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Buyer beware? Not in apartments code proposal

Published Oct. 9, 2005

If you want to sell your house, you'll be required to tell the buyer if it violates city codes, according to an ordinance the City Council will consider this week.

And if you're selling an apartment building, a buyer won't be allowed to move in unless the troubles you know about are fixed. In certain neighborhoods, people selling apartment buildings will be obliged to pay for an expert to identify problems. A city inspection could cost at least $175.

The proposed changes to the way St. Petersburg maintains building and zoning codes likely would mean fewer surprises for buyers, but higher costs for some sellers of buildings. The plan, to be considered at a public hearing Thursday, comes as city officials focus attention on cleaning up and restoring old neighborhoods.

"Part of it is simply notification," said Housing and Construction Services director Dan Schmelzinger. "It's just trying to make everybody aware of what kinds of violations exist."

Currently, nothing prevents the owner of a rundown, dilapidated house from selling it to a purchaser with no inspection, no check of city code violations and no check of zoning problems. In fact, Schmelzinger said, "It happens every day."

Overall, City Council members have said they favor the proposal.

Still, some council members say the proposed ordinance may not get tough enough on code violators citywide. And at least one council member has questioned whether the rule might go too far, preventing poor people from buying and selling buildings.

"Maybe there's an economic issue we're overlooking," council member Beatrice Griswold said earlier this month. Shouldn't someone who can afford only a "jalopy" be able to buy one, she asked.

No sales will be prohibited, city officials said. But moving in will be prohibited, in some cases.

Under the ordinance, a seller of a single-family home anywhere in the city would be required to tell the buyer about code violations city officials already have identified. Those violations would not prohibit moving in, and homes newer than 5 years old would be exempt.

For multiunit buildings in certain parts of the city, a seller would be required to have the property inspected and send that report to the buyer. Using a city inspector, that would cost $175 for the first two housing units, $10 for each added unit. A buyer would be prohibited from moving in until any code violations were fixed, unless he or she received a special temporary permit.

In the rest of the city, sellers of multiunit buildings would be required to tell the buyers about any known code violations, but would not have to obtain special inspections.

The targeted neighborhoods with the stiffer restriction include areas near the downtown area that are undergoing revitalization as part of the Great Neighborhood Partnership program.

"Those are the neighborhoods where there are probably more severe housing conditions and there are other types of conservation programs under way," said Schmelzinger. "What you're trying to do is build off other types of efforts rather than go citywide."

Real estate representatives questioned making different rules for different areas.

"We have some concerns about enforcing city codes in a discriminatory basis," Dan Berger, spokesman for the St. Petersburg Suncoast Association of Realtors, said earlier this month. "But this is definitely a step in the right direction."

With the help of real estate groups and neighborhood associations, the proposed ordinance has been through half a dozen revisions since officials started drafting it last fall. Council of Neighborhood Associations has supported the current version, Schmelzinger said.