Dear PoPville – Chances for Winning a Law Suit Against a Home Seller?

Photo by PoPville flickr user jennverr

Dear PoPville,

My husband and I recently bought a newly-renovated home in PoPville. The house was essentially gutted and totally re-built, including digging out and fully renovating the basement. Only a few weeks into living there though, we found out that the house (which is over 100 years old) has a drainage problem that has likely been there for a long time and is causing water to seep into the basement. We have gotten a few estimates of what it will cost to install an interior drainage system (basically digging a tench into the basement and installing a sump-pump) and between that, and having to fix the floors that are now totally damaged from water overflowing onto them we are going to be out a lot of money! So, I have two questions:

1) Has anyone ever had an interior drainage system installed? We would appreciate any recommendations on service providers, and to get an idea of what this *should* cost (one estimate was $13K and the other $6K and we can’t tell what the difference is between them other than the price…)

2) Do we have a case against the seller? They have claimed that they never saw any water coming into the basement while doing construction, but seeing as how they dug the basement out that is likely impossible, and even if they didn’t see actual water, the damage it has been doing to the walls and original floor was likely very obvious. We had an inspection done on the house before purchasing it, but since everything was newly covered in dry wall it was impossible to see any of this. Has anyone actually ever filed a law suit against their developer and won? Everyone keeps telling us it’s next to impossible and not worth the headache, but the alternative is being out thousands of dollars for a problem we believe they are liable for. Would appreciate any advice out there!

Thanks for your help!
Angry homeowner

43 Comment

  • I would not sue unless the amount at stake is over $20,000. In my opinion, anything less than that is not worth the legal fees and the headaches (which will be considerable).

    • Seconded. Lawyers are very expensive. You’re probably going to eat up most of your damages in legal fees.

      You could try your luck with small claims court, but you’d be limited to $5,000 in damages (I think . . . check for yourself, this is not legal advice, yada, yada, yada).

      Also, I looked into the system you are talking about too in the past. And, $13K is incredibly expensive. I would suggest getting a few more estimates because $3-6K sounds more reasonable. You might want to make sure you exterior yards are properly graded too.

      • “You’re probably going to eat up most of your damages in legal fees.” Yes, and if you lose, you only end up worsening your financial hit. Litigation should always be a last resort. Others have suggested talking to the seller, which might actually end up in a compromise that would benefit you sooner at less cost and hassle than a lawsuit.

  • Talk to a real estate lawyer. Any reputible one will tell you whether you have a legitimate claim and how much it might cost to pursue it.

    Benny Kass’ firm downtown is good. They’ve actually given me *free* legal advice when I’ve had real estate questions.

  • Did you get a home inspection? It seems like it is out of the seller’s hands at this point, unless they had a home warranty. You could contact your home inspector, as they’d be at fault for not catching this. And if you didn’t get a home inspection, then you kind of deserve what you’ve got, to be honest.

    • bfinpetworth

      A home inspection would only be able to detect outward signs of water damage. They don’t generally do invasive inspections. Thus the OP’s point that the new drywall hid any signs of water damage during the inspection.

      • seconded. good luck suing a home inspector. not very smart advice, squish.

        • I didn’t say “sue” now did I? I said “contact.” There’s never any harm in asking.

          • you’re right, my mistake. contact the home inspector and ask for money. i’m sure they’ll fork it right over. no doubt it’ll be the first time they’ve ever heard from a dissatisfied customer who found a defect after moving in.

          • My dad owns his own home inspection business in Fairfax. He has had contact with 2-3 people who got anywhere close to a lawsuit level. He does a very good job, so that mitigates most of it, but yes, if it was behind a wall, and the wall wasn’t wet, you are probably in trouble. In DC the laws do favor the consumer a bit more, but yeah. I know in VA, you have to demonstrate basically gross negligence on the inspectors part.

            I think you should go after the seller. The home inspector is going to be at no fault in this case I am guessing.

    • If the seller falsely made claims that the basement was dry, or that there was no water damage, and the buyer relied upon those claims, the buyer can sue for breach of contract.

    • Moreover, a lot of inspection companies are in the back pockets of the real estate agents. If you make the mistake that we did–allowing our real estate agent to put in absurdly short inspection contingencies which didn’t allow us time to engage our own inspector–you will find that they will deliberately overlook anything that is not obviously life-threatening. We ended having to invest an additional $15,000 in our house. Stuff that our real-estate agent’s inspector just skipped.

  • bfinpetworth

    In answer to your first question, that depends on where the water is coming from. If the water is the result of recent heavy rains and is coming in through the back of the house where your drains aren’t handling the load, then the sump pump system could be installed at the back side of your basement. I got an estimate a couple years ago for about $4000 for that type of system, including battery backup power. If the water is due to a high water table and is seeping into the house in various locations around the basement, that is a more difficult problem.

    The answer to your second question is similar. If the water is coming from heavy rains, then it is possible that the developer never experienced it and answered truthfully. It is also possible that there was some preexisting water issue that the developer failed to disclose. Proving this failure to disclose would likely be difficult.

    My best advice is the following: Do everything you can to mitigate the water issue. For instance, after my basement flooded a couple months after purchase during a very heavy rain, I had the back drains cleared and I had new guttering installed that was larger (4″ rather than 3″) that routed the runoff directly out to the back alley rather than into my drains or elsewhere in my yard. I think that cost me about $1000. No flooding since then. I got the quote for the $4000 sump system at that time, but elected to try the cheaper alterations first. So far, so good, but I expect that some day I’m going to have another flooded basement and will wish I’d spent that $4000 up front.

    • ah

      +1 to this. Water remediation companies want to sell expensive solutions. There are often much cheaper fixes to these problems–better gutters and grading are two inexpensive alternatives.

      • Absolutely right. We had a great home inspector when we bought out house, and his mantra to us was ‘never buy a sump pump!’ All they do is pump out the water that will continue to get in, rather than actually fixing the problem. We had some water damage in our basement, but once we fixed our gutters, cleaned out the clogged drain pipe, and spent some hours moving a load of dirt around to fix the grade around our house, and we’re good. All it costed was a few hundred dollars for the gutter man and a willingness to go outside and do the other work ourselves.

        • Any of you guys remember the names of he drain-cleaning companies you used? We’re having the exact same problem, and were told that our issue is poor drainage and bad grading. We’ve got someone for the grading, but still looking for someone for the drains.

    • My understanding that diverting water off your property, to an alleyway for example, is not legal in the District. Might cause issues if the assessors note that.

  • Unless you have proof that the seller knew about it, you’re out of luck. Even then, unless you can afford to pay an attorney to drag out a legal fight for 1-2 years, you’re still out of luck.

    Get a better quote, and you shouldn’t have to pay more than $3k for a sump pump & trench solution. Or, do it yourself for less. Pretty easy to install.

    Also, don’t forget about other easy solutions, including ensuring your lawn slopes away from your home, gutters are unclogged, drains are unclogged, etc.

    • I would agree with this. I had some water in my basement the first time it rained. I thought it must have been a few things–the yard sloping towards the house, the gutters not being attached to the house right by where the water was pooling. Turns out, the water was coming in at another point where the downspout was, and coincidentally, when I bought a drain extender for a few bucks (like this one:, I never had any more water in my basement, despite much worse rain storms and not fixing the other problems right away.

      Oh, and don’t replace your floors with wood unless you want them ruined again. Stone, tile, or stained cement with area rugs is my recommendation. Basements, by nature, are damp.

    • Agree, my parents had a similar kind of issue- except for them it was foundation problems totally over $50k. They had lots of proof that the seller and real estate agent knew about the problems but did not disclose them and still it took my parents 5 years in litigation and tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to get to a moderate resolution. The other thing to think about is this developing company may be able to just shut down their business (and then open another one) making it very hard to ever collect should you even win (several area developers are notorious for this). I know it sucks, but I think you are better off just cutting your losses now.

  • I installed a sump pump only to find out the problem was the drainage comming off the roof, after redrecting the water I no longer have a flooding basement. Talk with the seller, see if he is willing to split the cost. I think it is always better to start with the simple and go to the more complicated.

  • I think you’re SOL – I had a similar situation – with a roof – and my agent said it’s unlikely the seller would be held liable. $7.5K later – new roof at my expense.

  • A friend of mine bought a house also recently gut-renovated and had some problems right after buying it – some things not to code and a few repairs needed, a total of about $2K. They wrote the developer a letter and they came out to the house and agreed to reimburse for all the repairs! Sometimes it pays to be a squeaky wheel.

  • Another option you may want to consider is regrading your drive/yard and/or installing a French drain. This is also a costly option, but in the long run it may be worth it.

    • I have read and heard that the French drain is the only type of drain you should install for a basement dig-out.

  • You should make sure you have a clear undertanding of the scope of work and materials involved for each solution. The difference in these factors may explain the difference in the estimates.
    I used B-Dry Waterproofing for my basement a few years ago and was very happy with the results. The problem I had was a large volume of water seeping in through the corner of the basement bathroom during heavy rain storms. The first consult I got was from Mid-Atlantic Waterproofing. They wanted to install a trench drainage system around the walls of the entire basement. Corrugated PVC pipe with holes in it. When B-Dry looked at the problem they told me I only needed a drainage system along the back wall, not along every wall of the basement. And they used metal drains with large holes that don’t get clogged with sediment like PVC tubes. The cost was about 1/2 of the first estimate.
    Waterproofing is one of those areas where there is lots of room for shadyness. You may want to get a couple more estimates and maybe checkout AngiesList or Consumercheckbook to see what people have to say about different contractors.

  • My neighbor and I solved our basement water problems by hand digging and installing a french drain, and installing better gutters to divert water away from house.

    Perhaps if that doesn’t work, just install a simple sump pump hole.

  • I feel your pain.

    For question 1) look up “All Aspects Waterproofing”. We had them take a look at our finished basement this spring. They were very informative and helpful. They also do mold remediation, if you need it. We did not get the work done yet because it is a big project, especially for finished spaces. Cost will depend on the size of the basement. Also, make sure your outdoor drainage (roof, gutters, downspounds, drains, grading, etc) are all working properly before you move forward.

    For question 2) sounds like an uphill battle that is not worth the pain. One thing we learned from our assessment is that water often does not “show up” in a basement until it is finished. Typically, basement water is caused by hydrostatic pressure. An unfinished basement, especially a dirt floor, has good pressure relief for the hydrostatic pressure, but a finished basement (without a drainage system) eliminates most of that pressure relief. This causes water to force its way up through the floor anywhere it can (along walls and that sort of thing). So, there is a chance they are telling the truth about not seeing water.

    • I second his recommendation for All Aspects, Me and my wife bought a house almost a year ago, I had to email her to see if this was her becasue this was the exact, i mean exact situation we just went through. We didn’t sue, it didn’t seem like a sure thing, too many questionable factors about whether the seller knew or not, there was no way to prove it, but we were in the house for less than a month before it flooded. But I’m writing to recommend All Aspects, they were so incredibly helpful, Tony, one of the owners, and Rusty, one of their onsite guys really know their stuff. They were always willing to explain things and were very upfront about all the costs and making sure that what we were doing (tearing up the entire perimeter of my basement) was the solution we needed. I really can’t recommend them enough with how helpful and understanding of our situation they were. And for my Home in Brookland, Single family, bought the same size as most row houses the interior system was about 7k. Good luck, I feel your pain.

  • I’d really like to know if this is the same house referenced in this comment from yesterday’s GDoN?

  • blester01

    As an architect, I do not recommend the interior drainage systems. You are just building an water barrier inside the basement foundation walls. It doesn’t really solve the problem; it just masks it.

    By allowing water to infiltrate through the wall you are: 1. allowing mold growth to continue on the inside of your home (the barriers installed are not hazmat suits); and 2. slow deterioration of the home’s foundation.

    I recommend contacting a real-estate attorney. I believe you have a good case (not only against the owners but also the contractor), the question is whether you would get proper compensation for your efforts.

  • This is one of the reasons people read this blog — it’s a good primer for home buying and ownership.

    A newly renovated home should always come with a sump pump at minimum, and IMHO also a French drain. Not that not having either is a dealbreaker — you can always figure in the cost to install and mark your offer down accordingly. But for sure, not spending a small amount of money on a sump pump after digging out a basement is a sign of amatuer work. It tells you that the flippers may have cut other corners…

    Ideally, your realtor communicates this info to the seller’s agent, when he lets him know that an offer is forthcoming… so they know why the offer is low.

  • This situation happened to me when I bought a house in Arlington in 2006. I did not have a case because the owner (who had also just renovated including new basement flooring) claimed to never have seen it. There was a sump pump in the basement that was working fine (my home inspector had checked it) but it was in one corner and didn’t solve the problem. I waited until it rained really hard and the flooring was obviously damaged, and made a claim on my homeowner’s insurance. I paid for the French drain and used B-Dry as another commenter mentioned – they were great and I highly recommend them. They installed the drain along 3 of the walls and through the middle as well. My insurance company paid for the new flooring to be installed once everything dried, although I did pay $1,000 for my deductible. The new tiles were nicer than what was already there though. It was a long process to get it all taken care of, but the floors were never wet again. Good luck!

  • Rave: renting. oh wait, wrong post…

  • WRT the drainage issue, ditto what the others have said regarding downspouts and large size gutters (and downspouts.) If you are in a rowhouse with standpipes and outdoor floor drains, make absolutely sure that those flow freely, and plumb your downspouts into them. Also (and this one may sound stupid, sorry), make sure your chimney has a cap on it that keeps water from coming down. And finally, when it is raining really hard, go outside and look at everything near you- not only your water managament devices but also your neighbors. Some of your problems may come from next door.

  • don’t waste your time suing. get your basement fixed and move on with your life. basements leak unless they have some kind of sump pump and drain. we used aquaguard and had excellent results. same work you are describing, trenching out a french drain and drilling a sump pump that collects the water all the way around the edges. been running for 5 years without a problem. i can’t remember exactly, but it was between $8 and 10k.

  • Same exact situation happened to us when we purchased our house last year right before Hurricane Irene, only the water was only coming in at the addition in the basement, while the 100 year old section stayed dry. Absolutely try contacting (not sueing) the seller, especially if it was a flip by a contracting company. They will likely not want to damage their reputation and you may be surprised at how much they are willing to help out. We first contacted our real estate agent just for advice and he consulted with the Long and Foster lawyers. We simply explained the situtation to the company that did the flip/sold the house and they offered to cover our cost for a sump pump and a french drain. We also re-routed the water coming off the roof away from the house. I can’t remember exactly but I think our work cost a little over $10k for sump pump, french drain, new tile and dry wall, etc. Any ways, it can never hurt to at least reach out to the seller…

  • I faced a similar situation when I moved into an 86-year-old house in Chevy Chase DC almost 10 years ago. There was no disclosure about wet basement problems from the sellers and in the first few months of our occupancy we started noticing water seepage into the basement almost every time it rained. Two and a half months after we moved in several days of heavy rain and melting snow produced severe flooding and ruined carpets (and eventually, also, a termite problem from wet baseboards). We got several estimates for an interior perimeter drainage system connected to a sump pump. We chose the mid-range price for about $6500, and it solved our problem. For the 8 additional years we owned the house we had no further problems. I believe the contractor’s name was Byrd Waterproofing, located in suburban Maryland — I’m not sure whether they’re still around. But $6500 in early 2003 translates to around $9500 or $10,000 today, I would think. I doubt you could do it for too much less, depending on the size of the area. (Our basement was 900-950 square feet.) Several people on our block had told us that with proper landscaping around the house they had been able to avoid that kind of expenditure, but they all seemed to still have occasional water seepage problems to contend with. We didn’t want to take that chance, since we frequently used the basement and had computer equipment and an “entertainment” center there, so we opted for the more expensive solution. As to legal action, we were advised by attorneys that it was probably not worth it to sue unless the damages totalled $15,000-$20,000. It didn’t seem fair, but we accepted the loss, wrote to the sellers demanding reimbursement (they never responded, of course) and moved on. Good luck.

  • I have a neighbor with the same issue near H street NE. I feel terrible for her. I actually had a contract on her house but backed off after inspection because my inspector caught a concern with the foundation that most inspectors would have missed. The house was esthetically lovely. I gave the inspection report listing the foundation’s faults to the builder. Wasn’t it his responsibility to either remedy the concerns or pass on the list to other prospective buyers?
    I live around the block and am watching as she is now forced to address the water issue. I say “sue the bastard”!

  • I recently had one of these in-ground drainage systems installed in my 100-year-old townhouse. I only did two rooms, and the cost was $4,500, not including the cost of replacing the flooring and drywall. I had three contractors come out to provide estimates, which ranged between $4,500 and $6,500. I ended up going with FloodBusters out of Baltimore. I’m fairly happy with the product they gave me, though it’s too soon to tell for sure just how effective it truly is. I gave them a B on Angie’sList because of some scheduling issues they had and some damage they caused to existing fixtures (for which they compensated me, but still created an inconvenience).

  • I had a similar issue when I moved into my rowhouse last year. It turns out that during the reno of my home, the outside drains got clogged with construction debris. I had the traps cleared and new drains installed for about $800 and haven’t had a problem since!! I’d definitely recommend making sure that the outside is not the issue before dealing with the inside.

  • Homeowners Insurance should cover drainage overflow. It’s very important to specify “drainage overflow” as the root cause. Make a claim, cut your losses, move forward. Otherwise you’re suing someone who was just as oblivious to the drainage problem as you were, and you’ll waste a lot of time trying to sue.

  • I sued a seller in small claims court and won (I believe the amount was $7,000) – the process was easy and free (I represented myself) and if you feel you’ve been wronged and want to do something about it I think it’s a great solution.

    In terms of your case, I don’t think you have any grounds to win. Highly unlikely, but a water main could have recently broken and caused the added water, in that scenario it would actually be unethical to sue. Point being, there is no way to prove negligence unless there was a gaurantee in the contract that the basement would be leak free for some period of time. Who knows, maybe the seller has done this to several buyers and the judge will do something for you. Send a few reasonable requests to the seller, maybe they’ll settle, at least you are a pain in the ass to them for a little while and they have to show up in court.

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