Notice to property owner when building posted unsafe

by Pam jones
(Dyersburg TN)

Reviewed: June 12, 2024

Visitor Question: Can the city say a building is unsafe without going inside, and can it put a sign on your building without notifying you the homeowner?

Editors Reply: To answer your first question, yes, it is fairly common for a city to make the determination that a building is unsafe without entering the building.

Some of the most severe building structure problems can be observed from the exterior. A roof or a porch that is about to cave in can be spotted from the street. An improper entrance of the electrical service into the home can be seen from the outside. Sometimes brick, stone, or a decorative element on or near the top of the building has started to fall off, and this condition would cause the building department to declare the building unsafe.

There are many conditions that could cause this determination. The inspector is not just exercising independent judgment here. The conditions that are considered unsafe, or that make the building not fit for human habitation, are spelled out to some extent in the code.

If this is your building, and you don't understand exactly what caused the city to decide your building is unsafe, go to the city hall immediately and have a conversation with the employee or manager that made this decision. Make sure you understand what must be done to remedy this situation.

Now we will deal with your second question about whether advance notice is required before the sign is placed on the building. In our experience this does not always happen. Most building departments would say that the first priority is to get the sign or notice onto the door, since that is designed to protect the public, not the building owner.

However, written notice to the property owner certainly should follow. Of course it is possible that your particular city does not require a written notice, but that is pretty unlikely. Most cities adopt a standard building code with very few changes, if any.

If it has been several days and you have not received a written notice, ask the city about this also. It is possible of course that your name or mailing address is not correct in the county's database, so any letter sent to you might be returned to the city as undeliverable. Most cities send these letters by certified mail, but often the post office is rather slow in returning the letters it cannot deliver.

It is important that you deal with this situation right now, because usually a sign only goes on the door when the city has started a process that could eventually lead to them demolishing your building and putting a lien on your property that would allow them to eventually recover the cost when the property is sold or transferred.

If this is what is happening in your case, you want to give yourself the maximum amount of time possible to either dispute the city's determination that your home or building is unsafe, or to make the repairs that the city requires.

By the way, if you decide you want to dispute the city's claim, you will need to hire some independent experts to help you make your case. The city is extremely unlikely just to give in to some argument that you make.

Of course, you can have a contractor come look at the work that the city would require just to give you an idea of how much it would cost to make the repairs. Having the contractor make a bid should not cost you anything. Ideally you should get at least three bids, since they can vary widely. Collecting this information would help you make a better decision about the future of the building.

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