What to do about defects in `newly renovated' home


February 20, 2005

In June 2004, I purchased a 500-square-foot cottage vacation home in St. Michael's on the Eastern Shore. The house was sold as "newly renovated," but I've realized that the previous owner did cosmetic, shoddy renovation work. The most egregious discovery is that she installed a natural gas hot water heater, when my house uses propane gas. When I started to see poofs of flame and soot around the tank, I called my propane gas guy. He told me that I was lucky that my house didn't burn down and that the gas company did not install the line or heater. I am surprised that my home inspector did not catch this in June.

In addition, the previous owner buried rolls of Fiberglas insulation in the yard, put all excess building materials in the crawlspace under the house, left a spaghetti mess of electrical wiring from the 1930s in the attic, installed kitchen cabinets over a large hole in the floor (so they filled up with mildew and mold and I had to rip them out), neglected to install a water shutoff valve, left a leaking water drain pipe under the house, installed drywall such that the tape shows through on every wall, neglected to seal the kitchen tile floor, didn't prime the outside of the house and it's unclear if she used outdoor paint.

Do I have any recourse?

It seems likely that the natural gas hot water heater was installed and connected without a proper permit. You should check with the Talbot County building permit office to verify whether a permit was required and obtained.

The prior owner represented that the cottage was "newly renovated." These renovations, including the installation of a new hot water heater, should have complied with the county building code. The local building inspector, or your own plumber, should be able to give you a letter confirming that it is "against code" to connect a natural gas hot water heater to propane gas.

The seller's failure to obtain a proper permit or to comply with the county building code supplies a legal basis for recourse. If the hot water heater was installed by a third party, you also have a potential claim against the installer for negligence. Your best bet is to file a small claim (under $5,000) in the District Court of Maryland for Talbot County, where your property is located.

Your other complaints can be included in the small claim action. Some of these deficiencies could have been discovered in a pre-settlement walk-through of the property. Your contract of sale may have language relating to the condition of the property, which may bear on the outcome of your claims.

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