No End in Sight
Worse than living next-door to a construction project is living next-door to one that grinds to a halt.
Residents on one Redondo Beach street look forward to the day when construction crews start making noise again. For more than a year, neighbors have been comparing notes about the half-finished remodel, wondering when--and if--it will ever be done.
The residents on either side of the home moved away a year ago, so now new neighbors listen to the flapping plastic covering and try to make sure teenagers don’t try to use the site as a party zone.
In early September the city issued a notice to clear debris on public nuisance grounds and the property was tidied, but months later, construction has yet to resume. The chicken wire awaiting stucco covering continues to rust from exposure to the elements.
“We’d like to have it done,” said next-door neighbor Seth Berger, whose wife, Colleen, recently had a baby, and who worries about the value to their property the longer the work remains unfinished.
No one is more dismayed than the owners of the home. Donald and Katherine Madden ended up in court suing their now-bankrupt contractor. They have little chance of collecting a fraction of the judgment they won or of living in their partially completed house any time soon. The whole process even broke up their 17-year marriage.
The Maddens’ predicament is extreme even by the standards of typical stalled construction projects, which tend to revolve around money constraints or disputes between contractors and homeowners. Under the state’s Uniform Building Code, a project isn’t considered abandoned until six months pass without work.
Smaller cities might see only a handful of stalled projects each year. “It’s not that common,” said Redondo Beach code enforcement officer Larry Baker.
But as chief building inspector for the sprawling city of Los Angeles, Bob Steinbach encounters many stalled or abandoned projects. While the department doesn’t track these cases, Steinbach has heard many explanations for the delays.
“It may be the homeowner got into a dispute with the contractor, they want to change the plans, or it may be money,” Steinbach said. “Just sitting here, I can think of a dozen reasons.”
He said he thinks the primary cause of delays is disputes between contractors and homeowners. Contractors working on spec usually want to turn the project around as quickly as possible so they can sell the home and repay the loan.
Under the state Building Code, building permits last for a two-year period, which may seem like an eternity to neighbors coping with the disruptions construction invariably brings. Contractors may request a six-month extension or take out another two-year permit for the portion of the project not completed if the original expires. However, if the latter occurs, they may have to resubmit their plans if the code has changed. The state tends to pass a new code after every major earthquake.
Redondo Beach chief building officer Steve Huang said projects usually finish before the first year is up, rarely exceeding the two years allotted in the permit.
Building officials caution neighbors that projects may seem stalled when they’re merely moving at a slower pace than neighbors would like.
“People call and ask, ‘How long am I going to have to deal with this?’” said Hermosa Beach senior inspector Charlie Schwartz. “What the law says is: As long as they’re making progress, it’s OK.”
In Palos Verdes Estates, home to several multi-year construction projects in recent years, the city works with contractors to make sure they paint the house and landscape “where appropriate” while interior detail work is being completed. Planning director Allan Rigg said the city does this to reduce the nuisance from extended projects and contacts contractors at the rate of once every three months.
“Construction is always disruptive to any neighborhood--that will always be the case,” Rigg said. “But we really work to mitigate the impact.”
Although municipalities try to keep their eye out for lagging projects, it’s usually neighbors who call attention to the situation. They’re more likely to notice lack of progress than an inspector occasionally driving by.
“There are a couple ways we can tickle the job,” Steinbach said. “I may mark my calendar and, if I don’t see any progress on a job, I’ll check back on it.”
He said about 5% to 10% of inspections are devoted to follow-up visits. Every week, his department conducts 12,000 inspections of new construction projects alone. “But usually the first indications come from neighbors,” Steinbach said.
If building departments suspect a project has stalled, they usually try to contact the contractor first. Schwartz said Hermosa Beach sends letters to owners of abandoned projects to try to find out what’s going on.
“If we think there has been no construction progress in 180 days, we can expire the permit, but we don’t have to,” Steinbach said. “We usually try to find out why no progress is being made.”
The last thing cities want to do is throw a monkey wrench into a troubled project and delay it further--that’s not good for the community, Steinbach said. “We do not want to be punitive because that doesn’t do anybody any good.”
At the same time, cities try to make sure the property has not become an eyesore or a safety hazard attracting kids or drug activity. If they determine it has, they might notify the owner to clean up the property.
“If they don’t, we have the authority to clean it up and charge them for it,” Steinbach said. “We try not to enforce it, but the tools are there if we need to use them.”
According to Steinbach, in the entire city of Los Angeles, “you could count the number of filings in the past six months on one hand.”
In a worst-case scenario, an abandoned project might have to be demolished. But that is considered drastic and highly unusual.
Far better is for construction to resume, such as the work on two new homes a few blocks away from the Maddens’ in Redondo Beach. An existing home was demolished, but work stalled in the early stages. The project sat idle for months and months, to the point where weeds sprung up around a tractor parked on the site. Construction eventually resumed and, nearly three years later, two new homes are for sale.
Meanwhile, the Maddens are trying to stave off foreclosure and secure financing to get their house finished. “Here I am, stuck with a lot of payments and no way to go,” Madden said. “It’s an ugly story, but maybe something good will come of it.”
If Construction Stalls, Call City
If a construction project in your neighborhood seems to have stalled before completion, contact your city’s building department. It can advise you whether the project has been abandoned and send a code enforcement officer to make sure the site isn’t violating safety or nuisance ordinances.
The city of Los Angeles has a toll-free number, (888) LA4-BUILD, to handle resident building and safety inquiries. Consult your phone book for the number of the building department in your city.
Diane Garrett is a Redondo Beach-based freelance writer.