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A recent poll conducted by the National Association of Home Builders and Wells Fargo highlighted the concern of home builders across the country over constantly tightening construction codes. It seems that approximately 35 percent of home builders recently polled are “extremely concerned” that construction codes are making new construction cost prohibitive “without a measurable improvement in safety or other benefits.”
Based on the stories we hear from our members on a weekly basis, I think it’s safe to say that home builders and REALTORS have much in common when it comes to feeling frustrated over building code creep. But while home builders are mostly concerned with codes that govern new home construction, our members must contend with the wildly inconsistent enforcement of building and property maintenance codes by municipalities at the point-of-sale (POS).
How difficult do some municipalities in southeastern PA make it to sell a home within their borders? According to our Realtor Association colleagues across the country, there are very few areas that face the same crazy rules and regulations regarding the sale of private property. So you want to sell your historic property in Caln Township? Better hope it meets the over-the-top standards of one of the strictest code enforcement departments in the region. Does your client live in Downingtown Borough? They may be required to replace the sidewalk, even if it’s only slightly worn. In Eddystone, be prepared for a team of municipal inspectors to descend on your client’s property on multiple occasions, and for those inspectors to find previously “missed” violations on follow-up visits. Are you selling a home to a rental property investor in Marcus Hook or Lower Chichester? That’ll be $5,000 to $10,000 for a new fire sprinkler system, please.
That’s the problem with the way municipalities are allowed to enforce property maintenance and building codes at the point-of-sale in Pennsylvania. While the state does have a “Uniform Construction Code” (UCC) in place for building and renovating homes, there is no such law that ensures a consistent standard for municipal home inspections. Worse yet, there is currently no fair way for home sellers or buyers to challenge an overzealous municipal code department that has decided to run rampant over their real estate transaction. When a township code inspector, manager or solicitor tells your client to “go ahead and sue us” if you want to challenge a particular demand, it’s all too clear that they’re holding the best hand.
So where do we go from here? The fact that we do have a uniform code in Pennsylvania for new construction gives me hope that a similar state-wide law may be possible for governing point-of-sale inspections. This type of law could include limitations on the scope of such inspections, and clearer guidelines for inspecting older homes. It could include strict limitations on the fees that municipalities can charge for such inspections, and set a stronger licensing standard for code officials. A ban on the absurd practice of requiring expensive infrastructure repairs – such as sidewalk and sewer lateral replacements – only at the point-of-sale would be a welcome addition to such a law. Finally, the law could set up a clear arbitration process – not controlled by the municipality or county – for instances in which home sellers or buyers feel the need to challenge a municipal code ruling without having to spend thousands of dollars on a lawsuit.
What are the chances of a municipal resale inspection law passing the PA legislature? With the UCC already in force for new construction, there is a strong precedent for this type of regulation. Is there language you’d like to see in such a law? Send your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org
By Jamie Ridge, president/ceo, Suburban REALTORS Alliance
Here at the Suburban REALTORS Alliance (SRA) we’ve noticed a significant increase in REALTOR-awareness regarding municipal “point-of-sale” inspection requirements since the Marchlaunch of our “This Doesn’t Make Sense” campaign and website. This increased awareness has led to some very questionable municipal point-of-sale practices being brought to light by our members, and successfully challenged by the SRA.
In Chester County we learned that two boroughs – Phoenixville and Downingtown – were refusing to issue temporary use and occupancy certificates for required repairs that a buyer had agreed to complete after a sale. In both instances, the boroughs were in violation of the Pennsylvania Municipal Code and Ordinance Compliance Act (MCOCA), which states that: “a municipality shall not refuse to issue a use and occupancy certificate … on the basis of a substantial violation or require the correction of a substantial violation as a condition to issuing a use and occupancy certificate … unless the substantial violation renders the property unfit for habitation.”
After SRA staff reached out to each borough, they began issuing temporary certificates that allow real estate transactions to move forward.
In Delaware County, where the vast majority of municipalities have some form of point-of-sale inspection requirement, increased member input has allowed us to address Ridley Township’s refusal to issue temporary use and occupancy certificates for sidewalk repairs. Once again, township staff seemed unaware of the state law that requires the issuance of temporary certificates unless a property is being condemned.
Perhaps our favorite “success” story this year involves Suburban West member Nick Vandekar, who is also a member of the SRA’s board of directors. Nick was in the process of closing a deal in East Norriton Township in Montgomery County when their codes department mentioned a required sewer lateral repair and a hefty escrow requirement to allow a temporary U & O certificate.
Being quick on his feet, Nick was able to encourage a conversation between East Norriton staff and SRA staff. After being provided with an explanation of the enforcement tools that the Code and Ordinance Compliance Act provides to townships when home owners don’t comply with the terms of a temporary U & O permit, the township dropped their escrow requirement for Nick’s transaction, and future transactions. We think that is teamwork at its best!
The ultimate goal of the ‘This Doesn’t Make Sense’ campaign is to not only raise our members’ awareness of these issues, but also public awareness. By sharing the campaign website with your neighbors and clients, you can help us accomplish this goal. Once on the website – www.thisdoesntmakesense.org – guests can find information about the point-of-sale requirements in their municipality, and even send a pre-written message to their elected official about why these local real estate regulations do more harm than good.
When more of our local elected officials begin receiving these messages from residents of their townships and boroughs, perhaps they’ll think twice about introducing any further point-of-sale requirements. Even better, maybe they will strongly consider repealing inspection ordinances that are already in place.
After all, at a time when the economy is still recovering and home sales are just beginning to perk up, the last thing we need is more barriers to real estate transactions.