there is any legal action to pursue, can anyone recommend an attorney?

Are there any recommendations on who can fix the problem? And who can install a new floor?

The emergency cleanup crew came and removed the flooring, got the water/sewage out, and currently have fans/dryers down there. That was $5k. We paid $1k them (our insurance deductible) and $700 to the plumbers. Still waiting to hear what adjuster has to say after her visit today. The kitchen was spared, but the bedroom is now missing the first two feet of drywall from the bottom and a floor. The kitchen/living area will need a new floor. And the bathroom may be okay but not sure yet.

Any good contractors?

And any thoughts on installing tile instead of laminate?”

56 Comment

  • I went through exactly this. Our main drain turned out to be clogged with construction debris. It wasn’t blocked enough to be noticeable with two peoples’ water use. But the first weekend we had houseguests, and a dinner party, meaning the washer and the dishwasher and both showers and all three toilets were operating round the clock? Hoo boy.

    (Obligatory *not a lawyer* disclosure)
    And no, the previous owner (in this case, I assume that’s the developer) is not liable. They would only be liable if they sold you the house with some kind of guarantee or warranty that is still in effect, or if you had purchased the house and then hired them to do the renovations.

    It’s one of the reasons that flipping is so popular. If you make it look pretty, you can cut any corners you like and walk away from it after settlement.

    • Don’t go grouping all flippers into the same bucket. Many take pride in their work and flip for a living. It sounds like the person(s) who did this one weren’t professional.

      I own a home that was flipped. Our main systems were done mostly ok but some of the finish work is shoddy.

      Our neighbors house was also a flip (done by another flipper). Their finish work is even worse than ours.

      There are good flippers out there who have solid reputations for doing good work.

      • bfinpetworth

        Yep, I bought a flip and the developer has taken care of every issue that has arisen, and they haven’t been big. The flooding was just a blocked drain. But you can tell from the care taken in the cosmetic aspect of the renovation. Thoughtful design and detail without the “home depot” look. We are very happy with our flip one year in.

        Now, if we could only fix the house next door…

        • bfinpetworth

          Oh, and our developer’s name was Great Space Development. Husband and wife team. She is a designer and really did a great job in our place. Anyway, if you see a house for sale that they flipped, you can expect good workmanship and they stand behind the work.

  • If this was a consistent problem, I would think it would be something that should have been disclosed if the seller knew about it. But it might take litigation to answer that question.

    If this was something the seller did not know, or a new problem, then I think you have no recourse legally. But you could go to the seller and convince them that they should give you something to avoid the bad press.

    • Yeah, my thinking was that the disclosures were your best avenue, if you had any good avenue … but it seems to me that you would be hard-pressed to establish that the developer knew of the issue, particularly if it’s the case that (a) he was just flipping and (b) the problem doesn’t manifest itself absent a lot of use. OP might just be stuck with this one.

  • me

    Unfortunately, I am agreeing with WDC. It is amazing how cheaply some of the developers can get away with “renovating” places around here, and most don’t care to back up their work with any sort of guarantee. When you go through the buying process, if nothing is specifically waranteed in some sort of contract, you are unfortunately liable for everything in the house once the papers are signed. It is especially the risk that you take when buying a “flipped” house. I guess it’s a case of “buyer beware”.

    I’m sorry, and I hope it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg for you to get everything fixed.

    • me

      Oh, and the question about tile vs. laminate- if it is an area that is susceptible to moisture, then tile is slightly harder to really get clean in comparison to laminate. The grout can sometimes get moldy and it’s hard to remove if you’re not extremely diligent, whereas it’s a simple and less often cleaning with the laminate. My $.02.

      • have you actually dealt with laminate in a wet environment? It buckles and shrinks. NOT a good solution. Key is tile with dark grout.

        • me

          I guess it depends on how wet. Humid, yes. My basement will get to over 55% humidity if we don’t have a dehumidifier running, and even when we do, it still hovers close to 40%. Our laminate has held up well for years.

      • I had the same problem and lost all my laminate. Thought about tile but ultimately went with finished concrete. There is a great range of color and texture available to you, and it’s just bonded straight to the slab, as opposed to tile with a layer of grout. Usually you see this in commercial/retail applications, but I thought it was nice for the basement. (And if you do it fancy enough, it actually would be an upsell point for your rentability.)

        • Hmm, will have to look into this. Not very familiar with concrete flooring, and I would at first think it would alienate potential renters, but you’re saying fancy concrete could win them over? Thanks for the tip!

          • Keep your eyes open in fancy/boutique stores that do this. It’s amazing what a good company can do, and visually it can be striking. You’ll pay more the fancier you go, but at least you know you have options. When I did it, the guy did a wicked good replication of slate tiles in the bathroom, but I blame myself for choosing a pretty hum-drum color in the rest of the place. Still, I’m not worried about its water-tightness at all. I’m frankly surprised it’s not in more homes in this area, given the prevalence of below-grade rental units. I’d think these companies would market the solution to homeowners more than they do.

          • The hubby and I are renting a fancypants highrise apartment in Near SE… and we chose it over similar options *because* of the beautiful stained and polished concrete floors in the main living area. I’d choose this over laminate wood any day. Easy care & pet friendly (there are St Bernards and Great Danes in this building!)

  • It depends on the contract that both the buyer and seller signed, specifics of the problem with the plumbing, and many other details.

    Consult an attorney.

    As for just arm chairing it, as not an attorney, I would say its possible but not likely that you would win. However, it just depends.

    Eric is right about laminate. There is flooring made for potentially damp areas. Find those.

  • Is the blockage in your plumbing (on your property) or the city’s? If the latter, it may be because your sewage pipes are old, and this could force the city to replace them. Have the plumbers file a sewer report with the city sewer authority and call at 202-612-3400 to see if they can repair/replace your sewage line. If they do, it should prevent this from happening again.

    • This happened to me for 6 months. It turned out that we had a “partially” collapsed sewer trap. You could take shower, but when it rained it backed up into the house.

      Have DC Water snake your sewer line before you pay for a plumber.

      Pro tip: You usually have to call them out 3 times before they do anything.

      • This was not my experience. Wasa would not come unless a plumber came and could not clear the line. Once they did, they were fantastic. BTW, Magnolia really treated us fairly.

  • You are on the right track with tile ilo laminate. Basements are nor a good place for wood floors or laminate. Sooner or later you’ll have a moisture issue.

    • bfinpetworth

      Yes. Wood and water are never a good mix.

      I have tile and fairly cheap berber carpet. Had a flood last summer during the heavy rains and had to pull up the carpet. But it was not very expensive to fully replace. The tile is just fine. The bigger problem with mold is in the walls, especially if there is insulation. But from the photo, it looks like the mitigation company is taking care of preventing that problem.

      The one possibility you have of making the developer liable, absent any warranty, is to get your hands on the disclosure from the prior owner to the developer. Unfortunately, the only way you may do that is through litigation discovery. If the prior owner disclosed that there was a backup problem, then you can prove that the developer misrepresented in his disclosure docs.

      Before fixing the basement I would focus on fixing the drains. We haven’t had any problem with flooding since our drains were cleared. Now that they are clear, I plan on having them serviced every couple years to prevent future problems.

      • We put in a floating faux wood floor in our Mt. P basement that has worked out well. The concrete slab was covered with some foam-like material (?), then a layer of plastic (or was is the other way around?), then the flooring. Haven’t had any problems with moisture in three years.

  • Call Holmes on Homes.

    • Mike’ll make it right, eh.

      (too bad he’s in Toronto. He’d make a fortune in the US).

      I would put the developer’s name on blast. List it here. Put it on angie’s list.

      Attn young hipsters–ask if it’s a flip, then hammer them with questions and get an up the rectum home inspection.

  • We had some of the same issues as this less than a month after buying a rowhouse from a flipper, but thankfully it wasn’t sewage that was coming into the basement. We hired a lawyer to give us an idea of what kind of legal recourse we could achieve. There wasn’t much we could do and we would have likely spent more on lawyers than if we just fixed everything. If we lost, we would have to pay for the fixes and the lawyers. We had a waterproofing guy come in and put drains around the entire basement and then we re-finished the walls and floors ourselves. Total cost around $10k, but we decided not to put down any new flooring in the basement. Instead we stained and sealed the concrete (can buy a kit for about $500) just in case we do see water come into the basement again we wouldn’t want everything ruined.

    • Yep, we got the same advice: more expensive to litigate than just to fix the problem ourselves. Another arrow in the crap-ass developers’ quiver.

      • Like I said, put the flipper’s name and principals on blast: blogs, WCP, Angies List. The recourse is to wreck his reputation. If he tries to sue YOU for that, he’d lose and spend much bucks in $$$.

  • “but we didn’t know just how poorly it was being flipped and that this company has a piss poor reputation”

    Well, thats kinda the crux of the matter isn’t it.

    You can’t necessarily start peeking into walls etc to see how well the house was redone, but you CAN do your due diligence on the company doing the flip…something you admitted you neglected to do. Caveat Emptor…

    And no, unless the previous owner who sold to the developer informed them of the back-up problems, then there is no reason to expect the flipper to know. Construction is not very water intensive, save for the day or two where they are done and cleaning the house.

    And I wouldn’t bother replacing the floor until you find the problem and fix it, or you’ll just have to buy another one. If it has been a long-term thing (according to the neighbor), it is likely a old sanitary line thats collapsed or is collapsing which would require a new line from your house to the street.

  • We had the same problem. We had our house tuck pointed and the contractor washed the mortar down the drain. It went through to the street but the j drain near the street backed up. Bad news for our carpeted basement because the backup wasn’t pretty.

    The good news is that our homeowners insurance covered the damage and replacement. Because the blockage was outside of our house and on city property, our homeowners policy was uncapped for damages. We would have had a cap if the blockage was on our actual property. Hopefully your policy allows for this kind of reimbursement. Good luck.

    • I’m in the process of skim coating the basement floor of my flipped house after a flood forced me to pull the carpet, and I noticed that the concrete instructions say not to pour the excess down the drain. I thought to myself, who the hell would do that? Now I know.

      I’m putting “luxury vinyl tile” in my basement. It’s thick, long planks printed and textured to look like wood. Luxury vinyl sounds like an oxymoron to me, but it actually looks pretty good, and it’s waterproof.

  • perhaps your home inspector offered a warranty? some do. that seems more likely than getting anything from the seller.

  • Had the same problem with sewage in the tubs and sink in my basement on Holmead Place back in 2003 when I purchased the property. Forget about litigation, your immediate concern is to get fix the problem.

    You probably have a block in the main line out, perhaps a tree branch or bad stoppage. In my case the entire front yard had to be dug up down 20 feet to get to the line ( an old cast iron line, which was cracked from a tree root and blocked) and replaced. The city will only replace the line if the problem is under the sidewalk into the street. Chances are its not the city’s issue.

    Just one of the issues I had with purchasing a old home, gutted and the interior bells and whistles are there but the guts are the same old crap.

    • greenroofgoddess

      The city will only replace the line if it is on city property. The majority of homes on Holmead own the front curtilage (i.e. the area from the front door to the sidewalk) while many other DC homes don’t, especially those on numbered streets. Look at your plat to see where your property actually begins

  • There’s some chance that the home inspector is insured for this sort of thing. They’d be the first person I called. But that’s your only real recourse.

    Any chance you’ll post the name of the company that did the flip? A neighbor’s house was just flipped and I’d like to know if it’s them with the poor reputation. I watched them do the whole thing, and I watched the house sell. If I were the buyers, I would have picked the neighbors’ brains. I watched them for two months rip the house apart and put it back together. I know it’s a bit late, but for anyone reading this who’s considering buying a flip: knock on neighbors’ doors and ask them every question you can think of.

  • Thank you all so so much! My other half is the technical one and will likely explain much better than I, but my understanding now is that there are some pretty major tree roots–likely from our across-the-alley-neighbor’s 100+ year old oak that were the main culprit for this. Since they go under the alley, is there anything the city can do?

    There was also some construction debris found in the pipes. And there’s something about a gap? And a belly? See, I’m not very good at this.

    We do have an attorney looking into it, but I doubt it would come to litigation. As several noted, just not worth the money.

    I would give a limb for Mike Holmes to come.

    Very much appreciate the experiences (geez it’s happened to a bunch!) and your words of advice.

    • We had a similar problem a couple of years ago. The sewer pipe, made of terra cotta had collapsed and was causing backups. I hear it’s usually tree roots, but we think contractors digging fence holes had cracked and collapsed our pipe. We had our plumbers call the city to report the problem and they helped convince DC Water that the clog was under the alley, not under our yard. Note – the city dug up our entire front yard about 10 feet down over two days before they realized our sewer was in the alley! You’ll need them to snake the drain and measure the distance to convince them it’s outside your property. At that point the sewer pipe work is covered by your tax dollars. Good luck.

    • Are you going to inform any potential renter that you’ve had problems with this in the past?

  • Most, if any, housing inspectors will not give a warranty because they are only visibly inspecting potential problems or defects. You would be amazed at how superficial the process is. I won’t say it’s unhelpful but a lot can be missed when it comes to the important stuff (e.g., foundation, plumbing, water damage, mold, faulty electrical wiring) because it’s covered up and you can’t see. Anything you can’t see without moving anything else or deconstructing is off limits, as most inspectors don’t want to have the liability of damaging anything on the property.

  • have the drain snaked and move on with your life. it won’t cost that much, it will solve your problem, and you’ll have fewer gray hairs than you will if you waste your money on a lawyer.

    my guess is that the previous owner didn’t even know that this was a problem. sometimes the plumbing in these old houses is marginally clogged up and you’d never know it until you actually lived in the place for a while and started using a bunch of water for showers, dishes, and laundry.

    also, i’d like to point out that you really don’t need to rip out every single pipe when you renovate a house. most of the time your cast iron 3″ stack is just fine and will be for a long time. sure there are some who have had bad luck, but for many folks living in the tens of thousands of dc row houses, the plumbing that is already in place will give trouble free service for years to come.

  • While we are on the subject, my gutter drains are cloged and I want someone to unclog it. Any recs?

  • Who’s the developer? I really think a source for all known local developers with public input would be a great idea. So many fly by night developers in this town — anyone could make a mistake.

  • Don’t know if you ever watch Holmes on Homes on HGTV – but this sounds like a job for him – only if you were in Canada.
    As far as replacement flooring – go with tile. That is what Holmes would do and if you are renting the basement out its harder wearing than laminate and in a wet basement you need a material that can handle the mosture – laminate can’t.

    Going after the previous owner – is it worth the lawyers fees and the risk you may not recover and still be stuck fixing?
    Might want to check and make sure that drains are clear of roots and other blockage.

  • Ugh… sorry to hear. I had some water, not due to our house, but due to a neighbors basement that would fill with water (crack house now beautifully reno’d). Then one day my rear drain clogged… I opened the door and whoosh, the water rushed it. I tiled the area that was carpeted. It’s an easy, if back-breaking fix and relatively cheap. Morris Tile is your friend. I ended up spending about $800 in materials for approx 500 sq feet of tiled area.It keeps cool in the summer, is much more condusive to basements than wood or carpet IMO, but probably won’t be as nice for a renter than an engineered wood floor.

  • Our park view basement had been flooded just before we bought the house at foreclosure. We pulled out the carpet and layers of vinyl tile on the floor, and the drywall & fancy wood paneling on the walls.

    Then we cleaned & dried it out- fans/dehumidifier/AC. When it was clean & dry, I tiled the entire basement floor, which was a long boring job but DIY-able. We used $1/sf porcelain tile with dark grout, no problems so far with lots of wear and tear (we live in the basement whilst we renovate upstairs).

    For the walls, we cleaned them and then painted with Dry-Lok masonry paint that helps seal up bricks. It is white and we left the walls just with that clean white paint so that we can see any future problems (ie discoloration, mold, etc.).

    It sucks you are having to deal with this, but at least if you fix it right, you won’t have to worry about it for many years to come.

  • The home was bought in December and the sewage backup did not manifest itself until May. We’ve had a number of torrential downpours since December and a couple of snow melts. If there was a drainage problem when the home was bought, wouldn’t it have revealed itself sooner?
    It’s easy to blame the contractor and/or the inspector but (notwithstanding the other problems with the house) it could be that whatever caused this problem did not occur until after the flip and the home inspection.

    As for contractors, I can recommend Harmony Construction [email protected], (202) 365-4147
    Probably won’t be able to fit you in right away but can give you an honest assessment of what needs to be done and a fair price. I’d recommend calling him (Glen) second to get a sense of whether what other contractors tell you makes sense.

  • We had massive water damage shortly after closing on our house. Not quite the same, but I feel your pain.

    Litigation is a pipe dream that is really part of denial. It’s your problem now, and you’ve got to make sure it gets fixed and gets fixed right.

    Welcome to home ownership!

  • Sorry to hear about your basement issues. A couple years ago, because of moisture issues, I had to redo and completely gut my basement(rental unit) and have all new sewer and drains lines installed. This meant removing the old concrete floor and pouring a new one. Costly but very necessary because of the age of the system and the multiple foundation cracks. Before the new foundation went in I had a french drain system installed along with the sump pump. Along the way I found out about a floating subfloor that doesn’t get nailed or glued, best part I was able to buy it at the Home Depot in Brentwood!
    My contractor installed both the subfloor and completed the renovations in the basement. Here is his info
    My neighbors have also gone on to use DriCore system in their basements to keep them from having water damage. Hope this helps.

  • Thanks a bunch, everyone. Really. You’ve given us some great leads and we appreciate it. This has been such a trying time, and just when you go “well it can’t get any worse,” yes it can.

    We noticed a smell about 2.5-3 months ago, but had just moved in in January and chalked it up to basement, musty belongings, two dogs, maybe a rat got in the wall and died, so many stray cats peeing nearby, etc. Never saw any water until last week. Yes, I know we should have checked things out when we first noticed the smell.

    The attorney is going to review the contract for all those ins and outs and see where we stand, but I agree with most of the comments that it’s most likely our problem now. Had so much other to deal with, we weren’t prepared for such a major fix so early on. That was one reason we wanted a rehabbed place. Just didn’t work out the way we anticipated.

    I’m not comfortable sharing the name of the company at this time. Perhaps we can come to some agreement, and I don’t want to jeopardize that by badmouthing them preemptively.

  • holding the entity that took the risk of financing and renovating an old house completely responsible for all the random problems that crop up in old houses is pretty ridiculous. and I say this as an old house owner who has had a lot of problems since I bought my place from a “flipper.” Sure, the people who flipped my house could have done a more thorough job – torn out all the plumbing, installed anti-backflow device in the sewer, demolished all the old walls down to masonry and rebuilt, etc, but then it would have cost twice as much and the house would have no character.

    It’s very interesting how PoP commenters are equally eager to attack “flippers” (i.e. small businesses that buy and renovate homes, at great financial risk and expense of time and money) for removing original details as they are to blame them for not completely fixing the types of problems that afflict almost all old dwellings. It is incredibly expensive to simultaneously preserve old architectural features AND perfectly address all the problems that occur in old houses.

    • I will not apologize for my dislike of crap ass flippers. I’m the victim of one. Beware of a Nigerian named Sonny, he “worked” on my house and another on my block. He hid big, big problems behind drywall that weren’t discovered until I did a big renovation on the house. Yes, there were old house issues, that I don’t blame him for, but I do hold him accountable for the huge hole in the load bearing wall that he hid behind a false wall. A hole big enough to be dangerous. Oh and then there was the stack pipe that wasn’t sealed…. Sonny’s idea of renovation was hiring a bunch of guys he barely supervised and threatened with non-payment.
      There are plenty of fools that fancy themselves small businessmen who are under the mistaken idea they can flip an old house.
      Beware of new construction in old houses where no one has lived in the new construction.

  • Concrete floors are the way to go in basements, they stay cool, look cool, are easy to clean, indestructible.

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