Neighboring a tear down.

palimpsestMay 17, 2010

Here is an interesting theoretical question:

I looked at a house recently on a pleasant, car-free walkway, a development of mid-20th century houses in a 19th c. neighborhood.

Its been a rental for almost 30 years of its 42 year existence, so condition is shabby, which is fine. It meets a number of criteria: my same neighborhood, price is ok: I never thought I could find a house of this size for the price in my neighborhood, and had focused my search out of my current neighborhood. I have no car so convenience and viability is measured in blocks not miles.

In with the seller's disclosure is a letter which describes the follwing:

The owner of the adjacent attached house in the row owns a house facing the other street and these lots are back to back. He bought the house on the other street (House A) first, and when the house next to the one in question went on the market shortly after (or he approached them: unclear), he bought that(House B) for between $400-500K and promptly got a demolition permit. Apparently he wants a yard.

So there have been a some legal wranglings, but ultimately you need less permission to demolish a house than you do to remodel one. There is an agreement that if the neighbors allow certain variances for renovation house A , he will not demolish house B. If the variance is denied B gets the wrecking ball. Neighbors of house A are fighting the variance on House A, all neighbors of house B (the entire walkway) are supporting the variance so the walkway stays an intact rhythm of facades.

In a twist, once B is torn down, he needs approval from the historical permission regarding what kind of garden wall replaces house B since it is now part of the House A parcel which is historical.

Would you even consider buying a property attached to one that is going to be removed? I would think that someone who spent $400K just for the space for a yard is going to do things the right way.

I am waiting to see what happens with the zoning hearings, which are soon, but it raises an interesting point in a city of mostly attached houses. Every house I look at is attached to at least one other, usually two. Any of them could burn down, fall down (in some neighborhoods) or be taken down by their owners. I just happened to find out about this one ahead of time. Apparently this is some guy barely in his thirties who made a lot of money doing something, not sure why he wants this particular neighborhood.

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Would you even consider buying a property attached to one that is going to be removed?

If we're talking about a party wall, no. The only time I've seen such a thing done here has been with the rare commercial property under redevelopment. In those cases, the severed structure had to be extensively braced to forestall collapse.

    Bookmark   May 17, 2010 at 10:33PM
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Palimpsest--do you have any notion whether this issue is motivating the owners of house B to sell at this time? Could they know something that you do not (yet)?

I don't know anything particular to row houses, but still it seems a gamble. What if he wanted to tear down and rebuild next to you? There's no guarantee he really wants a yard. The house right next to you could end up being something you would never have approved of.

    Bookmark   May 17, 2010 at 11:05PM
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It happens here all the time. There are houses all over the city that used to be part of a row and now stand free. (and sometimes there are houses that get severely damaged because the house next door is taken down improperly).

I would not buy a house when I knew for certain that the house next door was going to be demolished, but the idea that someone would tear down a relatively new, relatively expensive, intact house in a neighborhood that underwent its primary rehabilitation forty years ago shows that it could happen anywhere. The people on the other side purchased about 5 years ago. How were they to predict that in five years someone would want to tear down the house that adjoins theirs?

A few blocks southwest it is still going on with impunity, but that neighborhood is still an emerging slum. Someone may chose to rehab the house next to yours, or they may find it cheaper to tear it down and start from scratch--and the choice is theirs.

    Bookmark   May 17, 2010 at 11:10PM
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Ironically, once the house is down, it is subject to Historical Commission approval because the Main Residence is Historically certified and the property will need to be made into one parcel in order to have improvements on it connected to the main house. Thus it becomes subject to more approvals after the fact. Once the house is gone *everything* he does that affects the exterior becomes subject to approval.

I am surprised that someone hasn't pushed for some type of historic certification for the 42 year old houses: they are a type of mid-century urban infill that was key to the redevelopment of that pocket of the neighborhood, and it, and other complexes near it are historically significant in that regard. No one would develop properties such as these now--they would build some type of condo or urban neo-townhouse McMansion with 3 car parking per unit.

It may or may not be a deciding factor in the sale of the adjacent house. The owners of the property I looked at are absentee landlords who haven't physically been in the property for years--leaving all the administrative part of renting to an agency. (It has rented since the 1980s)

The people who live on the other side show no sign of selling. Actually, I don't know that they *would be able to until after this issue is resolved. Because, as you say, its a gamble.

    Bookmark   May 17, 2010 at 11:25PM
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Are you sure the owner has the same name on the property titles for A and B? I own property in a place where people often buy the place next to them and then tear it down so they can expand their lake frontage. However, people almost always buy the property under two different names, one a husband, one a wife for instance. If the two properties are in the same name, they can never be separated into two parcels except under extremely limited circumstances. People usually try to retain the ability to sell as two parcels, as they get more money that way.

If the potential empty lot you talk about has a different title owner, is it still subject to the Historical Commission?

    Bookmark   May 19, 2010 at 9:47AM
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The name on the city rolls for property taxes is the same. The owner is a single individual, unmarried.

I think that he needs to combine the parcel because the intended addition to the primary property will cross the property line. Remember that these are urban lots, they are small to begin with. There are lots in the city that a currently unbuildable because they had houses on them that were under the current code for width (It is currently 15' minimum, there are 11' and 12' lots--if there is a house there, fine, if not you're outta luck.)

I thought however, that the agreement to Not tear down the property was vague "if Mr X gets variances on house A, he agrees to not demolish house B for as long as he owns it."

Whats easier than to sell the property to wife or partner or whoever for $1 and have THEM tear it down?

    Bookmark   May 19, 2010 at 10:38AM
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Apparently he wants a yard.

The question I would have is about his intent - does he want a yard or does he want a garage for House B, planning to turn the land from House A into a small yard around a big garage?

    Bookmark   May 19, 2010 at 1:04PM
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Luckily, it can't be turned into a garage: there is no access from the street on either property. Houses touch the lotlines on the street, and the house that would be torn down is on pedestrian walkway.

    Bookmark   May 19, 2010 at 1:36PM
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Palimpsest, you mean the TOTAL LOT WIDTH is 11 or 12 FEET?
Wow, that is the setback for building in our town.

On the Smaller Homes forum, we have a thread about the narrowest house in NYC. I think it is about 10 feet wide.

Your discussion here is fascinating to me, although I have nothing to contribute to it. It is a learning experience.

One observation. The "single individual" with building plans for the lot now wants a lawn or a YARD. But, in the future, does it appear a possibility that s/he might become a couple or a single person with a young child. Life has a way of throwing curves to even the most rigid of plans for our lives.

THEN what? The free space for lawn would be great for a child, provided there was interior space for bed and bath.
I'll watch this story evolve, as you consider the attached row house for yourself.

    Bookmark   May 19, 2010 at 4:36PM
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An 11-12 foot lot is no longer buildable in our city although there are plenty of small streets with houses this width. I did a project where we joined two houses on 12 foot lots (they were already partially joined). In the 11 foot interiors one house became staircases, bathrooms and kitchens, while the other house contained all the living spaces.

There is a house on the market here that is on a lot that is 12 wide by 80 long, and a house takes up most of it. I don't know how window requirement were met: some spaces must be distinctly narrower than 12 feet. The original house is about 200 years old.

Of the lots in question, I believe they are 15' or 16' wide, and 15 is the current buildable minimum. 15 or 16 seems commodious here, once you've been in one of the really narrow ones.

    Bookmark   May 19, 2010 at 5:09PM
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Here is some context:

This shows the street in the 1950s:

The large building with the textured brickface is still standing as a condominium, with the brickface removed. It is diagonally across the street from the house I am looking at. The cars are parked in the row of houses in question.

The white house is nicely restored. The warehouse above is in the intersection with the corner barely showing toward the right. The house I looked at and the one to be torn down are where the white wall is above the woman's head:

Here is a general view. The new houses (1960s) occupy a portion of the parking lot and the area behind it. The warehouse is to the left behind the tree, and the back of the larger house that now needs a yard is one of those under the faint skyscraper in the background:

Here is a look at the site now:

The house I looked at has the green trim. The house to be demolished has the maroon trim.

    Bookmark   May 19, 2010 at 7:38PM
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It seems like a palimpsest kind of place. (do I always comment on your name, love that word)
I too find this interesting, tho I have no wisdom to impart. Have you talked to the neighbor on the other side to find out what they think or know?

    Bookmark   May 19, 2010 at 10:14PM
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Well, both adjoining houses with end up with archectural palimpsests on them so maybe its fate.

I have talked to one of the neigbors via email. She is president of the greater neighbhorhood civic association.There is a meeting regarding the variances on the other house next week, and committee meeting to make a decision in June.

Whether or not the house stands will hinge on these decisions, but the owner has the right to demolish the house regardless. (Whether he will want to or not will be based on what kind of variances he gets on the other property).

    Bookmark   May 20, 2010 at 8:50AM
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I'm surprised the historical people don't have to sign off on a demolition just as they would on the garden wall. If they have control over one, why not the other? In Richmond, anything that concerns the exterior of a designated property or a historic district comes before their review, including demolition. Ironically, the biggest demo offender is the City itself, where properties 'accidently' disappear on a Friday night.

    Bookmark   May 20, 2010 at 11:17AM
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Thats the ironic part, in a way. The house to be torn down does not have historic designation (I think they should, they represent a unique period of time even though it was recent urban renewal).

The house fronting the other street does. By extension, after this house is gone and the parcel becomes part of that attached to the historic house, it becomes subject to their approval.

    Bookmark   May 20, 2010 at 12:33PM
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I here ya. I live in a historic district, but there are some 1950's era bungalows as infill. Those properties do not have historic designation on the national register and are listed as "non-contributing structures". Fortunately, in my case, they fall under a city historic district overlay.

    Bookmark   May 20, 2010 at 1:15PM
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There was a meeting with the board of the neighborhood association, preliminary to a vote of the board to make recommendations to the zoning board.

The variances on the other property include encroachment of current setback by 8" on one portion of the addition. The addition is angled and that 8" is necessary. The other variance is for %age of open space. The yard will meet square footage open requirements but not %age of the entire lot. (However his neighbors violate these as well, but are grandfathered)

He is not trying to barrel through the process: he has been through several architectural plans, had engineering reports, soil percolation and drainage studies, etc.

The reason he wanted to demolish the second house was that it could solve the setback issues and %age of open space. He was trying to meet requirements, the house came on the market, he was able to buy it (outright, I am assuming), and it solved his problems. I think he approached it as problem solving. There would be an impact on the character of the street, but I also don't think he would do anything that was not well-considered. But, if he does not get the variances, house #2 comes down...he has the permit in hand.

The street neighbors either support, of have made statements of "non-opposition" to the variances, and the neighbors on the walk support the variances unanimously so that he does not demolish house #2.

However the Zoning Board can ignore the neighborly support and the recommendation of the Neighborhood Association Board and refuse the variances.

    Bookmark   May 26, 2010 at 11:58AM
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Quality of life concerns I can't answer and really no one can, as no one can divine the future. If you end up unhappy, you can always sell.

So the only things that should concern you are anything that would prohibit a resale by you, for example, the structural integrity of your house if the neighbouring one comes down.

Or a cost item for you - do you have to redo your outside wall if this comes down? This might actually be an opportunity to do wiring or plumbing at that wall.


    Bookmark   May 31, 2010 at 1:07AM
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There are full concrete fire/party walls that extend through the roof between each house, so theoretically each house has an exterior wall on all four sides. Its just that two houses are attached to the side wall and although there shouldnt be...damage could occur.

    Bookmark   May 31, 2010 at 9:25PM
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