St. Petersburg resident Megan McGee loved her starter home, but by the start of 2021 she decided she and her two kids needed a bigger place. Selling the house was a breeze. It only took one day. But the pressure quickly mounted as McGee scrambled to find a new place in an extremely competitive real estate market.
When she closed on a spacious home in the Disston Heights neighborhood, “it felt like this was the end of our struggle,” she said.
That relief was short-lived though, as McGee went on to spend over a year and tens of thousands of dollars trying to resolve a code violation that was passed down to her from the previous owner.
This is the first installment of “Housing Horror Stories,” an occasional series exploring the trials and tribulations that Tampa Bay residents have experienced during a white-hot real estate market.
On April 22, 2021, the seller, Sharon Alvarez, received a call from St. Petersburg Code Enforcement. The city told her she needed to obtain a permit for stucco work that had been done on the home
McGee said neither Alvarez nor her title company alerted her to the code violation. She also had two inspections completed before closing on the home and neither flagged any issues with the stucco.
“I wasn’t getting the full story,” she said. “It just seems like there’s a problem in the system that this can even happen.”
Daniel Bonardi, an attorney at Brown & Associates Law & Title in Tampa, explained that most real estate contracts require sellers to disclose any information that could affect the value of a property. Failing to disclose a code violation could be considered a breach of contract.
Bonardi represented McGee in a lawsuit against Alvarez. The case was dismissed voluntarily and McGee won a $14,000 settlement. Still, she said this was not enough to cover the roughly $26,000 she spent to hire the contractors, secure the permit and retain an attorney.
“From a practical standpoint, the cases can be tough to prove,” Bonardi said. “Obviously, every seller is going to play dumb and pretend that they were clueless to permit and code violations or material defects.”
Alvarez denies any wrongdoing. She said when she bought the home more than a decade ago, she dealt with unresolved permit problems from the previous owner and had worked hard to bring the place up to snuff.
“No one was trying to swindle anyone,” she said.
Alvarez has since been fined in Pinellas County for failing to pull a permit for a different home.
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Delays and red tape
Having already purchased the home, McGee had no choice but to navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth that was the city’s code and permitting process.
“It’s almost like you’re getting married and giving up your first-born child, you have to go through so much stuff,” she said.
First, she appeared before the Code Enforcement Board to ask for extra time to get the problem resolved before they started handing out fines.
Then, she had to find someone to fix the shoddy stucco. That came with a mountain of paperwork that needed to be sent to the city. When her initial contractor bailed, she had to file another batch of documents to inform the city of the change.
Later on, she decided to add a window to the wall that had been stuccoed over. That delayed the project by six months because the specific window she needed was on back order.
Months into the process, the city zoning department got involved. They told her that because the area of the home she was working on used to be a garage, she no longer met the parking requirements for that zoning overlay. That meant she would need to increase the size of her driveway.
Her contractor also recommended that she update the electrical wiring on part of the house and install new fire alarms throughout.
“The scope kept expanding,” she said. The experience left her in a state of constant anxiety. At each juncture, she feared a new item would be added to her growing to-do list.
After 20 months of endless email chains, meetings with contractors and piles of paperwork, by December 2022, the project was completed and McGee was finally able to enjoy her new home.
Looking back on the situation, she said she’s amazed that a problem that took so much time out of her life could have slipped through the cracks so easily.
Joe Waugh, director of Codes Compliance for St. Petersburg said anyone can fill out a form on the city’s website to request more information about code violations at a property. His office has responded to more than 800 requests so far this year. There is also an online database where residents can search for cases.
McGee implored all prospective homebuyers to take advantage of the public record and do their own research before closing on a home.
“I really wish I had been more proactive because, unfortunately, I’ve learned we can’t always rely on the Realtors or the title company,” she said.
If you have a housing horror story of your own, we want to hear about it. Fill out the form below for an opportunity to be featured in the series.