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Dear PoPville – Can I pursue legal action against the house flipper?

by Prince Of Petworth April 16, 2013 at 2:30 pm 58 Comments

Photo by PoPville flickr user pablo.raw

Dear PoPville,

My husband and I bought our row house in the H Street area almost one year ago. The house had been renovated / flipped back in 2001.

We decided to update the kitchen now, so we purchased our cabinets and materials and hired a contractor. To save some money, we took out the existing cabinets ourselves. As you can imagine, the kitchen is a mess. Not only do we have mold damage on the drywall, pretty much all of the wiring/electrical is not up to code. The stove was hard-wired into the wall, the cabinets were hung with drywall hooks (not in the studs), there were “man-made” extension cords, and the washing machine was somehow rigged to plug into a 3- prong outlet that shouldn’t have been. In addition, the contractor found termite damage under one of the cabinets (we had a termite inspection, but my understanding is that hidden areas aren’t covered).

My question is, as a homeowner, do I have any recourse to the contractor/company who renovated the house back in 2001? Most of what they put in was not allowed per code, and now I’m paying my contractor to tear out all of the drywall to fix everything. Has anyone dealt with a situation like this? Did you pursue legal action against the flipper?

  • sbc

    Don’t know what the statute of limitations is but you may well be past it.

    The DC Bar Pro Bono Program has a free monthly advice and referral clinic if you want to check with a lawyer: http://www.dcbar.org/for_lawyers/pro_bono/about_the_program/serving_the_community/advice.cfm#1

  • Anonymous

    I wouldn’t recommend your home inspector to anyone….seems like he didn’t do his job…

  • Anony

    I would seriously consider contacting a lawyer. It sounds like they actively concealed known problems with the house. But, it’s hard to tell if what they did merits a lawsuit based on your statements alone.

    A lawyer could probably look at the situation with a cool head and give you some sound advice beyond the actual letter of law (i.e., the practicalities of the situation, such as costs vs. potential damages, likelihood of success, etc.).

  • I’m no legal expert, but I would guess you lose the right to pursue legal action after you do the inspection and everything else during the closing process.

    Also, although this sounds like a bad situation, since you’re already redoing your kitchen, you probably would have had to take a lot of similar steps regardless of the shoddy work the previous flipper did. For example, I don’t know how your contractor planned on installing your cabinets, but I would think he would have had to do some replacement to the drywall and use his own studs. When we had our kitchen redone last year, it was simply part of the process for our contractor to redo all the drywall, add in new electrical sockets, etc.

    To me, it seems like your contractor may be trying to charge you for things he should have been expected to include in your original contract (and that you should be negotiating with him, rather than the flipper from 11 years ago), but I’m not sure what’s in your reno contract.

    • ah

      +1 to pretty much all of this.

      In addition, the work that needs to be redone (or done properly) sounds like it will be less expensive than hiring a lawyer to pursue a case that is likely to be dismissed pretty quickly. Drywall and wiring, while not cheap, are also not break-the-bank expensive. Termite damage you never know, but you also don’t know if it occurred in the 12 years since the renovations were done. Get over the anger at being cheated and put the money towards making good-quality renovations rather than suing just to get back the money you owe the lawyer.

  • Marcus Aurelius

    Maybe I am missing something in your post. But the way I read it, your claim, if any, is not against the contractor who “renovated” the place 12 years ago, it is against the seller who sold you the place last year. And that contractor did not owe you any duty to do good work; that duty was owed to whoever hired him or her 12 years ago. So I don’t see how you could recover against the contractor anyway.

    • Billy

      Along the same lines as Marcus, I don’t think you can “go after” the contractor fromm 12 years ago. But I’d imagine there could be some recourse towards your inspector or possibly the seller if they did not disclose any information.

      Anony provides good advice, though. Recommend contacting a lawyer who deals with construction and real estate and get their feedback.

    • 23 years ago work wasn’t done by contractors, it was probably totally done by handymen who had no clue of what they were doing as long as it didn’t burn or break. That’s so long ago I think that it would be hopeless. buyers be ware, get a good inspection and learn what to look for before buying!

  • Joker

    Ahh…the problems of buying flipped houses.

    The direct answer to your question is no. There is no recourse for you against the company/person who flipped the house in 2001. It comes with the territory of buying into a market that has been and continues to be a house flippers paradise. The onus is on you, if you care to research the permits, or to get a detailed home inspection. If you were the original owner after the flip, maybe you could go after the flipper, but there are time limitations on that and 12 years is long past that limit.

    Termites aren’t anyones fault and can show up at any time, that certinaly isn’t the flilpper fault.

    But you also have to be careful in believing a contractor who simply tells you “something isn’t to code”. Verify it first.

    For example, the NEC certainly allows direct wired stoves. Whirlpool has a couple of lines of them, and the built in wall ovens in most applications are direct wired. Absent any other information, he is pulling your leg with that one.

    Mold damage? How is that indicative of poor workmanship 12 years ago? It doesn’t sound from your description that the walls have been full of it for more than a decade. Find where the moisture is getting in (leaky roof, leaky pipe?) and fix it. With a couple of hurricanes and an earthquake the past couple of years, houses shift, the moisture barrier broken, it could come from anything.

    One question is, why none of the offending issues were reflected in your home inspection when you bought the place a year ago?

    Lastly, not having much faith in DCRA to perform quality inspections, they did atleast take place. Anything overtly offensive would “likely” have been caught during your rough in and final inspections. There is a big difference between performing work not to code, and just being a sloppy and indiferent profiteer. This guy sounds like latter.

    I am sorry, but there is no recourse for you.

    Welcome to homeownership.

    • OP

      To clarify, I wasn’t blaming the mold or termites on the flipper, since these things just happen – I was providing it as an example of what I’m dealing with. The big issue is the electrical work. The stove was hard-wired in a do-it-yourself fashion, meaning two wires were folded and taped together with electrical tape. There’s no way that’s supposed to be like that. Electrical outlets have no junction boxes, extension cords were hand-made and taped together, etc. There’s no way it would have passed an electrical inspection, which is my issue.

    • SF

      Excellent comment, and while I know it sounds unbearable, “Welcome to home ownership” definitely applies here.

      I’m not interested in flipped houses for this reason exactly. Give me plaster walls and old floors any day. I have a lot more faith in a house that has a lot of the original work and has been carefully updated by a homeowner than some of these horrendous flip jobs.

      At least you can do it right now. If nothing had been updated, you’d probably be ripping out a bunch of hundred year-old stuff (cast pipes, electrical, etc) anyway.

      • TakomaNick


        Flips are terrible.

      • anon

        The issue is that unless you have an all cash offer or are extremely wealthy flip jobs dominate the market. The flippers have the cash to sweep original homes up.

        There are some very, very poor renovators out there, but I think people overestimate this and it’s all “Flippers are terrible, it’s all crappy work!”. The best, and I mean BEST, thing you can do when looking at a house is to pull the permits that date from the time of renovation. If you don’t see one in there for structural, electrical and plumbing walk away if you don’t get a reasonable answer.

        And about old house work always being better … well, not always. The last people to touch our house did some real head-scratching stuff (really, some of the fixes they pulled required MORE work to do it wrong!), but hands down the most dangerous structural and electrical work I’ve uncovered was undoubtedly done a long time ago (pre-1950s by my guess). There were lazy, unscrupulous people back then, too.

    • Trinidaddio

      WRONG! All of these people have no idea what they’re talking about. Unless you have personal experience to share where you lost legal pursuit, or you are an experienced real estate lawyer, you shouldn’t be writing about this. It’s called, “latent defects” in lawyer speak and you may have a case. You should read your contract carefully, especially in the disclosures section. Make sure you didn’t purchase the property, “As-is”. Do yourself a favor and get a consultation with a good lawyer. I can recommend you one. Don’t let the flipper get away with this one and start taking pictures! You’ll need them to win!

      • SF

        You really think they are going to get a lawyer to pursue a twelve year-old flip job, after they had their inspection and there has been another owner? Get real.

        • anon

          This. There is an very small chance that the money spent on a lawyer would not exceed the money needed to just pay for the fixes.

      • Anonymous

        Mostly all residential transactions in DC are “as is”.

    • kck

      To be clear, the NEC allows hard wiring of ranges, but with restrictions.

      2011 NEC Article 422.31(B) requires lockable breakers or that the panel is in sight of the appliance.

      Article 400 & 422 requires strain relief and approved cable.

      IRC E4101 also could also be argued for supporting plugs.

  • Original Poster

    OP here – by way of background, an investment company purchased my home in 2001 at which point they either did the work themselves or hired a contractor to flip it. The house was resold approx. 5 months later to a person, who then sold it 6 years later in 2007. We bought it from the people who owned it since ’07, and since the kitchen was redone during the flip, they couldn’t have known about the issues. Also, everything we’ve found was behind the cabinets, so the home inspector we hired couldn’t have seen it.
    The issue I see is that clearly there are major code violations and no city inspectors were part of the original flip (presumably, or it would never have passed the electrical inspection). That’s why I want to find out if I have any rights to pursue the person who did the shoddy work to begin with. I appreciate any insight – it doesn’t seem right to me that you can do illegal work on a house and have no repercussions…

    • anon

      As Joker said: drop it. You aren’t doing yourself any favors getting worked up about this. Since your renovation is taking everything back to the studs anyway, how much extra work/$$$ is repairing the items in question costing you? How much do you think it would cost you in lawyer fees (not to mention your time) to pursue this to a lawsuit and come out victorious? I’m guessing the answer to the former is much, much less than the potential answer to the latter. That doesn’t even count that fact that you have zero standing to prove that termite/mold problems pre-date your ownership if they didn’t show up in an inspection.

      Chalk it up to the fun of home ownership! I always budget 10-20% more for any work I’m doing on my house. After 80+ years of unpermitted and shoddy renovations I’m constantly amazed at some of the s#%$ I find behind the walls. Good luck!

      • Anonymous

        I just opened a wall in a bathroom to fix a vent pipe that had cracked. I found old winter jackets used for insulation. Maybe I should sue REI or North Face?

    • J

      Sorry that this happened to you. Not an expert on real estate law, but, depending on your contract, you may have had a case if the person you bought the house from had done the shoddy work (and thus had actual or constructive knowledge of the violations) or if you had hired the contractor.

      You have no privity of contract with the flipper, nor the owner at the time. Therefore, they have no obligation or duty to you. That said, it’s not a bad idea to check in with an experienced real estate lawyer just in case you have a couple options at your disposal.

    • jerseygirl

      i’m not a lawyer, but i don’t believe you have any recourse unless permits were filed and somehow the work was still not done up to snuff. the onus is on you to find out the reno hx of the house, and see what, if any, permits were filed.

      when i bought my place, i knew that the furnace had been replaced in 2007, so i went and got the city records to see if it had all been permited. because it was all permited and inspected, if later on it turns out that the work was not actually done correctly, i could potentiially have more of a claim. if no permits were pulled, and then i assumed the risk that the work may or may not have been done up to code.

  • While there may be some flip jobs that are done well, I am seriously skeptical of them. Sorry you are going through this— It would be interesting to try to find out who did it and what other properties they flipped….

  • Oh, man. Love to get in on this only to embarrass whomever flipped my house back in 2007. It’s some really shitty work all around. I pretty much knew what I was getting into.

    Home inspector was generally useless in my case. If it’s not in the wide open, they can’t see what’s going on. Things were purposefully covered up so the inspector couldnt see.

  • CoHi

    Yes, this happened to me. I spoke with a lawyer who informed me that DC real estate law includes “Buyer Beware” provisions which means if defects are not disclosed by the seller or agents, they are not liable for anything. I then inquired about my inspection company and learned that I most likely signed a liability waiver so they are off the hook. So I had to bite the bullet and gut and redo the house at enormous expense.


    • Anonymous

      Yeah, ’cause shoddy construction doesn’t happen outside of DC.

      • Anonymous

        I can’t think of anywhere else where the market is dominated by flips. Just look at the sales record on listings around here. Most likely the property was purchased 6 months prior at a fraction of the list price. I bet property that owners actually lived in for at least several years is a commodity in very short supply.

        • Anonymous

          It’s not just flips. New construction (especially anything built during the housing bubble) is often poorly done. And that’s abundant outside of the city.

  • buyer

    Who was the flipper?

  • it goes with the territory unfortunately. We bought our house in 2010 and have encounted numerous issues that we’ve had to repair on our own dime. It’s unfortunate as they used high end products but low quality workmanship (i.e. shower had regular dry wall – which is something an inspector would never be able to determine).

  • Anonymous

    Kinda curious if the OP pulled permits and is planning to have the required inspections.

  • MikeinDC

    Hold up on those “major code violations” accusations because that’s assuming today’s violation was also yesteryear’s. And that is certainly not the case especially in DC. The code changes yearly so what was acceptable last year, is now a violation. Or was and now not. Every house in DC has some code violations.

    I don’t think you have any recourse with the ’01 contractor or flipper. And it’s debatable whether you’d like to lean on your home inspector because mold that significant would also show signs elsewhere. (Unless covered up by the sellers?)

    I don’t agree you have a bad/exploitative contractor, but you may want to get other estimates if the job has expanded in scope. New challenges, new perspectives. No contractor should ever feel like they have a blank check.

    At some point, this place needs to become not someone else’s pile of mistakes but a home which you choose to improve to your standards in spite of its past neglect.

  • Cost of litigation versus cost of repairs. Unless the cost of repairs is massive (in addition to your planned remodel) I say its not worth it to pursue – as even if you win, could you collect from the liable parties?

    What I would do is inspect the heck out of your house to ensure that all other wiring, plumbing and other systems were installed correctly.

    • anon

      This. In the highly unlikely event you were awarded a judgment that exceeded your legal expenses, you then have to get them to actually pay it. And chances are the contractor was set up as a business they could easily close down and then open up with a new name to avoid liability. I would only pursue a lawsuit if the alternative was total financial ruin. And even then it wouldn’t be a clear choice. Sorry this happened but like others said, almost every house had hidden issues like these. Its an unfortunate fact of home ownership.

  • OP

    I appreciate the constructive feedback. I think I’m going to contact the DCRA tomorrow (when they reopen) to see if they have any advice. In response to any comments about hiring a lawyer, I don’t want to go that route since ultimately, I’ll end up spending more in fees. I just want to see if there’s a way to hold someone accountable for doing illegal work.

    I’ll follow up here tomorrow for anyone who’s interested with what I find out from DCRA.

    • Anonymous

      I understand your frustration, and not to put too fine a point on it, but you are wasting your time trying to hold the flipper accountable here. How do you intend to hold the flipper accountable outside the legal system — having DCRA require him to fix the work? That’s not going to happen. Do you even know who the flipper was? Did he/she hire a contractor to do the work? Did the contractor hire a sub? And what good is looking at the permits going to do you now, especially when you could have looked at them before buying the home? I’m not saying it’s right that flippers can get away with stuff like this, but the better move here is to fix things now and chalk this up as a learning experience. Btw, I’m a real estate lawyer and a home owner in DC who experienced similar problems when purchasing my first home recently. Live and learn.

    • Do NOT waste one minute with DCRA. Seriously – they are barely functional in current business, and can’t even access records more than 5 years old. Believe me – I’m going through hell recently over a lost C of O for a basement apt. from only 2006. All permits, all inspections, then dropped in the void and no records that old. Went down last week – 4 hours – and felt like I was in one of those pranking TV shows.

  • Poon

    To reiterate the consensus here: no. There’s nothing you can do.

    To those who associate “flipped house” with “shithole,” I think there’s some caricature of house flippers going on. I’ve seen awesome flipped houses and I’ve seen shitty flipped houses. These problems mostly arise because flipped houses are primarily sold to first-time homeowners who generally aren’t very observant when it comes to their first ever home inspection. Believe me, I’d rather some houses in severe disrepair on my street were sold to flippers than not. They do a service by providing attractive housing to people without a ton of cash where housing is in high demand. Some of them are great, some of them suck. I think “flip” being a pejorative without exception is likely a result of the general human aversion to usury and large profits.

    Relying on a home inspector is bad news. They do their job in a few hours and aren’t really able to look past the surface. Even the best home inspector will certify a shoddy house. They’re mostly there as part of the loan process and not as a guarantee to homebuyers.

    • I must add that one of the HUGE reassurances in life is to know you have a good contractor and so I need to mention my guy – Scott Evans of “Positive Space.”

  • I should have gone to law school. $20 says when a contractor finds out his client is a lawyer, they do a decent job and don’t cut corners. Of course, you should only reveal this information after you get the estimate.

    • Anonymous


    • Anonymous

      If it’s not crystal clear from all the other comments, flippers have the legal upper hand — really the pimp hand — when it comes to the quality of their work, so it’s of almost no benefit to the purchaser / homeowner to be a lawyer. Your comment helped solidify my belief — based on your many other comments on this website — that you have a childishly simplistic view of how things actually work in the world.

      • You mad, bro?

        I wasn’t talking about flippers, but GC’s that you personally hire. If I’m a GC, the threat of a nearly cost-free lawsuit would pretty quickly align my interests with my clients’. But thanks for playing, Anonymous.

        • Anonymous

          Ha! What a nonsensical response. There is no functional difference between a flipper and a GC, at least not for the purposes of what you were saying, but thanks for trying to make a distinction. And alignment of interests? Really? Do you even know what that means? Fearing someone dies not mean your interests are aligned with them. Between your misuse of that term and your pedantic moniker, I’m guessing your a twenty-something with a bachelor’s degree in international relations from some mid-tier liberal arts college. Or more simply put: you aren’t that bright. Thanks for playing, though.

          • SF

            Aww look guys, the puppies are roughhousing!

          • Love the guys who feel the need to show how much above other people they feel they are by throwing around a ton of 3 and 4 syllable words and using cheap insults to show, again, how much above you they think they are.

            Newsflash, you also are writing on a neighborhood blog pal.

            Also, wrong. You have a lot more recourse against a GC who you personally hire to do work on your own home than you do against a company who flipped a home you bought in an as-is transaction. Try again.

          • Anonymous

            I will try to respond without using those pesky three or four sound words. It makes no change if we are talking about GC’s or flippers; both have the upper hand over home owners when it comes to house fixes, and working for a lawyer means nothing to either of them. He can still put a lien on your house if you don’t pay him what he says you owe him. That might not be a bad thing really, but that’s not the point of this topic. Have you ever tried to threaten any person by telling thm you are a lawyer, more so in a place with as many lawyers as this city. They would laugh in your face. Let me know if I need to re do this in one sound words. Thanks, man.

  • Anonymous

    Unbelievably bad work by the guys who flipped my place. Their day laborers couldn’t even hang a door straight to save their lives. But I still got it cheap, and wiith the intention of improving things myself. When the shower stalls in the remodeled bathrooms started to crack at the seams, I got my opportunity to do this. On the bright side, if anyone needs advice for how to repair grout damage due to settlement, ask away. I’m an expert at this point.

  • Anon

    Have you ever watched property brothers? Where people buy old homes to renovate and turn into their dream home. Quite a bit of the time, they run into problems like that, where previous owners cut corners, did something wrong, left something out, etc and the new home owners are forced to pay for the repairs themselves.

  • cahbf

    Longtime lawyer here. When a friend asks me this question (can I sue), I usually explain that they are in for $15-20k MINIMUM, with a 50% chance of winning, and fees are generaly not recoverable. Which means is you win, you are probably still a loser. THere, we don’t need to do the actual analysis.

    THe other problem here is that you are renovating anyway, so what are your damages? It’s the incremental cost of doing it right, not your total reno cost, or some mystical number you think is what’s necessary to punish the person. (No, you’re not getting punitives here). My guess is it’s 10% of whatever you’re spending no to renovate.

    Litigation sucks, the other side isn’t going to just agree they did a shitty job; they will either not remember or have some plausible excuse which will require you, having the burden of proof, to disprove. Likely, they will blame the previous owner, who you wil have to find, serve with process, depose, call to trial, etc. (By the way, a super-cheap deposition is $5k.) All this proof is accomplished with an expert, and experts aren’t cheap.

    All of this is to say – cut your losses, move on. Take it frorm an extremely practical lawyer with a ton (20+ years) of actual litigaiton experience.

  • T

    I live in a Wardman in Columbia Heights. The building is 106-years-old, yes, but it really does have some issues (these closets are only a walkin for tiny children!) that are fundamentally due to the original design. Does anyone know if I could sue Wardman’s heirs? Or if he has a foundation I could go after?

    • Anonymous

      Skip suing Wardman. You should file against the trees since clearly they were not big enough.

  • sounds like you got served and are still in shock over it

  • wylie coyote

    Don’t come to the Internet for legal advice. Hire a lawyer. Everyone here who isn’t a lawyer is just guessing.

  • Mari

    Yes, move on.
    When I did major reno work after 6 years of ownership my contractor kept finding crap, some of it dating back to the evil contractor in the flip, some of it from what might have been to reno in the 80s, and rest chalked up to age. It is a 130ish year old house. The evil contractor was the last to work on the house and he hid a lot of dangerous stuff behind drywall. Suing him would have been worthless. Can’t get blood from a stone, can’t get money from a broke ass idiot. I get that you’re angry and hunger for justice, but you ain’t gonna get it. Just steel yourself for some fresh new horror when the walls are pulled back to the studs, and factor in the new cost to get it done right.
    The only thing that can be done is to try, try to warn sparkly eyed 1st time homebuyers about this sort of thing and try, oh do try, to get them to bother pulling the permits and inspections for the house they’ve fallen head over heels for.

  • dolly

    I’m a lawyer, no expert on real estate law but I’ve handled a few pro bono cases dealing with consumer fraud. One I just finished up a few months ago went something like this: Woman hires contractor to renovate, pays him, he “renovates” and its all really crappy. We sue him in DC district court, takes months for a hearing to get scheduled…then he never shows. Another hearing scheduled. No show again. So we get a default judgment (yay!), except we have to go back to court again MONTHS later for an evidence hearing. The good news? Client won about $60k in damages. Bad news (for client and for you): Client has no way to enforce the judgment (we filed a lien on some business property but that’ll never happen), this took me (the pro bono attorney) about 200 hours over the course of a year and a half from filing to judgment, and this client actually hired the contractor herself so could prove first hand who/what/whys of the shoddy work.

    So point is, even if you have a solid case like my client did, it takes forever to litigate, will cost you a TON in legal fees (unless you get a pro bono attorney, but if you live above the poverty line you likely won’t qualify for free legal services in DC), and even if you pay the cost of the lawyer and win? Highly unlikely you will enforce the judgment.

  • We had the same problem with our house. It was flipped by a local company (who shall remain nameless, but I hope they rot), and immediately after purchase we found so many things done wrong or dangerously. There was nothing we could do about it though and our realtor had no idea what to do either. I suppose we also had an incompetent home inspector.

    Interestingly, the flipping company sent us a form letter asking us if we would be interested in selling and using them as a realtor (they do realty stuff too). Frankly, I would rather burn the house to the ground than let them lay a finger on it again.

    Anyway, we moved past it, and we have fixed all the issues ourselves. It’s nice to know that things have been done right now, and it makes the house feel more like my own.


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