Q. We found a home after searching for months, and it has a lot of violations. The owner says it’s “as is” and will not take care of the violations before we take the house. One of the violations is for a finished basement we would like to put two bedrooms in, and a kitchen for when we entertain. Another is for a fence that our new survey says is 1½ feet into the property, which our attorney says is complicated because the neighbor, whom we have never met, might not be so responsive to giving back the property. We really have no choice, since we’re already in contract, but does this sound like the big problem our lawyer says it is?
A. First, I’m impressed that your lawyer is concerned that the issues you described are complicated. I’m used to everyone who doesn’t regularly address plans and applications having a simplistic view of the process. It isn’t uncommon for owners asking building departments or their lawyers about what is needed and then telling me they only need a “sketch” to make an application. The word sketch makes the whole issue sound simpler, faster and cheaper, but is far from the reality. If a sketch were provided, it would only be for something like a fence permit, where some building departments let the owner write on their property survey.
What the building department forgets to tell you is that surveys are legal documents that usually have a statement on them that it’s illegal to alter them. I’m sure surveyors wouldn’t include that statement if they didn’t mean it, but that statement is all too often completely ignored.
Your attorney is correct that even moving a fence so the survey shows the fence on the property line is complicated. I rarely hear of neighbors volunteering to move a fence that has been there for many years. It usually sets up a bad relationship when new neighbors move in and start asking to up-heave their neighbor’s lives.
Finished basements are no less of a dilemma, since your municipality, like most, won’t allow bedrooms or kitchens in basements. Many people put these rooms in, waiting to see if anyone ever says a word, which is why I have to tell people their neighbors up and down the street may have a kitchen and bedrooms in the basement, but none of them are actually legal. I know that isn’t what you wanted to hear, especially since you felt the pressure to go into a contract for the house.
I’ve often said to people buying a house that I wish it was part of the transaction, as common as a home inspection, often called an “engineer’s report” (even though most people inspecting the house aren’t engineers), that someone with code and zoning knowledge should examine the premises and survey to address potential problems before you go into contract. Good luck!
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