“how does one actually, practically, protect her/his interests from damage to their home when an adjoining townhouse is being renovated?”

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Photo by PoPville flickr user Eric P.

“Dear PoPville,

A simple question: how does one actually, practically, protect her/his interests from damage to their home when an adjoining townhouse is being renovated?

I hear people say hire a lawyer, hire a structural engineer, take lots of photos. I would love to know what has been effective, and what kind of cost is associated with this.

What kind of document can a lawyer prepare regarding damage that has happened AND *potential* damage that might still happen? How much does that cost? Have people done this and used the agreement to get damage repaired?

Aren’t structural engineers expensive to have come out ? How much does that run – my assumption is $1000 or more? Do you need an engineer and a lawyer?

A home is being renovated on our block by a developer. Beginning about a month ago, there has been full demo on the interior and one whole exterior brick wall had to come down and will be rebuilt. I think there has been some basement excavation, too. I’m a few doors down, but my neighbor who lives next door to the renovation-in-process has already had some damage occur to their home from the demolition work and is afraid of what might happen in the months ahead. The developer has acknowledged the damage to-date and promised to make my neighbor whole, but there is nothing in writing. The neighbor has taken photos of the damage, but doesn’t necessarily have photos of “before,” I am not sure, but I can see where a person wouldn’t think to take the first photo until something has already happened.

How should a person protect their interest in what is likely their largest asset? I don’t know my neighbor’s financial situation, but let’s assume if one is retired and has to be careful with expenses — is it possible to protect one’s self in this situation without having to spend significant money? How does this all work in real life — beyond just saying “hire a lawyer.”

18 Comment

  • Call dcra, but get ready to lawyer up and take lots of before, during, after pictures. Sounds like they’re going permit-free. If they’re doing underpinning or anything that impacts shared elements (ie, party wall). They’re required to give notice to the neighbors and the neighbor should have done a visual inspection of the inside of the neighbors before starting work.

    http://dcra.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dcra/publication/attachments/Notification%20Form%2010-23-14.pdf

    • The developer is experienced and has permits, but I don’t know what kind of notice or inspection was done. But this is useful and I will share with my neighbor. Thanks.

  • I don’t think you CAN actually prevent damage – you can do what you and others have suggested to try to prevent it – but if those doing the work don’t care enough to prevent damage, well, you aren’t in control of their workers. So, damage may occur, and if it does, then they are responsible, which is why the focus is on documenting that damage and hiring attorneys to help make the contractor make the person whose property has been damaged whole (because do you really expect the contractor to do it without being forced to? In my mind, a contractor who cared enough to do this would be a contractor who cared enough to manage the work being done properly in the first place so as not to risk damaging adjacent property.)

    Your neighbor already has damage, and so needs to get legal advice. If your neighbor’s income is limited, there are many places to get free or low-cost legal advice. Even absent limited means, it is often possible to get an initial assessment of your options from an attorney for free (they are hoping you will then hire them.) Start with the bar association – many have a list of attorneys experienced in specific areas of law to refer you to who will make an initial assessment for a very modest charge (well under $100.) You don’t have to hire them, but you get useful information on your options. This is not an uncommon problem around here, with all the row houses, and I’m sure there are attorneys with experience with this. I’ve used the city bar referral service successfully in another city, but I haven’t used the one in DC, nor do I know if you are actually in DC. If you aren’t in DC, there are multiple possibilities – city, county and state associations – to contact to see who has a referral list with a low-cost assessment, or to see if they can point you to organizations for pro bono legal help.

  • OP here – they have demolition and building permits. Not sure if that covers removal of an entire exterior wall (it doesn’t look like the permit covers that, but I don’t know). The party wall has sustained damage though. Thanks for the comments so far. I am really interested to hear people’s ideas/experiences. I think my neighbor in question also wants to stay on good terms with the developer, so calling DCRA will feel like a v bold move probably.

  • Do not listen to anyone whose first thought is “lawyer up”. Most of these developers are professionals who have been doing this for some time. You will get more cooperation if you are cooperative.

    First, as others have mentioned, check PIVS to see whether the developer has obtained the proper permits. 95% of the time, they have. However, you are being a good citizen if you make sure the scope listed on the permit more or less matches what is actually being done. That said, don’t waste DCRA’s time by calling about out-of-scope work unless you can actually see it. They will send out inspectors, but the inspectors remember false alarms, and will be less likely to visit that property again if everything is in order during that first visit.

    Second, document the condition of your property prior to construction, if possible. Be factual and honest when claiming damages. Their attorney is probably better than yours, so you have a better chance at getting reimbursement, or even just informal favors, if you don’t overreach or make exaggerated claims. Seriously, you do not want to “lawyer up” if you can help it, and they don’t either.

    Most importantly, don’t be confrontational. Be polite and reasonable when raising these issues, and you will find that you get more attention. You will also get more in repairs or freebies if you don’t make them feel defensive. Your attitude should be that you want to work with them to protect your property, while allowing them to get their project completed.

    • Consulting with an attorney to find out about various things you can do is not “lawyering up” – that means getting an attorney and saying ‘just talk to my attorney” (which isn’t necessarily a bad idea.) But just CONSULTING with an attorney, with the developer not necessarily knowing that you have done so, so that you can take whatever actions YOURSELF that will best document and preserve your claim against the developer should the developer not make good on his promise to fix things (and I assume that many, many developers and contracts DON’T fix things, unlike the belief of the poster above) is never a bad idea.

    • If the developer or owner isn’t proactively reaching out to the neighbors and has been around, then they know the limits of the system and how to get around it. I’ve seen tons of spoken promises, but no follwup as far as written agreements. They do have a better lawyer and know these promises are meaningless, just delaying tactics. Unless you catch, record and report folks in the act or illegal demolition or construction the city just doesn’t care. As the followup said, lawyer up isn’t start suing, but know your rights. Get copies of their license and bond. Its sad, but for all the complaining in DC, its very, very developer friendly when it comes to neighbor damage.

      • My post above had two main themes. DO protect yourself by documenting your property and doing your diligence on the developer, and don’t shoot yourself in the foot by being confrontational. It surprises me that one could misinterpret that.

        Your advice is fine, but 9 times out of 10 you will waste money on attorney fees, who are incentivized to escalate situations and file paperwork. I have been a developer in the past, and my contractors have accidentally damaged (and then fixed) neighboring properties. I have also had my personal property damaged by neighboring construction. Most developers will make repairs or help you out in ways they are not legally required to, but if you come out throwing punches they will likely do the bare minimum to stay out of trouble.

  • A site visit from a structural engineer will run $300-500, depending on whether you want a written report or not. Also, since they are doing work on the party wall, as dc_anon mentioned, the developer was required to provide the neighbor with written notification and access to the plans. The neighbor should request a copy of the plans, if they haven’t already, and consult with a structural engineer.

    Small cracks and settlement in the party wall are not uncommon during underpinning of a party wall, even when the process is done correctly. That said, the developer still may be liable for fixing them on your neighbor’s side. A structural engineer can help your neighbor to determine what is and isn’t normal to expect from this type of work.

  • Folks here are going from 0 to 100mph. Have the neighbor contact the developer via email with the photos of the damage stating that they(the developer) agreed to pay for the damages per their conversation. If there is a way to take photos through a window or opening of the property under construction, have the neighbor confirm what work is taking place before accusing the developer. If they are underpinning, indicate that they did not receive a letter regarding work on their party wall. Have the developer give a timeline regarding when they will do repair work and that if that timeline is not met, the owner of the damage property can bill the developer for repair by third party for damage cause by the developer’s construction.

    I wouldn’t jump to DCRA from the start. All correspondence should be via email.

    • This is the best advice. Nobody is going to fault you for amicably documenting civil discussion in email. Everybody’s assumption that every developer is a super-villain is ridiculous. They have a job to do. Some people who do their job suck. Sometimes they don’t do their job perfectly. If you have a job, this presumably describes you too.

  • Two items of DCRA law/code that you want to read carefully and note:
    http://dcregs.dc.gov/Gateway/RuleHome.aspx?RuleNumber=12-A3307
    &
    http://dcra.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dcra/page_content/attachments/2015-01%20CC%20%28Underpinning%29.pdf

    I am having the same problem with neighboring property in Trinidad and used DC Superior Court’s mediation services – one step short of a costly lawyer & civil claim. See: http://www.dccourts.gov/internet/superior/org_multidoor/main.jsf

  • Who is the developer? I had issue with a developer 1 1/2 years ago who verbally promised to fix the damages he caused. over a year later and I was in court trying to recover the cost of repairs that I scheduled.

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