A Baltimore homeowner wrote in recently with an attention-grabbing subject line: "My house is going to ruin my life, and the city let it happen."
Mike says he bought his Pigtown rowhome four years ago and quickly discovered the rehab work done by the seller left a lot to be desired.
"Within 6 months of purchase I had a major roof leak, and severe termite damage which cost me upwards of $15,000 to repair," he writes.
Naturally he's frustrated with the seller, who appeared to be an inexperienced real estate investor. (Mike says he got a court judgment against the guy but hasn't been able to collect.)
But why the city? Because some of the work -- including a rear addition -- failed inspection when city permits staff checked on it, something he wishes he knew before he signed on the dotted line. And a rooftop deck was built without a permit at all.
"At no time was I made aware of these facts, whether by the seller, his agent, or the city itself," Mike writes.
He says when he later tracked down permit information online, he found it "completely illegible."
"Nowhere does it detail which permits are open, closed, or have failed inspections," he writes. (He ended up calling the permits office for that information.)
"How can a home that contains construction that has been found to not be to code, and potentially dangerous, be sold as a primary residence? As far as I can see, my next steps are potentially going to bankrupt me. If the existing construction is still not up to code ... I will need to fund a major construction project."
He says he's afraid to go to the city for help, lest he end up with an order to fix the previous owner's mistakes immediately.
He's surely not the only homeowner in this situation, so I emailed Baltimore Housing, the city agency that includes the Office of Permits & Building Inspections, to find out if there's any assistance available -- and what buyers can do to avoid ending up in Mike's shoes.
Cheron Porter, a spokeswoman for the agency, said Mike -- and others -- can see if they qualify for rehabilitation help.
"We can look to state monies (MHRP and LHRGLP) to address code, health/safety and possible general property improvements, if the applicant qualifies and there is equity," she wrote in an email. "Otherwise, CDBG funds can correct code, health/safety, if the applicant is below 80% median income - $44,950 for a 1 person household."
Mike didn't build the rooftop deck, so he wouldn't be fined for the unpermitted construction, she said. But if it's unsafe and the city becomes aware of that fact, the agency could require him to pull it down or fix it.
"There is nothing that prevents someone from selling a property in disrepair and in general, it is best to move substandard property into the hands of someone who has the capacity to repair it," she added. "Baltimore Housing has had permit information online for more than 5 years. A potential purchaser of property could check those records."
But she acknowledged what Mike points out about the online lookup site -- it doesn't note what happened. Was the work finished? Did it pass inspection? For more details, she said, email DHCD_Permits@baltimorecity.gov.
Baltimore Housing officials say they plan to build a new workflow system that will prompt staff to automatically reinspect projects that earlier failed inspections. They believe that will make it less likely that future buyers will end up with Mike's nasty surprise.
The bottom line for buyers: Find out what work has been done on the house and go digging to see if everything's AOK permit-wise. (And try to find a top-notch home inspector who will catch shoddy work.)
Mike thinks few buyers know to go permit-hunting.
"A few of my friends have bought houses recently, and I've told each of them to check on the permits," he writes. "ALL of them look at me like a deer in the headlights."
While we're on the subject: Here's the tale of a persistent homeowner who got results after major problems with her rehabbed property.