Saving Abandoned House from Demolition

by ruby faught
(columbus ohio united states)

Visitor Question: Hi. My in-laws have been taking care of the house next to them for the last 15 years, as in keeping the yard mowed and trimmed. This house has been empty for a long time and they were trying to see if they could buy this home and fix it up as their own.

They just recently found out from the neighborhood town meeting they want to demolish the house. How would they try to save this property so they can buy this home next door?

Editors Reply: We are assuming that since you called the house abandoned, you are referring to your city or town government when you say "they" want to demolish the house.

In that case, your in-laws (maybe with your help) need to approach that government right away and tell them of your family's interest in saving the house.

If it were any of our parents, we would request the information that caused the city, town, village, or county to be able to legally condemn the house in the first place. (Condemnation would be the process by which a government typically would initiate a demolition.)

This may give you some useful information about the house and property, or it might be too vague and obvious to help your in-laws know what they are getting into.

We are just trying to suggest gently that there could be structural or other building problems that your in-laws are not able to notice from their viewpoint of mowing the lawn. It is a powerful truth in community development that a vacant home never gets better on its own, and often deteriorates in ways both seen and unseen.

If the government would allow, it also would be very worthwhile for your in-laws to pay a building inspector, such as those used when houses are sold, to identify any not-so-obvious problems with the house.

When houses are not heated and cooled, and otherwise left abandoned, they often deteriorate significantly. All of these conditions may not be visible from the outside.

But before any of this can take place, your in-laws need to talk to the government that has decided to demolish this house. If they have not done this already, they need to do it today. When the demolition starts, typically most of the work can occur within one to three days when a house has been left to rot.

It is also possible that you mean that the property owner has decided to demolish the house. In that case, of course the only way to deal with the issue would be to approach the property owner directly and try to buy it.

Often owners of abandoned property quickly adopt an exaggerated view of its value when someone shows interest in buying it though. Don't think that you are going to buy it for a dollar.

Another very remote possibility is that some states and locations allow something called adverse possession. This means that people who have been treating property as their own for a specified number of years can assume the rights of ownership.

We think that would be very difficult to prove in Ohio and in most states, because usually the idea of using the property as one's own includes more than just mowing and trimming. It would include at a minimum actually living in the abandoned house, and it takes a number of years to establish that pattern.

So that is an extreme long shot, and your family should only consider that if you already have a relationship with an attorney that could think about the situation for five minutes and offer a free or inexpensive opinion. It does not seem likely to us.

In sum, your in-laws need to get to work on this immediately to see if there is anything that can be done. If the government is the one that is planning the demolition, they may well be interested in unloading the house at a low cost rather than enduring the expense and trouble of demolishing the house themselves. Probably they can place what is called a lien on the property to eventually get their money back, but sometimes they view this as something that will take a number of years. Usually a government is good about working with neighbors if they think there is any way the house can be saved.

Talk with them, starting with calling the building department first to see what the situation is. If there is no existing contract for demolition and they seem somewhat flexible, also call your in-laws' own city council person, if your city has wards or some other system of geographic representation. These two actions should start a conversation with the city, if they are open to not demolishing the house.

If you buy from the city, be aware that they may be able legally to establish a fast timetable for your in-laws to bring the house up to code, or at least to abate (remove or fix) the most serious code violations.

Click here to post comments

Join in and write your own page! It's easy to do. How? Simply click here to return to Housing Answers.

Join GOOD COMMUNITY PLUS, which provides you monthly with short features or tips about timely topics for neighborhoods, towns and cities, community organizations, and rural or small town environments. Unsubscribe any time. Give it a try.