Agent

Unpermitted guest house may be grandfathered use

Threat of massive fines defies reasonable sense of justice

DEAR BARRY: We purchased our home 10 years ago. A primary selling feature of the property was the detached guest house, built in 1964. But now, that bonus building has become a nightmare.

Last month, the county posted a sign on our gate declaring that we are in violation of code. When we inquired at the county courthouse, they cited four violations: construction without a permit; construction of a detached building next to a garage; maintaining an unpermitted building; and construction of a guest house on a property smaller than 1 acre.

The county has given us 90 days to bring the property into compliance. Failure to comply will result in penalties of $2,500 per day per violation. That would be $10,000 per day. We had no idea the guest house was unpermitted until this happened. What can we do to get out of this mess? –Kimberly

DEAR KIMBERLY: The authorities in your area are employing undue harassment to address a common case of grandfathered noncompliance.

First, they are attempting to punish you for a violation that was committed by others nearly half a century ago.

Second, they are using legalistic verbiage to compound a single infraction, making it appear to be four separate violations.

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Finally, they are using that expanded number to compound the financial penalty, defying any reasonable sense of proportion or justice. One would almost assume you had committed a felony.

My advice is twofold: First, you need legal representation from an attorney who has experience opposing out-of-control bureaucracies. Second, you should schedule a meeting with your county supervisor. Elected officials are often willing to intervene in matters when citizens are being treated unfairly by bureaucratic bullies.

DEAR BARRY: I am a remodeling contractor and am studying to become a home inspector. Recently, I’ve come across several references to an electrical problem referred to as a bootlegged ground. Could you describe this situation and how to test for it? –Charlie

DEAR CHARLIE: Bootleg grounding is often found in older homes, where the original two-prong outlets were replaced with three-prong outlets. In those homes, the old wiring usually does not include a ground line. To compensate for the lack of a ground wire, people will connect the neutral wire to the ground terminal on each outlet, thus creating an inadequate (or bootleg) ground. This is an unsafe practice because it creates the potential for live current to energize the casing on an appliance, such as a refrigerator or washing machine. Someone touching the casing could then receive a shock.

There is a little-known test that home inspectors can do to detect bootleg grounds, using a simple three-light outlet tester, the kind that is equipped with a GFCI test button. When the tester is plugged in, the outlet may appear to be properly grounded. However, if the outlet has a bootleg ground, this can be detected by pressing the GFCI test button. If the neutral is wired to the ground terminal, the tester will give a false reading of reverse polarity. When this occurs, home inspectors should recommend evaluation and repairs by a licensed electrical contractor.

To write to Barry Stone, please visit him on the Web at www.housedetective.com.

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