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Unpaid bill rests with new owner

Published Sep. 16, 2005

After buying a home in Dunedin in August 1995, we received a utility bill from the city for the former owner's last utility bill. We got the bill in March.

Is it legal for a utility to threaten to place a lien against our property because the previous owner neglected to pay a bill? Seems to us that the utility should pursue the previous owner.

The utility clerk said this happens to lots of others who buy homes here. Edna Gafford

Response: According to Bill McAlduff, senior vice president with Stewart Fidelity Title Co., electric, phone and cable bills are considered personal debts that follow people even when they move. However, water, sewer and garbage bills follow the sale of the land. In other words, these last three utilities can put a lien on the property if an old bill is unpaid, even though the property has changed hands.

Title insurance is supposed to protect buyers from title defects. However, title companies are not required to research unpaid utility bills.

Some title companies will check only for liens and not for unpaid utility bills. Other title companies, such as Stewart Fidelity, check for both. They find out the seller's average monthly utility bills, along with any outstanding balances. Then, McAlduff said, enough of the buyer's money is held back to pay the final bills. When they are paid, the balance is sent to the seller.

Buyers should ask title companies whether they check current utility bills, he said. If not, a buyer can call utility companies, get the figures and ask the title company to withhold funds to cover the final bills.

Not all municipal or county utility billing departments put liens on a property for unpaid utility bills run up by a previous owner. St. Petersburg, for example, does not. It sends such bills to a collection agency.

You have a paper signed by you and the previous owner saying that your title company will not be responsible for final utility bills or proration of taxes, but that the buyer and seller will handle these matters. Unfortunately, that arrangement leaves you stuck with going after the seller.

Nevertheless, since title policies are written by local companies on national underwriters, McAlduff suggested you put in a claim for the unpaid bill to the underwriter. He said your title insurance policy will tell you where to send it.

House needs new roof

Permaguard Industries built a room addition to my home in August 1988. By July 1989, the new room began leaking. Permaguard came out and sealed the leaks under the first row of tiles, nailed down the flashing and sealed the area between the tile and a wall.

It still leaked, so in August 1989 they returned to install flashing.

In late 1990 I wrote to complain about enormous amounts of water running down along the connection of the new addition and main bedroom. By 1991, the constant leaking had damaged my furniture and carpeting.

At one point Permaguard removed an entire row of Spanish tile from one side of the roof and never replaced it.

Permaguard never was able to stop the leak but refused to pay for the hiring of another reputable company to work on the problem.

Since the room was added, I have lost a television set, an electric typewriter, $300 worth of books, a carpet and an electric fan to water damage. The interior wall is mildewed and deteriorated. When I complained recently to Permaguard, they said the job was out of warranty and they couldn't do anything about it.

The mold and mildew are affecting our health. Help! Maggie Smith

Response: Permaguard vice president Mark DeLaquil said your room addition came with a five-year warranty, which expired in 1993. The leak is coming from the cement tile roof, DeLaquil said, and you have had an independent roofing contractor verify the need to replace that roof.

You will continue to experience problems until you do so, he said.

We're sorry we were unable to help you. You do have the option of filing a formal complaint with the Pinellas County Consumer Protection Agency, 464-6200. That agency's records show 13 complaints filed against Permaguard during the past five years.

When you do replace that tile roof, be sure to ask Action for a copy of our tip sheet on how to find a reputable, qualified roofer.

Action solves problems and gets answers for you. If you have a question, or your own attempts to resolve a consumer complaint have failed, write: Times Action, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or call your Action number, 893-8171, or, outside of Pinellas, (800) 333-7505, ext. 8171, to leave a recorded request.

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