From the Forum – Digging out Basement Next Door – What do we need to know/do?

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Digging out Basement Next Door – What do we need to know/do?:

“The rowhouse next to us was recently purchased by a group that is renovating and flipping it. Upon closing they immediately got to work, and we could see that they were digging massive amounts of dirt out of the basement. Long story short, they received a stop work order two days after beginning. Fast forward almost a week later, and we received a note in our mailbox that they need to meet with us to sign paperwork for underpinning the basement next door.

We’ve met one of the guys from next door once and found out this is their first home in DC. It appears they’ve mostly done work out in Chantilly, VA. I think it’s fairly safe to assume this is their first ever basement dig out. He also mentioned they’d be done in 2 months, which from what I can tell about both gut renovations and especially full basement dig outs seems extremely ambitious/naive. In addition, their first impressions haven’t been stellar. They don’t have business cards, and they leave sloppy hand written notes in our mailbox. On one, the email address given had the guy’s last name spelled incorrectly. I only figured out it was wrong by cross referencing with the previous note they sent.

We’ll probably be meeting up with them in the next day or two about the paperwork, which we don’t intend to just glance at and sign. We’re doing some research, but does anyone have experience with this and have advice about what we need to know, can ask, should look out for, etc… Understandably, I think, we’re pretty concerned about the lack of experience and knowledge of the people working next door and want to make sure we’re both safe and looking out for signs of problems.”

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25 Comment

  • I would contact your Home Owners Insurance company, and see what they say.

  • The rowhouse across the alley from me was condemned and torn down because of similar basement excavation work that was being done on the neighboring house. Basically, the party wall collapsed, and it was a miracle that no one was hurt or injured. It took my neighbor more than two years to get her house rebuilt after fighting with the various insurance insurance companies involved. My takeaway from that was to very wary of any excavation work involving a DC rowhouse. At a minimum, you should demand an independent engineering opinion about whether this work should go forward at all. I would also demand additional insured coverage on all of their insurance, and maybe even a separate indemnity agreement or surety bond. This situation is no joke, and you need to do everything you can to protect yourself against the worst-case scenario.

    • You don’t have any right to most of these things. Your neighbors can dig out their basement as a matter of right. This typically involves under-pinning the footer underneath the party wall to gain the necessary height and lower the floor. This is very common practice in DC and is safe IF done properly.

      To be clear, they do not need your permission to proceed with this work — they only need to notify you (30 days) that the work is going to occur by sending/giving you a copy of the Underpinning Notification Form (See

      It is in your best interest to sign the notification form and allow them to access your property to photograph the existing conditions. You should also photograph your own property so you can prove later that the underpinning was the cause of any future damage. If you do not grant permission, the duty and expense shifts to YOU (the neighbor) to safeguard your own property.

      Note that you do have the right to demand to see the plans, at which point you can confirm that the work they are doing corresponds with the plans and call DCRA on them if it doesn’t. You can also see who the structural engineer is who stamped the plans.

      Based on your original post, it sounds like these guys don’t know what they’re doing — I would definitely watch them like a hawk. With underpinning, the most important thing is that they stick to the underpinning sequence specified in the plans and don’t undermine too much of the foundation at once. If you really want to be safe, inspect your neighbor’s property periodically with a structural engineer of your choosing (and at your expense) to make sure they are proceeding according to their plans/permits.

  • Don’t sign it.

    • If you do not sign the underpinning notification letter (which is I’m certain what they are meeting with you about) the burden shifts from them to YOU to protect your property. The letter does not give them permission — it just asks as notification. They don’t need neighbor permission (but they do need to give 30-days notice).

  • Not knowing too much about the actual engineering needed, i totally agree that having a professional approve their plans seems like a no-brainer.

    I think that it’d be worth $500 or $1000 to have a knowledgeable lawyer on your side looking over this stuff too.

  • Don’t sign any paperwork until you’ve:

    1. Talked to your insurance company and had them look over your policy and the contractor’s insurance.
    2. Had a licensed engineer that you hired look over their scope of work and plans. Pick and pay for the engineer yourself, but have the contractor reimburse you.
    3. Have the contractor set up an escrow account that you can access to cover damages. This should be in the $50-100k range.

    Reputable contractors do these things. Guys who have no idea what they are doing will stop talking to you when you mention these items.

    • You have no legal right to 2 or 3 as the neighbor. 1 is also questionable. You can certainly check to see if the contractor is properly licensed in DC (which carries with it insurance and bond requirements, I believe).

    • Umm. Unlikely. No contractor is going to put up 100k in an escrow account just bc you ask them to.

    • Is #3 a joke? Put aside $100,000 or I’m not going to let you do something that I have no right to prevent you from doing. Great strategy. You sound exciteable and probably shouldn’t be giving advice over the internet.

    • Hilarious advice

    • Per District law, contractors are required to post a surety bond and performance bond in order to do work in the city. For projects costing more than $25,000 but less than $1,000,000 in total, the performance bond amount shall be half of the work order/contract price.

      Therefore contractors are only required to post a surety bond of $50,000 if they are working on a $100,000 project (almost certainly not this case).

  • You can check to see if they have a permit to do underpinning at; click on online services tab and then find link to “check permit status”. They are also required to have you sign a DCRA form that gives them access to your property to make it safe and it also makes them responsible for any damages; if you sign “no” to this then you are responsible for any damages. It is sort of a catch 22. But check the permit status regularly and call dCRA if they do not have the permit issued but you see work going on. For underpinning they will have to have a structural engineer design the work to be done — you are supposed to get a copy of the engineer’s plans.

  • You are the neighbor from hell, but you’re doing exactly what I would do. Well done and dont let them push you around! (but recognize that a nightmarish year of development will be worth it in the long run)

  • If you can get a structural engineer to go to this meeting together and have them look at the plans. Definitely see if the plans at least are legit and done by someone who knows WTF they are doing.

  • I’m currently planning on doing a basement digout in my own house. So far the permits have been with DCRA for months under review. If they started that quick, they probably haven’t gotten any permits. You can easily check using these two websites.

    See if they have a pending permit:

    See if they were issued a permit:

  • Under-pinning along party walls is an expensive and time consuming job. If done incorrectly or badly can cause significant damage to the adjacent homes that share the load baring party wall. Permits are a must and required a license structural engineer to sign you plans.
    We dug out our basement and we did everything as instructed by the Homeowners Center at DCRA office. If I remember correctly once our permits has been submitted we had to notify our adjacent neighbors and they had 30-45 days so respond if they where for or against our basement. I also remember it took awhile for the final plans to be approved and we never had to get our neighbors approval or signatures. If they are asking for yours I would take this as a giant RED FLAG!
    Take good photos of the work being done and contact DCRA and visit Homeowners center.

  • Ok don’t panic. Call 311 and ask for contact info for DCRA. Also report what you believe to be unsafe and possibly work that is being done without the proper permits. An inspector should come out within 24 hrs. Good luck and stay on top of this!!!!!

  • Four years ago I had my 1910 three story above grade row house dug out and underpinned. The details appeared here in POP post I have two neighbors who were requested to sign off on the project. One did. One did not. Having one not sign simply meant that we had to wait approximately 30 days according to DCRA’s timetable. We did have a structural engineer and a licensed contractor. It was a fully approved DCRA job. The process went very well. We did not have to hire an attorney or create an escrow account. The project was done as a “matter of right” of the property owner.

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