This is the story of how I got tricked by malicious criminals into buying a house that had been illegally remodeled to cover up multiple building code violations. 50% of the house is unusable, and will require as much as $100,000 in repairs to undo the faulty work.
Yes, the home was inspected before it was purchased, and the inspector did find some problems as expected. But most of the problems described below were cleverly hidden behind finished drywall, carpeting, and concrete where the inspector couldn't see them. All of this was done intentionally by the house "flipper" and remodeler to turn a profit on a house that is riddled with code violations.
Closed on my first house! $174,000 with 4 bedrooms, 2 full bathrooms, attached garage, and 2,170 square feet.
Next door neighbor’s giant oak tree uproots and falls onto my property, puncturing the garage roof. Luckily, my homeowner’s insurance covered the tree removal and house repair.
Carpenters arrive and temporarily patch up my roof with a blue tarp.
I move into my new house with the help of friends and family.
I discover that none of my cable outlets are working and call my provider for service. ($64.25) The technician discovers that none of the outlets are hooked up to the household service except for one that is so badly damaged that it barely works.
I also discover that one of my cupboard doors is not attached and it comes off its hinges when opened.
And the hookup hoses for my laundry machine are connected backwards. (Hot water connected to cold input and vice versa.)
While these are minor infractions, they help paint a bigger picture of the major problems that are about to be discovered.
I discovered that the tile around the downstairs bathtub had been improperly cut, leaving a gap for water to get inside the wall behind the shower controls escutcheon plate. The trim kit will have to be removed, the faulty tile carefully taken out, and a new one cut to take its place.
I discover pools of water on the laundry room floor that is leaking through the ceiling. The upstairs bathroom is directly overhead. A plumber is called in to diagnose the problem.
He also discovers that the framing behind the walls is badly burnt from a soldering blow torch.
The plumber suspects that the house has several other plumbing problems, and I agree to let him cut some small inspection holes in the drywall. He discovers that the downstairs toilet, sink, tub, shower, and laundry tub are all plumbed without a vent stack.
He also discovers illegal electrical wiring, and six additional water leaks inside the walls.
The downstairs corner shower has a shower head that only aims water to spray out the shower door.
The shower drain was illegally junctioned into the wrong size and type of pipe.
The laundry drain was illegally reduced from a 2” pipe down to 1 ½” pipe.
The furnace chimney duct was not insulated and illegally positioned less than 6” away from the flammable joists.
One of the drain pipe Y-unions is installed backwards! What's more, the main PVC drain pipe is illegally cemented into a sewer cleanout access.
The upstairs bathtub drain uses an illegal T-union into the rest of the drain stack.
The downstairs tub drain illegally runs underneath the tub itself, angled towards the toilet.
The water damage from the upstairs bathroom leaks has caused the drywall of the laundry room ceiling and walls to crack.
The kitchen garbage disposal had been illegally wired and was plumbed to the dishwasher with an illegal hose.
A completely illegal vent cap was used underneath the kitchen sink instead of a proper vent stack.
Most of the water lines were pieced together with alternating scraps of soft copper pipes (instead of rigid) and radiant floor heating hoses (instead of pex pipes). All soldered plumbing unions were done in place, badly burning the timbers next to them.
The upstairs bathroom faucet was missing parts for the drain lever, and the water pipes were never fastened to the timbers.
At this point, the plumber informs me that all of this work was likely done by the same person, illegally, without a permit, and that all of it is failing. Both of my bathrooms and kitchen become un-usable. My house had been flipped by somebody who cut an obscene amount of corners.
My realtor also visits the house to see the problems for himself. At the time of purchase, he and the sellers had coached me into waiving the disclosures notice (which means I bought the house “as is”). I would later learn that this is one of many tactics used by predatory remodelers.
My realtor suggests that I go into real estate arbitration through his agency. I’m informed that there are no lemon laws for houses and the sale cannot be reversed. I’m not sure what to do.
I contact a lawyer and begin researching my legal options. We decide to prepare for an approach that is not under the thumb of the real estate agency.
I did some online research and discovered some photos of the house dated as recently as October 1, 2012. The pictures showed that the house looked very different and had clearly undergone a major remodel before it was sold to me.
The kitchen and living room had been completely gutted and re-done with recycled cabinetry and fixtures. Major walls had been removed to make the house feel more open.
One of the photos showed a load-bearing support column in the basement which had been removed all together!
I call the Columbia Heights Police Department to report the crime and the danger I have been placed in thanks to the removed support column. The police officer is sympathetic to my situation, but does not believe it warrants police intervention. He suggests I pursue a civil lawsuit.
Managing my housing crisis is cutting too much into my job responsibilities. My dad, who is retired, offers to volunteer his time to deal with contractors while I’m at my day job.
I’m visited by Jeff Edvenson, a veteran general contractor who was referred to me by a co-worker. Jeff tours my home, inspects the damage, and is in awe at the level of effort that the flippers put into hiding their illegal and dangerous construction work. Jeff estimates that repairs will cost anywhere from $60K-$100K, and states that “Whoever did this work needs to go to prison.” Jeff also says that the condition of my house is worse than anything you’d see on the popular remodeling TV show Holmes on Homes, and that it was clear that the illegal remodeling work was done intentionally, in a predatory fashion, to flip the house onto an unsuspecting buyer and tricking them into ownership of the multitude of code violations.
It has become clear that it’s too difficult for contractors to estimate repairs to my house when the known problems are still covered by drywall and tile. I hire a general contractor to do some basic demolition work to reveal the problems. ($1,600)
I begin documenting all of my house problems on a spreadsheet, and label them with color-coded, corresponding Post-It Notes.
Liz Collin of WCCO reports my story on the evening news. After realizing that I had been taken advantage of, I compared the situation to the “predatory lending” craze of the early 2000s, coining the term “predatory remodeling”.
Jeff Edvenson, the general contractor who first looked at my house, lets me know that he is passing on the project as there is just too much risk associated with it. He won’t even give me a written estimate.
June 20, 2013
I call the Columbia Heights City Building Inspector and ask him to come see the damage done to my house. Much like the general contractors who had looked at it before him, the inspector is absolutely shocked at the level of malice that went into remodeling. He states, “I wish we had caught these guys in the act. They’d be in jail right now.” I ask the inspector what my options are. After a very long thought he reluctantly replies “You’re stuck.” Furthermore, he orders me to make the structural repairs and quickly as he fears that a large snowpack on the roof could cause the structure to buckle. Failure to fix the house means that he’ll have to “red tag” it, condemning the house, and forcing my eviction.
A major wind and rainstorm sweeps through the Twin Cities, causing flooding, downed trees, power outages, and even opens up a huge sinkhole. As my roof has still not been repaired since the tree fell on it, this storm aggravates the damage, pulling more siding and insulation from my garage.
50% of my square footage that comprise the lower level of my house, including the master bedroom, become unusable during repairs. I reluctantly move all of my furniture and belongings to the upper level, and set up my bed in a spare bedroom. I begin hauling my dirty linens to my parents’ house and use their laundry machines.
Demolition begins on my house. The master bedroom becomes a storage room for fixtures, parts, and appliances that are uninstalled. At the same time, drywall is removed to allow migration of the main electrical service panel from the illegal walk-in closet location to inside the bedroom.
All of the cable TV, telephone, and low voltage wires have been discovered to be disconnected near the main service fuse box and simply covered with gypsum, sometimes with giant globs of drywall mud.
The laundry machines are unhooked. The laundry tub and cabinet are removed. We discover a floor drain that was intentionally covered by the laundry tub base cabinet.
The bathroom vanity cabinet and sink are removed. The toilet is removed. The bathroom floor tile is removed. Some of the bathroom floor concrete is broken up to investigate improper drain pipes.
Some drywall is removed to reveal more faulty plumbing and wiring.
The drywall ceiling of the laundry room is removed to reveal that one of the floor joists has been illegally cut more than 2/3rds of the way through to allow the upstairs bathtub drain pipe to pass through it. This leaves the joist severely weakened.
I meet with my attorney to discuss my legal options. Over the course of a 2 hour meeting, he lets me know that our real estate laws are set up to favor the sale and ensure that the transaction takes place, but offers no real protection for home buyers. He tells me that finding the responsible parties and getting a court judgement against them might be possible, but the likelihood of collecting any compensation from them is slim to none. Those responsible took great care to run the transaction as a 1031-Exchange through the IRS, they provided fake contact info, and likely used offshore bank accounts. I am told that my options are:
It’s at this moment that I realize I have been utterly ruined. I am devastated, can barely manage a phone call with my stunned parents, and spend the entire night awake and sobbing.
I vow to change the law at the city, county, and state levels to ensure that no Minnesotan is ever the victim of predatory remodeling again. I call for help from my network of creative friends and media resources, urging that we begin by starting a campaign to raise awareness of predatory remodeling. My friend Jessica Roddy offers to volunteer her time coordinating and managing this effort.
Demolition on my house also continues, and the concrete beneath the downstairs bathroom is broken up to reveal a maze of drain pipes that use illegal fittings and another backwards Y-union.
I discover more problems with my house when my upstairs bathroom faucet handle comes off. While this is not a huge deal, it is symptomatic of larger problems, and when combined with other small issues, helps paint a picture of the cut corners and cavalier attitude that went into remodeling my house. I continue to update the spreadsheet and photo-document everything.
The term “predatory remodeling” appears on Wikipedia.
I call the Anoka County Investigators Office and report the situation. The investigator believes it is a criminal case and asks me to present all of the documentation on the purchase of my home, photos of the problems, and estimates for repairs.
On this same day, Jessica Roddy and I launch “Residential Remodeling Regulatory Reform”, a Facebook group dedicated to raising awareness about predatory remodeling and mustering help to change our real estate laws when it comes to remodeling.
My dad takes photos of the trusses in my attic and emails them to my Uncle Tom, a civil engineer who has decades of architectural experience. We’re hoping he can determine if the trusses are manufactured or not, and if the walls that were removed from the main level of the house were load-bearing.
Over a dozen general contractors have looked at the house. One of them finally sends me an estimate in writing, totalling around $65,000.
I also hear back from my Uncle Tom who reports that the roof trusses are manufactured with a "Double Howe" design, and that the removed walls in the main level were not load bearing. The missing support column in the basement needs to be replaced immediately, however.
WCCO’s Liz Collin does a follow-up interview with me regarding my home crisis and what I plan to do about predatory remodeling.
More than 20 general contractors have looked at my house and refuse to estimate it. I’ve learned that accepting work of this nature requires special insurance that most general contractors do not have. I need at least 3 estimates in writing before I can begin any legal action. I’ve decided to demolish more of the basement myself in an effort to expose more problems and make estimating easier.
My friends Christopher Roddy, Meghan Casey, Emily Dyess, and Heidi Wendling help me demolish parts of my bathroom, laundry room and other areas of the lower level. ($96.27)
In the process, I find illegal plumbing and electrical wiring beneath my kitchen sink and in my laundry room wall.
I also discover PVC pipes that have drywall screws in them. These were supposed to be protected by metal plates.
Heidi shoots a video of me demolishing the ceiling above a closet which reveals more shoddy workmanship and a heavy duty electrical conduit that has exposed wires protruding from it.
My friends Josh Campana and his dad, Kevin Campana, help me excavate the improper drain pipes in the downstairs bathroom.
The dirt is placed in 5 gallon buckets and kept in my laundry / mechanical room which is now fully exposed. None of the laundry drain pipes were secured to the studs so they simply fell off.
Meanwhile Heidi Wendling, Lexi Davies, Jonathan Ford, Chrys Buckhotlz, Jessica Roddy, and Cortney Jones help me remove some planter boxes that were holding moisture against my foundation. My lower level is becoming more and more exposed. ($223.86)
The first Bagster full of demolition debris is hauled away. ($144.00)
I'm having a very hard time getting additional estimates from general contractors. All of them say that my house project is too risky for them. Meanwhile, my upstairs shower still doesn't work so I am forced to use the downstairs shower, even though the floor is open with exposed drain pipes.
I finally receive the third and final written estimate from qualified general contractors needed for me to begin my legal case. Estimates range from $65K-$70K.
I discover that my attic has been infested with raccoons that have turned it into a latrine. The amount of feces indicates that it was this way before I bought the house.
I also discover that my doorbell has been patched together with heavy gauge copper wire instead of the proper low voltage wire. The low voltage transformer is blown, probably due to short circuiting. The doorbell chime unit itself was hastily painted around, leaving the original paint exposed beneath it.
A wildlife control specialist is brought in to deal with my raccoon infestation. ($241.03)
A qualified electrical contractor begins work on my house to repair the faulty wiring, move the main service mast to a new location on the outside of the house, and upgrade the main service from a fuse box illegally located in the corner of the master closet to a breaker panel in a legal location. ($4599.00)
During his work, the electrician discovers additional wiring problems and asks me to demolish more of the basement ceiling.
My friends Jonathan Ford, Charles Sadler, and Emily Dyess help me demolish half of the basement ceiling. ($58.79)
We discover more hazardous and illegal wiring and a gas shut-off valve that is illegally situated.
We also discover an air duct that had been framed with paint stir sticks and Liquid Nails.
My friend BJ Patchat helps me replace a faulty gutter on the back of my house that was angled away from the downspout. ($117.77)
I realize that it may be some time before my general contractor has time to take on this risky project, so I decide to do some of it myself. I lay out a plan for proceeding on my own and leaving the heavy work to the contractor. Trying hard to keep my chin up.
I continue demolishing the rest of the basement ceiling in preparation for more electrical work. I discover more illegal duct work where proper fittings and unions were substituted for wads of duct tape, and an illegal icemaker screw tap.
I also find more illegal wiring and hidden construction debris.
The next Bagster full of debris gets hauled away in the morning ($144.00).
Both the plumber and electrician return to do more work. The electrician finishes wiring up the new service panel and replacing the illegal wiring throughout the house.
The plumber brings in a jackhammer to break up concrete in the downstairs bathroom and laundry room. This is to properly re-do the underground drain pipes for the entire house where they connect to main sewer.
The plumber also repairs the upstairs shower and sink. This is the first time in 6 months since I’ve had a fully working bathroom.
My friend Laszlo Nemesi helps me excavate the newly exposed underground drain pipes in my downstairs bathroom and laundry room.
I discover a water shutoff valve that is hidden above the downstairs bathroom ceiling.
My roommate Frosty helps me demolish the rest of the walls and ceiling in the downstairs bathroom to expose the water valve.
We also find several instances of illegal electrical work.
Later we excavate trenches for the new drain pipes.
I also remove the useless TV coax cables and obsolete telephone wires from the walls. During this process I discover that some of the coax outlet plates in the bedrooms only have a few inches of cable attached to them, not connected to anything at all. Of all the things to find, this discovery is the one that clearly indicates that all of this was done on purpose to make a house that is riddled with problems look nice enough to for an unsuspecting buyer to take the bait and assume ownership of the code violations.
Here is a diagram showing the floorplan of the basement level and most of the major problems found to date. I consider these problems to be ones there were done on purpose, to cut corners, and not because of sloppy workmanship.
Yet another Bagster full of debris gets hauled away. ($144.00)
The city electrical inspector signs-off on the work done by the electrician.
I make several phone calls to Bridge Realty, the property listing company, to get their contact information for the Seller. Both the listing agent and the owner / broker are utterly un-helpful and refuse to give me the Seller's basic contact information. This leads me to believe that they are in collusion with the Seller. I report this to the Anoka County Investigator assigned to my case.
The plumber lays new underground drain pipes and properly connects them to the main sewer.
I repair the joist in the laundry room ceiling that had been cut more than 2/3rds of the way through to make room for the upstairs bathtub drain pipe.
I also repair the plumbing service panel inside the linen closet that backs up to upstairs bathtub and shower. ($37.26)
The city building inspector signs-off on the underground portion of the work done by the plumber. I back-fill the trenches with dirt.
My girlfriend Amada Marquez repairs the torn vapor barrier in the downstairs bathroom and laundry room while I begin cutting new studs to reframe the laundry room wall. ($74.54)
My dishwasher has been installed improperly causing the door be misaligned. I uninstall the dishwasher, build a new mounting plate, adjust the feet, and reinstall it correctly. ($13.86)
I clear dirt and concrete that has filled in the area beneath the downstairs tub drain P-trap.
The plumber adds drains for the laundry room and bathroom vanity.
He also adds venting to all of the new drain pipes and correctly connects them to the legacy vent stack.
I fashion forms and pour concrete to secure the area around the P-trap.
I repair open holes on the outside of the house left from the old dryer vent and old electrical service meter by covering them with custom cut pieces of wood backed by insulation. Siding still needs to be done.
I notice that the sewer is backing up, spewing sewage out of the new floor drain and filling up the downstairs bathtub. I inspect the sewer cleanouts and discover that the main sewer drain is getting plugged up somewhere between the house and the street, probably somewhere under my front yard.
I hire a pipe cleaner to clear the sewer plug. ($272.30)
I finish the concrete work around the downstairs bathtub P-trap.
My general contractor arrives with his crew and sets up shop in my garage. Using a rented concrete mixer ($58.60), he begins re-pouring the concrete in the basement-level master bathroom, laundry room, and mechanical room around the new floor drain ($495.06).
A replacement support column is installed in the proper location under the main beam, restoring the integrity of the building structure ($113.25).
I install home wrap over the previous electrical mast and dryer vent holes.
I also prepare the master bedroom ceiling for demolition. I find that the heating register was held in place by drywall screws that were spray painted in place. There is no proper tinning for the register outlet. Instead, one has been fashioned from wads of duct tape.
My roommate Frosty demolishes the master bedroom ceiling.
We discover more hidden junction boxes and illegal wiring.
The underside of the roof has been improperly insulated with a type of spray foam. The attic insulation is also inadequate, so an electric heat tape has been installed on a special circuit to compensate.
The circuit works fine, but the heat tape is faulty. Ice dams form and water begins leaking through the bedroom ceiling.
I re-rake the roof and place a box fan in the attic to blow away the warm air and re-freeze the ice dams.
While in the attic, I discover fresh feces, indicating that the raccoons have returned. I can also see their tracks from my house to a tree in the back yard.
Meanwhile, Walter Sullivan, Harry Sullivan, and Frosty demolish the rest of the master bedroom ceiling.
They discover unsecured electrical wires, rickety framing, and find that the main air conditioner pipe is leaking / dripping above the ceiling. The backside of the drywall is covered in mold.
My general contractor works to re-frame areas that were demolished ($211.27). He discovers that the bathroom is out of square, so some very creative framing will have to be done to correct the problem. This also means that the corrected framing will be 2" too close to the toilet drain, so I'll have to buy a new toilet with a matching rough-in spec.
The laundry room is re-framed and the new dryer vent is installed ($87.41).
The mechanical room wall is re-framed for bi-fold closet doors.
The bathroom wall is re-framed around the new plumbing drain pipes.
Another Bagster full of debris is hauled away ($144.00).
The plumber cuts out the old kitchen drain pipes, replaces them with new drain pipes, and attaches them to the rest of the new drainage system.
He also installs a vent stack that goes up through the ceiling and into the attic (temporarily, during winter). Eventually this will be extended all the way through the roof, and the stack itself will be boxed-in drywall to match the rest of the house. This venting finally allows the kitchen sink and dishwasher to drain properly.
Meanwhile, I reconfigure the electrical under the sink, install an outlet in the existing junction box, and re-wire the garbage disposal with an AC cord. This is activated by an air switch that I installed in the countertop ($94.22).
Later, the plumber hooks up (temporary) water lines for the washing machine, and I install a flush-mount dryer outlet.
January 23, 2014
My contractor discovers more illegal wiring in the soffit in the master bedroom. I fix this myself.
My contractor installs a new bathroom fan housing ($189.24).
He also completes installation of the dryer duct, extending it all the way to the floor.
My contractor points out that all of my HVAC is wrong. Instead of running proper tinning for the basement heat, the flippers cut holes into the existing ducts. This means that most of the heat stays in the basement while the main level is incredibly colder. The ducts are also positioned towards the middle of the floorplan, sometimes adjacent to a cold air return.
The existing master bedroom heat duct is repaired.
A new branch is added to the main heating duct in the master bedroom, and properly outputs near the bedroom window.
My contractor repairs the hole cut in the main cold air duct and properly installs one that runs through the walls down to the floor.
All of this day's HVAC and carpentry work costs $216.65 in materials.
My contractor spends all day repairing the holes in the existing ducts...
... and adding new branches off the main heating duct.
He also moves a cold air return that was improperly cut into the main return, and properly runs it through the wall and down to the floor.
Repairing the HVAC has an immediate effect on the household heat. The basement level has a much more even distribution of heat and airflow, and the main level heat and airflow is elevated to proper levels ($124.10).
My contractor builds a new soffit in the master bathroom above the tub, and properly finishes the end wall framing, attaching it to the joists.
A large batch of self-leveling concrete is mixed ($176.54).
The surface of the existing floor (with new filled drain trenches) is prepared with a bonding agent.
The self-leveling concrete is poured into the laundry room and master bathroom.
My general contractor's work is finished. But before he leaves, he points out that I have another major problem: None of the drywall was primed, and cheap paint was applied directly with a sprayer. It flakes off easily in large sheets.
I also receive an invoice for my general contractor's labor: $3,880.00.