Neighbors helpless after nearby construction damages properties

Home Construction
This Friday, March 21, 2014 photo shows roofers installing a roof on a new construction home in Pepper Pike, Ohio. The Commerce Department reports on U.S. home construction in March later Wednesday April 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak) Tony Dejak

Neighbors helpless after nearby construction damages properties

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(The Center Square) — Homeowners statewide want more legal recourse after mismanaged construction sites nearby have caused significant property damage.

The House Housing & Community Development Committee on Wednesday heard stories from neighbors who have suffered the consequences of irresponsible contractors and shoddy house flips, with few options to make themselves whole.

“The demolition caused significant damage to my home; my home was open to the elements,” said Nancy Lewis, a 74-year-old widow in Philadelphia. “The contractor came through my bathroom wall and my kitchen. I could see daylight from my basement.”

Demolition next door damaged her roof, she said. Gas fumes and squirrels also got into her house.

Renovations have also caused headaches for homeowners like Tamica Tanksley in Delaware County, who bought a house that had several problems with stucco, water drainage, and rotten wood.

“My dream home quickly became a nightmare — and I still can’t wake up,” she said. She estimated the house had $150,000 of defects and damages to be repaired.

To address complaints like those, Rep. Joe Hohenstein, D-Philadelphia, has introduced four bills that would require builders to fix certain construction defects at no cost if discovered within the first two years of completion. Other provisions create rights for neighbors; increase code enforcement; and close the house flipper “loophole” by withholding “owner” status to sellers until living there for at least one year.

“Several issues have arisen in the Philadelphia region regarding residential construction and faulty, defective building materials and/or building techniques,” Hohenstein wrote in a legislative memo. “It can be devastating for a family to learn that because of shoddy techniques used during construction, they now are facing repairs that could cost tens of thousands of dollars or much more.”

The problem, legal experts argued, isn’t limited to one-off operations.

“It’s not just a shell LLC builder and a guy with a pickup truck outside Home Depot,” Attorney Jennifer Horn, owner of the Horn Williamson law firm, said. “The litigation being offered … includes and absolutely involves large builders … there are hundreds of lawsuits being asserted against large builders as well as shell LLCs —it is a pervasive problem in this commonwealth.”

Horn said her law firm doesn’t need to advertise because “the phone just rings and rings and rings. It’s atrocious, it’s horrific in Pennsylvania. It should not be happening.”

Other testifiers recommended more continuing education requirements, refining some of the language in the bills to expand requirements to renovations as well as construction, and to involve architects, engineers, and inspectors more in the construction and demolition processes.

The current system doesn’t have enough oversight, some advocates argued.

A “‘catch me if you can’ system,” Michelle Gaffney of the neighborhood group Build Like You Live Here said, can encourage violations and rule-bending.

“They know it’s not likely that they’ll be caught skipping a license here or using an unlicensed laborer over there,” Gaffney said, creating low-quality construction for residents and less-safe conditions for workers.

“When we allow developers to get away with cutting corners … we encourage them to continue conducting business in that way,” she said.

Construction problems, whether in Philadelphia or elsewhere, are not new complaints. In 2021, Hohenstein held a similar hearing on damage from neighboring construction sites. The Senate Democratic Policy Committee did likewise in 2020.

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