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).