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KASS: A pipe nightmare: Need I replace plumbing?

DEAR BENNY: Twelve years ago my family moved into a four-bedroom, 3.5-bathroom home with a walkout basement, which had rough plumbing for the basement bath. Through my own ignorance, I listened to a contractor who would finish my basement and add the bath and a wet bar – with no need for a permit. All work would be done to code by licensed contractors.

Fast-forward 12 years. My house is under contract. I wanted to make sure the basement had the proper permits, and had inspectors come out to conduct an “after-the-fact permit process.” Everything passed, except the plumbing inspector found that the 1-inch line entering the house is now severely undersized and, according to our plumbing code, requires immediate attention. I have had two estimates, both in the neighborhood of $15,000, not including obtaining the necessary permits.

The plumbing flow test requires every spigot or appliance to be open fully and flow measured at the outside hose bib farthest from the meter. One needs 20 pounds per square inch; mine is 14. My family of five has lived here 12 years and never had a situation where water pressure was inconvenient or problematic. The buyer has accepted the property just as it is, and the home inspection also found no pressure problems under even abnormal conditions. It’s almost like building a car with a speedometer that indicates 150 mph and the car only goes to 135, and they make you install a new engine.

Since the municipality had knowledge of this home being 3.5 baths, with a fourth roughed in, shouldn’t they have required a larger feeder line before construction was allowed to proceed? My question is, do I have a chance at successfully appealing this from two standpoints: One, that the municipality should not have approved this twelve years ago; and two, the cost, demolition and correction would cause undue hardship to me, the homeowner.

The buyer is fine with the 1-inch pipe and current water pressure, and the attorney can see no problems at closing even if the piping is not done according to code. – Mike

DEAR MIKE: There’s an old expression: “You can’t fight city hall.” I cannot guarantee you will be able to convince the city fathers to waive the code violation. I am sure there is some kind of appeal process in your state, and you should discuss with your attorney whether that makes sense. More importantly, what will it cost to go through the appeal process?

I am not belittling $15,000, but perhaps it would be best to fix up the problem now and get a retroactive permit.

Your buyers may be ok with the pipes the way they are, but if I were representing them, I would have to warn them that when they decide to sell, they may be in the same situation as you are in now. Indeed, as years go by, their pipes will get clogged and thus reduce the water pressure.

DEAR BENNY: We have a private well that services our house and the house behind us (we are part owners). In addition, there is adjoining property we own with its own well. There is a large lot next to us bordering both properties that is for sale. Our concern is that, depending on what is built there, our wells could be compromised. Do we have any legal rights if this happens? – Margaret

DEAR MARGARET: I am a “city boy” and don’t have much information about water and well rights. I did a little research and, according to Wikipedia, there are a variety of ways in the United States to determine water rights: “Each state has its own variations on (the same) basic principles, as informed by custom, culture, geography, legislation and case law… In general, a water right is established by obtaining an authorization from the state in the form of a water right permit. A legal right is formally consummated, or perfected, by exercising the water right permit and using the water for a beneficial purpose.”

I know it is confusing and I don’t always rely on Wikipedia. However, I learned enough to tell you to talk with an attorney in your state who understands the law of water rights.

Benny Kass is a practicing attorney in Washington, D.C. and in Maryland. He is not providing specific legal or financial advice to any reader. He wants readers to e-mail him, but cannot guarantee a personal response. He can be reached at: mailbag@kmklawyers.com.

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