Op-Ed: Belmont Wants to Stop the Sale of Your Home

The author, Suzan Getchell-Wallace, is concerned with property rights and the city's consideration of requiring homeowners to replace/repair sewer laterals.

By Suzan Getchell-Wallace

Do you think the City of Belmont has the right to stop the sale of your private property? If you don’t show up to the City Council meeting on Tuesday, February 26 at 7:30 p.m. in the Council Chambers, One Twin Pines Lane, they very well could give themselves that power.

Under the guise of ‘consumer protection,’ the City Council wants to require property owners to pay to inspect their sewer lateral pipes – and if needed, repair or replace them – before the city will allow the home sale to close. And if you have to repair or replace the line, it will cost thousands of dollars ($7,500-$25,000) just to close escrow.  The proposal is part of a larger strategy for the upgrade of the treatment, disposal and control of wastewater. It sounds like a good idea until you begin reading the proposal.

It states clearly the city will require private property owners to replace their sewer laterals when they sell their home. In layperson’s terms, it’s called a ‘point-of-sale’ mandate.  Think you’re in the clear because you don’t plan on selling your home? If your home and the house next door are serviced by ‘Y’ lateral – they all have to be replaced - citywide - whether you sell or not.

If you’re wondering how they can do that, then you may not be aware that years ago, overall responsibility for the maintenance and repair of the sewer lateral system was offloaded from the city to its residents.

What does that really mean for the citizens of Belmont? It means the city has decided to place the burden of fixing a community-wide problem on the collective backs of people selling their home.

And here’s the kicker: Belmont is the only city in San Mateo County that is not being forced by litigation to enact this requirement. Aside from the implications to private property rights, it puts a city-wide problem on the shoulders of a small segment of the population. Is that equitable?

Whether Belmont’s sewer lateral systems are sufficient is an issue that impacts the entire community.  And thus far, smoke testing of the system has turned up a few major remediation problems. Ensuring the quality of the sewer lateral systems throughout Belmont is an important health and safety issue, so the solution should also be city-wide in scope.

Further, point-of-sale requirements are highly inefficient. As of the most recent annual figures (2012), the property turnover rate in Belmont was 2.3% (throughout the county, the average was 2% per year). Meaning 2.3% of the housing stock was sold every year. Translation: it will take approximately 44 years to address the sewer lateral issue IF the city waits until the point-of-sale to achieve the inspections and/or repairs.

Another concern for residents is the impact of point-of-sale mandates on the transaction itself.  In our current economic climate, there are a number of short sales and real estate-owned (REO) transactions that, for a number of reasons, require an expedited processing (most commonly to stave off foreclosure).  These point-of-sale mandates have caused delays or outright voiding of a transaction because the last minute costs are added to already negotiated sale which the lender may or may not approve.  How often has it happened in Belmont? Isn’t one family that could lose their opportunity to become a first time home owner enough? Or do we need a metaphorical roadway littered with such broken transactions and ultimately foreclosures?

Belmont already has a proposal in place to upgrade of the treatment, disposal and control of its sewer/wastewater and related systems without using a point-of-sale mandate. The City Council should adopt that recommendation to underscore to its residents that home ownership matters.  If not, what other city service (for which you already pay property taxes) will become your responsibility?

Suzan Getchell-Wallace, a broker with Coldwell Banker-Fahey Properties in Pacifica, is the 2013 President of the San Mateo County Association of REALTORS® (SAMCAR).

Marcus P. February 21, 2013 at 07:54 PM
" It means the city has decided to place the burden of fixing a community-wide problem on the collective backs of people selling their home." Wow, never met a realtor who thought socialism was a good idea. Maybe we should get the government to pay for all problems that homeowners have with their private property? Whatever happened to personal responsibility in this country? If my property has a problem, I fix it - I don't expect my neighbors to pay for it.
Steve Hayes February 21, 2013 at 09:28 PM
Marcus you obviously missed the point. Think about the smog inspections on cars. We all know a certain percentage of cars are not adequately maintained and we would all be better off if those cars were repaired. It would be inefficient to attack the problem by forcing everyone selling a car to get a smog check because that process would miss all of the cars not being sold. A better approach is to have ALL of the cars tested periodically . The same thinking should be applied to sewer pipe testing. Apply the testing to all 10,000 Belmont homes periodically. There is no good reason to interfere in the home sale transaction process and only test around 250 homes per year. The community tax payers already fund the Belmont Public Works Dept so have them periodically test all of the lateral lines and combine it with smoke testing. Then of course the homeowners will need to complete repairs.
Marcus P. February 21, 2013 at 10:18 PM
Mr. Hayes, you obviously missed my point. You and the writer are suggesting that taxpayers, including those who don't own homes, spend money to ensure that homeowners' properties are in compliance with local laws. I disagree. Why should a renter be on the hook for a neighboring homeowner's compliance? Ironically, your analogy supports my argument. When you get a smog check, who pays the smog check fee? The car owner or the taxpayer (including those who don't own cars)? The car owner does. You chose to own property; you should bear the cost of ensuring that such property is in compliance with our laws. Yes, we already pay for the Public Works Department. I would rather they spend our $ fixing roads than subsidizing private property owners' legal compliance. Also, the author worries that home sales may be jeopardized by this requirement (which seems to be working fine in neighboring cities). It seems like this is a positive to me - homeowners have an incentive to keep their property in good repair and buyers get notice that the seller isn't hiding a future liability. Again, I favor individual responsibility over passing the buck to the taxpayer.
Marcus P. February 21, 2013 at 10:33 PM
Sorry. One more thing. The title of this article is irresponsible, designed simply to stir up fear by purposefully telling only a fraction of the story. This would be no different than someone on the other side authoring a piece entitled, "Your Realtor Supports Poop in Your Drinking Water."
Tim Hoffman February 21, 2013 at 10:58 PM
I'm all for the ordinance under one simple condition: that the law include language requiring Councilmembers themselves to have their own homes in town be subject to such inspection immediately after passing it, just as if they were selling the property. If it's not so onerous of a requirement, then there shouldn't be a fuss, right?
Steve Hayes February 21, 2013 at 11:32 PM
Marcus Are you bothering to read what people are writing? The author of the story DID NOT suggest that taxpayer money to test or fix the sewer lines - she just suggested a citywide approach would be better than a POS approach that at best would not fix the problems for 40-50 years (if ever since some homes will never sell). I suggested using Public Works because they are already in our yards connecting the laterals to the main lines after the main lines are lined with PVC. It takes a couple of minutes to scope the lines (if that even works) which is not much time when you consider they are there for 3-4 hours working on the main line connections. I would not mind paying a small fee for the inspection once in a while (even though there is no problem with my PVC line), but I think the program should cover ALL of the homes and apartments - not just the few being sold.
Steve Hayes February 22, 2013 at 02:47 AM
I agree and why they are at it they should make sure they live up to the other codes - like fixing uneven/dangerous sidewalks in front of their homes. Also, they should remove or significantly trim trees they planted too close to their property lines and annoy their neighbors. - limiting views creating so much shade plants can not grow next door.
Michael Williams February 26, 2013 at 12:37 AM
I like your "sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander" approach to legislation, Steve. I'd love to see a National law requiring every US Senator and Representative who votes for war be required to lead the first troops onto the battlefield and remain until the last US troop leaves. As honorable leaders have done since Roman times. Oh, wait... aren't they too valuable to risk in battle? I think we all have the answer to that. Sadly, ain't gonna happen.
Carline February 26, 2013 at 02:39 PM
I support the council about forcing replacement of lateral lines. I live in San Carlos, and maybe three years after moving in, our lateral line failed. It was made of material not meant or able to last the 50 years since placement. The entire driveway under which it ran also needed replacement. This is a regional problem, like it or not, in an area with a plethora of homes built in the 1940s and 50s. Our neighbor's home's lateral also failed not long afterward. Decaying infrastructure has to be addressed -- this attitude of denial will not make it disappear. I commend the council for tackling this problem head on, and I personally find the realtors opinion piece to be hysterical and self serving. Also folks, when your lateral fails, it entails a complete failure of the toilet flushing in your home, and concomitant backups spewing from the shower and other outlets!


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