Dear Barry,

The home next door belongs to an absentee owner who allows the property to sit vacant and become increasingly dilapidated. Indigents occasionally break in to sleep and are known to use drugs on the premises. I’ve made offers to buy the place, but the owner is not interested. Meanwhile the property becomes ever more run down. It looks horrible on the outside, gives a “slummy” appearance to the neighborhood, and worse, has become a local breeding ground for roaches and mice. I’ve contacted the city, but they say there’s nothing they can do if the owner pays his taxes. How can I deal with this seemingly hopeless situation? – Geoff

Dear Geoff,

People sometimes forget that rights are coupled with responsibilities, even when such obligations are not codified in law. Accordingly, your thoughtless neighbor has a responsibility to you and the other owners on your street to maintain the general value and condition of the area, particularly with regard to general health and safety. If the property has in fact become a nesting place for vermin and a resting place for unsavory characters of a supposedly higher order, the city health department or building safety department (however they are titled in your area) should initiate some enforcement actions. If they fail to demonstrate appropriate interest in the matter, there is an effective but little known method whereby to rattle their respective, regulatory cages:

Begin by making an appointment to meet with your city council representative. Nothing is more disturbing to the relative comfort of complacent civil servants than complaints issuing from the desks of elected officials. Explain the nature of the problem and the reluctance of bureaucratic agencies to enact remedial measures. Elected office holders routinely respond to such complaints, as this is a proven way to be well remembered during subsequent elections. In fact, many public officials have full-time ombudsmen whose job is to receive and respond to constituent concerns. One phone call from the office of your elected representative can stir a disinterested bureaucrat to surprising levels of regulatory action. Hopefully, this will be of help.

Dear Barry,

My mother purchased a home that was listed as a multi-family residence. It was originally a single family home, divided into a duplex; with a third unit converted from a garage. All of these changes were apparently made by the sellers; all without permits and all without having been disclosed. Surprisingly, the county lists her home as a multi-family residence, while the city shows it as a single-family dwelling. Now that my mother wants to refinance the property, she’s concerned that the lack of permits may be a problem. How should she deal with this situation? – Chris

Dear Chris,

The fact that one municipality recognizes your mother’s home as a multi-unit property could be helpful but may not be conclusive. The alterations to the building definitely required permits, and the sellers should have disclosed that permits were lacking. When refinancing, the lender may or may not become aware of the permit status, but when your mother resells the property, she will have to provide disclosure of this condition to the next owners. You should consult a real estate attorney to determine the full implications of this situation.

To write to Barry Stone, please visit him on the Web at


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