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Seattle Times business reporter Elizabeth Rhodes posts the answers to your real estate questions as they pop up during the week. Join this ongoing discussion, which also features reader reaction to real-estate articles appearing throughout The Times.

Home Forum, Seattle Times, P.O. Box 1845, Seattle, WA 98111

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July 1, 2008 12:15 PM

Change in building height worries homeowner

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: The city of Anacortes wants to rezone my neighborhood to lower the maximum building height from 35 to 25 feet. Is there any precedence in Washington for this type of action where current zoning law has been in effect for 30 years and changes would benefit one group -- owners who currently have a view -- at the expense of those who planned to build above 25 feet to get a view but would now be prohibited from doing so? Are these property owners entitled to compensation for loss of property value? Is this zoning change considered a form of eminent domain, or is it just a use of "police power?"

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June 11, 2008 4:00 PM

Faulty home repair leaves owner in a quandary

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: We hired a contractor to reconstruct some exterior stairs. That contractor's foreman hired a subcontractor to do the work. It's now complete but the city building inspector won't sign off because the work isn't up to code. The sub says he did the job based on the instructions he received from the foreman and won't do any more work until we pay him for what he's done so far. There's no written contract and the foreman quit. The contractor is advising me to work something out with the subcontractor or retain another contractor to complete the work. Am I obligated legally to pay the subcontractor for the work done? I'm concerned I'll pay $3,600 for "out of code" work, then have to pay again to get what I wanted in the first place.

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December 27, 2007 9:47 AM

Rats upset new owner

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: I moved here from the Southwest last year and bought a really adorable older home. But it's turned into a nightmare because of rats in my attic. We never had rats where I came from, and just the sound of them makes me want to move out. Is it possible to reverse the sale because the sellers didn't warn me about the rats?

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November 2, 2007 7:27 AM

Deciphering a leaky roof

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q. Our roof is leaking. We have lived in the house for seven years. The neighbors tell us they thought the previous owner of the house replaced the roof shortly before putting the house on the market. "New roof" was not listed as a selling point and the home inspection report makes no judgment on its age or condition beyond it looks fine. The roofing companies that have come out to look at the roof are non-commital. How can we tell how old our roof is?

A: At this point it probably doesn't matter how old the roof is because there's probably no benefit to knowing.

Once a home sale is completed you have to sue the seller for failure to disclose a defect if you want any relief from the seller.

But that's problematic for a number of reasons.

First if the roof wasn't leaking when you bought the house, it wasn't defective then. Plus a lawsuit is expensive and hard to win if you had an inspection prior to the purchase, and your inspector didn't flag the roof as a problem.

If the seller did get a new roof, it's possible it has a warranty, but whether that warranty has expired or would even transfer to you are the questions.

If you can find the seller, you could ask. Maybe you could get lucky there.

Beyond that, there's really nothing else to do but fix the leak.

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October 19, 2007 3:00 PM

Defining who must be a contractor

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: I heard a new state law was passed this summer that requires homeowners to be general contractors if they have any work done and sell or lease the property within 12 months of the work's completion. Is this accurate?

A: Not quite, says Elaine Fischer, spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, which regulates contractors.

Rather, the new law says that if you buy a property for the purpose of fixing it up and selling it within a year, you must be registered as a contractor with L&I and be bonded. (Ditto if you buy land and put up a "spec" house.)

Fischer says the law is intended to protect consumers from amateur "flippers" who purchase a house to upgrade and sell quickly and try to do so using homeowners' exemptions.

For example, owners who do electrical repairs on their own homes are exempt from L&I contractor rules. But those who do repairs to quickly sell an investment property now are not.

A homeowner who's owned their home for more than a year doesn't have to meet the contractor registration requirement. Fischer says L&I realizes people do buy intending to live in and upgrade homes and then sell. "That's OK," she says.

Also exempt are those who buy rental properties, fix them up and then rent them.

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October 12, 2007 6:30 AM

Contractor says no contract is best

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: We're about to do our first home remodel. It's mostly cosmetic upgrades, but could run into the thousands. We've interviewed three contractors. The one we like best says we don't need a contract and suggests we hire him on a time and materials basis. He says customers usually save money this way. Is this true?

A:There's a fairly straightforward way you can answer your question. Ask the contractor for names of past clients, then ask them if his time-and-materials bill was below what other contractors had bid.

Otherwise, conventional wisdom says that contractors have the most incentive to rein in costs when they're bidding against other contractors and putting their prices into their contract.

Once they're working time and materials only, you have to ask yourself: what's their incentive for keeping costs down? They already have you as a customer.

Seattle attorney Tony Scisciani, of Scheer & Zehnder, questions working without a written contract. He says you may save money by going this route, but asks "at what expense? What else are you sacrificing?"

What makes these questions important, he says, is the nature of remodeling. Almost without question your contractor will encounter an unforeseen issue that will throw the project off somehow -- a given that contractors themselves stress.

Therefore you should "assume that it's going to take longer and be more difficult and more expensive" than expected, Scisciani advises.

While Washington courts do recognize oral contracts, a well-written contract can better help you deal with these unforeseen situations.

"The magic words for a contract are 'meeting of the minds.' If you can memorialize expectations on both sides, at least you can take comfort in knowing that if something arises you have a framework to understand what happens next," he says.

A written contract has other benefits. It doubles the time you have to file a breach of contract claim, from three years for an oral contract to six years for one that's written. It can protect warranty claims. As Scisciani points out, manufacturers usually won't honor warranties unless their products are installed according to their specifications. While you can tell your contractor to do that, writing it into a contract strengthens your position.

A written contract can also include a specific completion date (and penalties if that is not met), a payment schedule, a requirement that permits be used and an agreement of what type of materials will be used.

Finally, Scisciani stresses that any contractor your hire should be registered with the state Department of Labor and Industries and be bonded and insured.

For tips on how to protect yourself when hiring contractors, as well as to check on registration, go to this L& I Web site:

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October 4, 2007 11:01 AM

Does adding hardwood floors pay off?

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: I'm thinking of replacing my vinyl kitchen floor and the wall-to-wall carpet in the adjoining family room with hardwood. Will this pay off at resale?

A: Buyers, in general, do see hardwood floors as a plus. However there's no way to know how adding them to your particular house will affect the sales price without knowing more about your home's general condition, your neighborhood, how long you plan to stay in your home -- and how home sales are fairing at that point.

Right now, for instance, the number of for-sale homes is growing rapidly. So having new floors could be a plus that gets your home sold. But with so much competition for buyers, prices are soft and you might not get the cost of the floors back.

Additionally, you have to consider your competition. If most homes in your neighborhood already have hardwood, your adding it won't make your home stand out (and it's the standouts that bring the big bucks). It will only bring it up to the rest of the neighborhood.

Finally, studies have shown that updating kitchens and baths are the two improvements that return the most at resale. Updating is only beneficial for a few years. Ten or 15 years out, a home improvement may be looking worn and outdated. At that point it returns nothing.

For the best take on what adding hardwood to your home will do resale wise, contact a local real-estate agent. They'll know your neighborhood and should be able to tell you.

But the real deal is this: if you want hardwood floors, you can afford them and plan to be in your house long enough to enjoy them, let that be your guide. A house, after all, is foremost a home.

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September 27, 2007 6:00 AM

Homeowners seek remedy for failed roof

Posted by Elizabeth Rhodes

Q: In 1999 my husband and I bought a house that had recently been remodeled by a contractor, We were told it had a brand-new 30-year roof, however it started leaking within a year from nails working their way up through the shingles. That happened repeatedly. Recently we replaced the whole thing, and learned the old roof job had been done below code and in a substandard fashion. Do we have any recourse with the contactor who put the thing on?

A: You may have, says Seattle attorney Tony Rafel, of Rafel Manville. But it would take some fact-finding to know that.

For starters, did the contractor give you a written warranty? "If the leaks were reported to the contractor within the warranty period, then there might be an action for failure to honor the warranty," Rafel says.

Otherwise you have a problem with the clock. The law says the statute of limitations is six years on a written contract (in this case your home purchase agreement). So under normal circumstances you're out of luck. But there is one possible exception: if the contractor knew the roof job was defective and concealed that from you.

"If fraudulent concealment is established, that would permit a claim to be brought even though it's beyond the statute of limitations," says Rafel. "But that would require showing knowledge on the part of the contractor of a latent defect."

The burden of proving that would be on you. That could mean finding subcontractors or others who worked on the house seven or more years ago and could testify that the contractor knew the roof application was sub-par. Obviously they would have been easier to find if you'd pressed the issue early on.

Let's say you do have a good case, either for failure to honor a warranty or for fraudulent concealment. To win you'll have to file a lawsuit in Superior Court. But whether you win or lose you can count on this: pressing your case will cost more in legal fees than you spent on the replacement roof.

"The bottom line with home defects like this is it's important to act promptly because you may have a terrific claim, but you may lose it if you don't assert it soon enough," Rafel says.

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Recent entries

Jul 1, 08 - 12:15 PM
Change in building height worries homeowner

Jun 11, 08 - 04:00 PM
Faulty home repair leaves owner in a quandary

Dec 27, 07 - 09:47 AM
Rats upset new owner

Nov 2, 07 - 07:27 AM
Deciphering a leaky roof

Oct 19, 07 - 03:00 PM
Defining who must be a contractor







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