Purchased as legal multi-family, but now it’s not?

15 Replies

My property was listed as a multi-family duplex. County and City Parcel information online reflects the current use as multi-family duplex. The transaction forms used during the purchase were all multi-family. I even inherited two tenants. However, both electrical panels are located in one unit and utilities are paid under one bill, not separate. I got a permit with the city to add a second electric meter and had an electrician move a panel to the exterior of the building so the other unit would have access to their own panel. The dept of construction and inspections came out and failed me because they said it’s not legally a multi-family and that it’s a single family. It was built in 1939 as a “SFR,” but there’s no permits with the city that it was converted, but it was changed to a multi-family in their system at some point. If it’s not just a misunderstanding, who is liable for this mixup? And what should I do? I would appreciate any advice!

I'd start with the zoning Dept - they should keep all the records, when it was changed and what's the ground for that.

Also, I'd check out the mailing addresses - how tenants get their mail separately if it's SFR

Last year my client bought a house, which could be a duplex - upper unit had separate kitchen etc, however, because of mailing address, it was rented out as a SFR - kitchen in the second floor was converted to a bedroom.

Following. I don't have any advice on this situation, but I am definitely wanting to hear how it pans out and what others suggest to do. This is a unique situation.

@Craig T.

I would check with the title company and surveyor as well. Title company may have some liability  in the situation.  how is it taxed one or 2 units?  It sounds like it may have never been formally rezoned. Also what are the other properties on the street-SFRs or multifamily? Maybe you can formally make it a duplex. 

This is not a title co or surveyor issue.

I'm following just to hear the logic behind blaming the title company.

You'll want to research the subject of nonconforming use and retain a local attorney to help you through this.

How many times has the property been sold as a duplex from original construction until now?

I can say that we had a situation where the tax roles changed a house to a one family from a two and they were able to tell when and switch it back. I would go to the tax roles and see when it was changed although if built as a SF not sure how much that helps. Also does the title work show anything in the history.? Does the town have all permit records since 1938. If you have a lot of years taxed as a mf that helps.

@Craig T.

Moving forward, you always want to check the zoning information for all the properties that you buy. It's easier to deal with these issues before the closing happens. Until you are experienced, you may want to consider working with an attorney for to make sure you are correctly doing your due diligence.

In any event, I agree with others that probably the strongest argument you can make is to argue existing nonconforming use. The basic idea is that --- at one point --- the law allowed the owner to use this property as a duplex. At some point, the law changed to prevent the owner from doing so. In those cases, the owner generally has a constitutional right to continue with the existing use.

Here's the thing: what we think of as “zoning” didn’t become popular until the early 20th Century. In fact, many legal experts back then thought municipalities were violating the US Constitution by engaging in this new thing called "zoning." The SCOTUS only ruled on the validity of zoning until the 1920s. Once it did, zoning laws became very popular. But my understanding is that it took some time for it to spread from cities to rural areas. 

With the above in mind, you may want to (or ask your lawyer) to do some investigation into this. The lack of permit record isn't necessarily dispositive of the issue --- a lot of municipalities in the old days were not as strict when it came to building permits. So many of them did not keep a good record in the old days. And like zoning laws, building codes also didn't get popular until the 20th century. So there was somewhat of a learning curve for all the municipalities involved. 

Disclaimer: While I’m an attorney licensed to practice in PA, I’m not your attorney. What I wrote above does not create an attorney/client relationship between us. I wrote the above for informational purposes. Do not rely on it for legal advice. Always consult with your attorney before you rely on the above information.

I had a similar issue with a house that I purchased and approached the city so that I could purchase it a s a nonconforming legal duplex and wrote that into the contract for purchase. Before that, I think it was an illegal four unit home.

We’re zone for multi-family, and there’s a duplex right next door. The city has no record of the switch to multi-family, but their records prior to the 80s are in microfilm. I believe that it happened at some point, but records were misfiled. Their computers reflect that it’s a multi-family, but how did it get to that point?

The concern is that if I try to get it permitted as a duplex (if it’s not) in 2017, it’s going to have to meet codes of today rather than when it was originally done if the records can’t be located or it can’t be grand fathered in.

I’ve gone through Polk Directories and found two people unrelated living at my place in 1943 and an add in the classifieds looking for a renter.

Verify your zoning compliance or non-compliance. If compliant, obviously the construction department should clear the permit. If not, you may be able to get a variance. Look into the grandfather clauses. It is not likely the property was "legal" and now it isn't. It's likely someone is making a mistake somewhere.

What does the assessor's database have it listed as? Also when you wrote your offer/P&S did you describe the property as a two family dwelling?

This is a zoning department issue. Don't waste your time chasing down liability with the title company or surveyors. I have had great success when I approached my local zoning department with humility and honesty. 

@Garrett Hogan the assessors database has multi family duplex but they said that it’s not accurate because there is no record of transition from SFR in 1930s to multifamily. All the agreements are done on multi family forms, closing docs included inherited leases, and appraisal done as a duplex.

@Jimmy Dudley I spoke to them and explained the situation, however, my best option moving forward is to try and get the grandfathered “legal” non-conforming use if I can prove it was used as a multi family prior to 1976.

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