“DCRA has told us that the property line issue is a ‘civil matter’ and that there’s nothing they can do about it.”

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Photo by PoPville flickr user Claire Uziel

“Dear PoPville,

Our next door neighbors (row house in Petworth) started building an addition onto the back of their house with no permits. They are doing the work themselves. They’ve been working outside legal construction hours, including on Sundays and as late as 10:30 pm, doing loud drilling and hammering. The addition/work site is inches from our bedroom window. A stop work order was issued, but they are ignoring it and still doing construction. I’ve now noticed that the roof on the addition likely hangs over our property line (Our house has an addition in the back that is more narrow than the front of the house/property line). DCRA has told us that the property line issue is a “civil matter” and that there’s nothing they can do about it. Is this true? Do we have any recourse? Is the property line encroachment going to make it hard to eventually sell our house? Any advice would be much appreciated!”

40 Comment

  • File for a TRO/PI/Injunction to stop construction. In addition, as I recall, there is a$1000 civil penalty for violating a stop work order. I would file a formal complaint with DCRA, if they are insistent on doing nothing, call your council member. You will probably need a survey done so that you have an expert witness.

  • Complain to the DC OAG’s consumer protection hotline: 202-442-9828. They just settled a big case against a housing developer for $1.3 million that had both consumer sales issues and neighboring property line issues.

    See https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/couple-who-renovated-dc-rowhouses-agree-to-pay-13-million-to-fix-shoddy-work/2016/06/07/bb7f9ac4-2c24-11e6-9de3-6e6e7a14000c_story.html

    From what I understand, they might be investigating others. They may look into this as well if there’s violations. They presented at a housing panel and I understand they mediate consumer complaints as well.

  • I was instructed to call 911 when contractors next door were cutting concrete after hours and wouldn’t stop when I spoke with them. The police officer was very pleasant and work ceased immediately. DCRA may be able to brush you off with red tape, but I don’t think MPD appreciates repeated visits for construction noise violations.

    • I second calling 911. DCRA is inept and the inspectors are under-staffed. When there was construction outside of legal construction hour next door to me, contacting DCRA was futile but MPD came out (sometimes more than once a day) and made the contractors pack up immediately.

      • I third this. We recently dealt with illegal construction next door. They had permits, but were doing construction on Saturdays and Sundays. After several phone calls, DCRA told me I had to report it while it was happening. I explained I had called the after hours line. They said that wasn’t checked on weekends. (Then why did someone at DCRA tell me to call that when I first called about this? That’s another rant though.)
        The DCRA rep explained anyone should call 911 about possible illegal construction on weekends. I said I felt bad calling 911 just for that, but the rep I spoke to had a point. If it is illegal and something happened – and it could have been prevented – wouldn’t I wish I could have reported it? Illegal construction is illegal. The rep had another good point – if they are cutting corners on permits and hours, who knows what else they are doing that could be unsafe. For instance, the illegal construction next door to my house didn’t have an electrical permit OR demo permit, despite doing both. (!)
        Call it into 911 and report it the next time it starts and every time after that.

        • To clarify, work on Saturdays is NOT illegal construction. Same weekday hours apply to Saturdays

    • If you are doing work unpermitted, are the “legal” construction hours set out in some ordinance? I always assumed the permits dictate the work hours. Obviously there are noise ordinances outside of the construction context, but just curious with unpermitted work, what are the restrictions?

  • If it’s on your property just lean out your window with a circular or reciprocating saw and give the roof a little trim.

    **This is not legal advice.**

  • Agree with DCRat. Better that you file for a temporary retraining order/injunction now before the property is completed than a civil suit after the structure is in place.

  • I have heard DCRA say the same thing about a similar matter on my block.

    However, DCRA should enforce construction issues that don’t comply with approved plans…and surely the approved plans do not include building beyond the property line. Not sure if that argument would hold up, but maybe worth a shot.

    In my experience, DCRA will only respond to concerns if you constantly badger them — email Director Bolling, copy your council member, neighbors, other stakeholders, etc. If you can get a critical mass, they might do something about it.

    And report all illegal construction via email and phone with photos, etc as it is happening.

    • DCRA really only likes to respond to easy complaints when they know the “violator” is a decent, law-abiding person who will A. immediately fix the situation, (so DCRA can tick off some paperwork effectiveness boxes) or B. Have the resources to pay a big fine.

  • DCRA is an agency is an abject failure. It doesn’t serve its constituents, it has spawned an unseemly cottage industry of “fixers” and “consultants” to navigate its opaque bureaucracy, and it has literally killed small businesses with its delays and unclear requirements. Overhauling it should be the first priority of every elected official in DC, yet they seem preoccupied with other nonsense.

    • This is just example 2,346,946 in the past year where DCRA is ignoring their duty. Of any agency, DCRA still operates the most like it did in the good ol “Marion Barry” days of DC. It is a shocking waste of taxpayer money and time, especially for anyone who has used Arlington County, Montgomery County or FFX County’s equivalent agencies who operate like a well oiled machine in comparison.

      Of course its DCRA’s responsibility. Its in their charter, but you just got someone who didn’t feel like doing their job.

      I would document it, take daily photos of the work and keep a log of all the times you contact DCRA. If this goes to court, (which is likely), you will need all the backup you can muster.

  • Just an FYI; The council is having an oversight round table about illegal construction in July. I know after our own nightmare experience with them we’ll be preparing testimony. http://dccouncil.us/events/bcra-public-oversight-roundtable3

  • Call
    A
    Lawyer.

    And call the police (911) if they are doing construction after hours.

  • Contacting your ANC rep would be a good step as well. They tend to have more clout with the DC Government.

  • Okay, this actually happened to me. A flipper/neighbor built an addition onto my backyard. I eventually got a resolution, but it took years. Here is how it went down.

    1. It looked like their addition was on my backyard, so I spoke to the owner about it. He assured me it was not. I asked him to bring a survey attesting to that within one week.

    2. I waited one week, no survey.

    3. Thankfully, since the project WAS AT LEAST PERMITTED, they were required to file a final survey of the addition down town.

    4. I took a day off of work, went to the office of the surveyor and found it. It showed the neighbor had built over the line by at least a foot.

    5. Surveyors are very helpful people, and this is pretty much the most exciting thing that can happen during their day. They quickly got very enthusiastic about helping me. They directed me to DCRA with some forms and papers.

    6. DCRA did a whole bunch of nothing.

    7. I contacted my councilman, who said nothing could be done.

    8. After a few days, the surveyors contacted a DCRA inspector directly. Everyone seems to know each other down there.

    9. The inspector came out, took one look, and said “Damn.” He immediately started putting up a bunch of paperwork in the window. Stop-work orders, etc.

    10. The neighbor stopped working.

    11. Years passed.

    12. Eventually, DCRA started legal proceedings against the neighbor. DCRA was very nice to me, and worked with me the whole way. I was past their front-line at this point, and they understood I had a real problem. They were even, dare I say, empathetic.

    13. The neighbor settled and DCRA dropped their suit.

    So what does this mean for you? Well, if your neighbor is not permitted they probably aren’t getting the required surveys (they usually cost about $800). So my exact strategy won’t work. But the general one will. Go downtown. Ask to see the permit for your neighbor’s addition. Feign surprise when there isn’t one. Be polite. Be courteous. Ask if there is anything you can do to help. Don’t act like a NIMBY. Wander around (literally) until you find someone who cares. There are people there who care. The lady at the front desk, however, does not care. Don’t leave without at least a lead. Then wait a few days and return if you have to. It will work out, but it will be work. You’re in for a long haul. I’m sorry. But don’t stress about it too much (I definitely did at first). The law is on your side, and in the very long run that does count for a lot.

    • I forgot to mention, I did have to get a lawyer toward the end of the process. It was expensive, but I do believe I got a much better settlement because of the lawyer. He seemed to know the neighbors lawyer, and they seemed to work things out.

    • Wait so what actually happened with the addition over your property line? Was it torn down? If not, did you get monetary compensation of any kind?

      • I received compensation. It was a very large addition, so they paid out. I could have gone to trial, and maybe had it town down, but then I would be on the hook for the legal fees. My lawyer was good, but expensive.

        Let me be clear. This sort of situation is not like hitting the lottery. Ultimately, I granted the neighbor a right of way. This right of way devalued my property, since I effectively lost a chunk. The money compensated me for that loss. It was not a windfall gain. I just turned land into dollars, and moved on with my life.

        • ah

          Not questioning a decision to put it all behind you, but how complex can a trial be when someone builds on your property? What’s their defense? It can’t be – “we built it and it’s expensive to remove, so we should just be able to leave it there”.

        • What did your mortgage company do? Did you need to amend your title? This effectively gives your mortgage holder less security in the event you go into foreclosure. How did the mortgage servicer (and their lawyers) not get involved in this?

          • I don’t think the mortgagee would care, because it retains a first-lien position. The subsequent easement granted by k doesn’t matter to the mortgagee. The easement holder would have to get the mortgagee’s agreement to subordinate to the easement if the easement holder wanted priority.

          • Mr. Magoo, isn’t the property now worth less now that property was ceded to the neighbor? I would think the first lien holder of the mortgage would care about that. k received the benefit of the settlement payment, but that doesn’t compensate the first lien holder if k goes into foreclosure. The property is worth less than the first lien holder was led to believe. I don’t see a scenario in which the mortgage servicer doesn’t sign off on this.

    • Useful advice – sad but true – attitude/helpfulness at DCRA is totally hit or miss. See Stockholm syndrome.

    • I love this: “Surveyors are very helpful people, and this is pretty much the most exciting thing that can happen during their day.”

  • department of illegal construction

  • How galling that DCRA is being so deliberately unhelpful to you.
    .
    I second what others have said — call 911 when the illegal construction is happening. Talk to your ANC rep (if you haven’t already) — there are several very good ANC reps in Petworth, some of whom have prior experience in helping constituents fight illegal construction. Contact your councilmember. (Unfortunately, I hear Brandon Todd doesn’t really follow through when it comes to constituent services. All the more reason to…) Contact the at-large councilmembers — I can’t remember, but I think Elissa Silverman might have dealt with some construction-related issues. Contact Melinda Bolling, the DCRA director.
    .
    The only thing that hasn’t been mentioned (unless I missed it) is to also contact the MOCR (Mayor’s Office for Community Relations) reps for your ward. I found the MOCR reps to be surprisingly helpful when my councilmember’s constituent-services person turned out to be a complete FAIL. Your MOCR rep might be able to light a fire under DCRA to get them to take action.

  • The neighbor is taking your property.
    Don’t wait years for the city to do something, since they’ve essentially already told you they won’t do anything about it.
    Stand up for your own rights.
    Get a real estate lawyer and a surveyor.

    • I’m with you. He who hesitates is lost. Though I also like the idea of taking a saw to it. You can lawfully do it to a neighboring tree that encroaches.

  • See if your homeowners insurance will cover or hire a lawyer to handle this. You can also get the plat (survey) of your lot from the recorder of deeds, I think. The title insurance company you used when buying your house might have it too.

    • Good point on the homeowners insurance. I’d let them sic their attorneys on this.
      Do homeowners’ plans typically cover issues like this? In DC such an addendum would be be very valuable and certainly worth the slightly higher premium. Let the market and lawyers step in where DCRA and the city government utterly fails.

    • ah

      You should also consider speaking with your title insurance company. Effectively the neighbor is claiming your land as his by building on it. They should be defending against such a claim, as it not only clouds your title but also potentially impacts the holder of your mortgage, who may have less in the way of assets as collateral.

  • Hire a attorney immediately… File a lawsuit with a TRO/PI to stop the work and have the attorney file against the title of the property so it can not be sold until the lawsuit is resolved.

    You have limited options after the property is sold and or if you “allow’ this to move forward.

  • Quick question – aren’t construction containers on the street required to have signs posted? We have had many recently. The latest group has no signs posted. The public space people (who are in charge of this) say if the application is filed, the contractor does not have to post signs? What gives?

  • DCRA’s frontline staffing is atrociously incompetent. Go to DCRA in person and raise a stink until you get the back office of a manager or supervisor. As per a stop work order, once it’s posted the Police are the right people to call to enforce it.

  • The law zealously protects property rights. Sounds like you may have to sue, but if they are found to be encroaching on your property, they can be orders to tear the whole thing down. I’d get a lawyer asap!

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