Mike writes: I purchased a lot that was owned by the city I live in. Years ago the city used the lot as a dump for tree stumps, chunks of concrete, brick, and cut logs. The builder discovered the fill when excavating for the foundation. Since he could not build on top of this, he had to dig much deeper and use much more material, which ended up costing me more than $10,000 out of pocket. The city did not disclose that the land had been filled with trash when selling the lot. The lot is in a development with about 12 other houses in it. I believe that junk cleared from the other lots were dumped into mine, then graded and planted with grass. Any advice I can get would be great — is there legal action I can take? Or am I going to have to bite the bullet?
Steve Bliss of BuildingAdvisor.com responds: A filled site can usually be built on if the fill material is suitable to carry the required load, was properly compacted when filled, and does not contain any toxic materials or organic material such as wood (which will rot and leave voids). Unfortunately, this is rarely the case with filled sites which can hide a lot of sins and, like yours, be planted over to look just fine to the casual observer. A soil or geotechnical engineer would need to take test borings at number of locations to establish the suitability of such a site.
Clearly the town should have disclosed the condition of the soil when they sold you the land, and they were probably obligated to do so under modern disclosure laws in most states – that is, if they were aware of the problem. In the bad old days, “Let the buyer beware” was pretty much the rule in real estate transactions. The trend has shifted toward making the seller of real estate more responsible to inform the buyer of known defects. Even with such laws on the books, however, it may be difficult to prove that the seller knew of a defect. Other issues to consider are the cost of bringing a lawsuit – typically well in excess of $10,000, and the fact that the seller is a municipality. Can you sue a city in small claims court? Again, this varies by state as well as the maximum amount of a claim in small claims court.
To determine your specific rights in your state, and the best strategy for resolving your dispute, you would need to talk to a lawyer — many will speak to briefly for free and tell you whether you have a snowball’s chance in heck. Laws on disclosure of defects vary from state to state, and “defects” in land are most likely treated differently than defects in an existing building.
Bottom line, I’m sad to say, is that you may need to bite the bullet. Hopefully, you got a good deal on the lot and the $10K bite is not so bad.
Buying a Townhouse Built Over a Filled Ravine
We are looking at a house built 2006. Is the building still settling? It’s built over a ravine that was fillled in with dirt and gravel when built. No structural damage is evident, but a little settlement of the house is obvious in the slight slant of living room. No other noticeable settlement. Is house safe to purchase?
Any house foundation built on fill may be subject to uneven or excessive settling. But the risk is greater when building on fill – and especially for fill on a steep site. It is difficult to get adequate compaction on a steep slope such as the edge of a ravine.
The degree of settling will depend on the quality of the fill, its bearing capacity (strength to support a load), and the location and size of the of house loads that bear on the soil.
To guard against significant settling, it is important that the contractor use suitable fill materials under a home, and compact them properly. Sometimes, corners are cut due to the cost of quality fill and the labor and equipment required to properly compact the fill.
It’s possible that the “slight slant” in the living room is caused by framing errors, wood decay, or shrinking lumber, rather than foundation problems so that needs to be checked out as well as the foundation.
Assuming that the slope is caused by foundation settlement, and the house was built 16 years ago, most likely the soil has fully settled and you won’t experience additional problems. However, there’s always the possibility that the foundation movement is caused by a current problem, such as subsurface water eroding the soil under a footing. Also, extreme conditions such as heavy rains or a small earthquake could trigger additional soil movement.
An important clue will be whether other townhomes in the development, especially those adjacent to this unit, have experience similar problems. Check with the neighbors and check with the homeowner’s association.
Bottom line: Most likely, you will not experience additional settlement, but to be safe, have the building assessed by a structural, soils, or geotechnical engineer to identify the source of the problem and any required remediation. Make this a contingency of your offer.
You can read more on the topic at these links:
Building on Concrete Rubble
Soil Washed Away Under Foundation
Buried Debris, Erosion, and Foundation Damage
Buried Rubble, Building On
Poor Soils, Building On
Should We Build on Site With Buried Rock, Trees & Debris
We are getting ready to build on a 4-acre oil drilling pad that was never used. A neighbor just told us that the trees they cleared were buried in holes dug by an excavator lengthwise across the pad. Also, they brought in many many many loads of rock type of material.
They had heavy equipment, including graders, bulldozers, sheepsfoot, other compactors, and big soil mixers. What little I saw they were mixing, rolling and leveling with graders. It looked like they might have even brought in lime to mix but I cannot be sure.
Since we are looking to build a post-and-beam structure with a concrete slab. how can I be sure the foundation will hold up, and know where the debris was buried. Any advice will be helpful.
I’m not familiar with oil pads as they don’t drill for oil in my part of the world, but the issues are similar on any industrial site, including the possible cleanup cost for toxic waste discovered on the site..
In general, it’s risky to build on a filled site, unless you can confirm that the fill was good quality material (sand, gravel, crushed stone, etc.) that was compacted properly — probably not the case here. For one thing, buried trees are going to decay over time and leave voids, leading to uneven settling.
If you can find a portion of the site where the soil was undisturbed, that would be your best choice for a home site.
Otherwise, I wouldn’t build there without a soils engineer inspecting the site and spec’ing out a foundation that would work. That might mean over-excavating and adding good compacted fill, or building a structural slab with lots of extra rebar so it can span over the weak spots in the base. People sometimes use reinforced grade beams, driven piles, or helical piers for building on questionable soils. Unless this is the perfect building site at a great price, you may want to keep looking.
Read more on building over Buried Debris and Poor Soils
Lawsuit Over Filled Land?
I was sold land that I am building on. The basement has been dug out and now my excavation contractor has found out that 23 feet is filled land. I have to get an engineer to determine if I need steel beams instead of block. I’m wondering if I could sue for the extra costs of my home?
There are a variety of technical solutions to build safely on filled land and you are smart to hire an engineer to specify and oversee that portion of the project.
As for suing to recover the added construction costs (or reduced value of the land), that is a possibility. Disclosure laws for real estate vary from state to state and may be different for land vs. an existing home. About 30 states require sellers to disclose known defects in vacant land they offer for sale. The key is proving that the seller knew about the defect and intentionally withheld the information.
In other states, land is generally sold “as is” and it becomes the buyer’s responsibility to investigate the land thoroughly under the age-old principle of “Let the buyer beware.”
The language in your Purchase & Sales contract also comes into play. If the seller specifically warranted that the land was free from buried debris or whatever defect you discover, then you have grounds to recover your losses or even to rescind the sales contract.
Regardless of state law and your specific sales contract, you still have grounds to recover if you can prove that the seller committed fraud, that is intentionally lying to make the sale. The legal self-help publisher Nolo.com defines fraud as “intentionally deceitful or misleading words or actions that wrongfully benefit the perpetrator of the fraud at the personal or monetary expense of another.”
These are legal questions and I am not a lawyer. I’d recommend getting the opinion of a lawyer with extensive experience in real estate litigation. He or she can help you determine whether you have a strong legal claim and whether it would be cost-effective to sue. Small Claims Court might be another option to explore.
See also: Foundation Damage From Buried Debris