This post is a true story. Oddly it’s a story I feel like I’ve been telling for many years, ingrained and intertwined in the fabric of my family. It is a sad story, a personal story and a story I’m glad I can finally share.
In February 2010, 2.5 years after moving from Vancouver to Calgary, I accepted a job that brought my family and I back to Vancouver. A couple months later we bought a house and for the next few months I travelled back-and-forth every other week while our son finished up kindergarten. I stayed in the house when in town and slowly unpacked after work each night. In late June with school done, we headed back to the West Coast.
The house we bought, an old-timer (Edwardian) built in 1908, had been renovated top-to-bottom. Overall it was in pretty good shape for its age. It needed some work in a few areas, but nothing we weren’t accustomed to doing. Having purchased homes before, we knew what we were getting into. We didn’t get caught up in the hype, money battles with other bidders, nor did we buy blindly or without subjects. We did our due diligence and had a detailed house inspection and also brought a structural engineer in to review a slight tilt in the foundation to make sure there was nothing to be concerned with. In addition, we spoke with the current owner of the home and the owners prior to them.
Like many Vancouver houses, our house had an illegal suite in the ground floor walkout basement. It was a decent sized one bedroom, suitable for a student or someone single. With a college/university nearby and easy access to transit, we’d have no problem renting it out.
We were fortunate that we didn’t need the income from the suite to make our mortgage payment or to afford the home, but decided to have it legalized with the City of Vancouver so we could rent it out. Our thinking was that the revenue would be helpful in offsetting future renovations and even ongoing maintenance of the house. In addition, we were OK with a smaller footprint since we really didn’t need the downstairs space with only three of us living here. And if in the end we didn’t like having a tenant or our needs changed, we could easily convert it back to living space. So we had three City inspectors — building, electrical and plumbing — inspect the whole house. A month later we got a letter from the City summarizing the work that needed to be done and began work.
It was at this time that found out that the house had once had a major fire. At this point in the story, most people get a picture in their mind of some smoke damage, isolated to a small area, but rectified. Or maybe of a bit of fire damage later contained by firefighters and repaired. In actuality it was quite the opposite. Looking up at the basement ceiling, all you could see was char. Every joist, the sub-floor and most of the structure was burnt crisp and looked more like the stuff you see near the end of a weekend of camping. The pictures below will give you a better idea of what I mean.
Following the discovery, the electrician and his helper progressively peeled drywall back and it just kept revealing even more fire damage. By the end of the day our basement was stripped to stud and there was a huge pile of debris on our driveway. What was once supposed to be a small electrical and contracting job was suddenly something much larger.
Our first step was to bring the City of Vancouver building inspector and a structural engineer to the house. Given the damages it wasn’t clear whether we could even still live here or whether it was even safe. We got the OK, had some bracing installed, got a 60-day extension to submit a new plan and drawings to the City and tried to figure out what was next. Because we had started the process with the City, we had to complete the process. But given the damage, the scope of estimating and planning had to involve numerous others including a fire remediation company, structural and other building experts to determine a path forward. We did drawings, got things stamped and sealed and submitted to the City for review and filed our permit application. All this cost money.
Our second step was to contact a lawyer – one who specialized in construction and real estate litigation. Thankfully we got a good one.
Our legal efforts started with a demand letter to the person we purchased the home from. Shortly thereafter we received a reply – they knew nothing of a fire. Some dialogue ensued between counsel, new counsel was hired by the other party and denials continued. As we proceeded down the legal path, I set out to investigate and gather details and as much proof as I could uncover. This turned out to be a smart decision, as it helped us piece together the story of our house, this fire and the many people involved. Here’s what we learned:
- We think the fire took place in our house sometime ago. As to when exactly the fire occurred we may never know. The Vancouver Fire Department hasn’t located any fire records. The City of Vancouver never went back to ensure that the fire damage was properly repaired and no information was ever put on the title to make future purchasers aware of the fire.
- We know that the house was sold back in 1995 in a probate sale from a person we’ll call “B”. The owner had occupied the house for some time. The fire may or may not have occurred when B owned the house and when B sold the house the realtor who sold the home knew nothing of a prior fire nor was anything disclosed that we’ve been able to find.
- The couple, who purchased from B, we’ll call “M”. This was the M’s first house. They did extensive renovations to the house shortly after purchase. The renovations were top-to-bottom and included plumbing, electrical, framing, some foundational work, drywall, a new kitchen, roof, etc. There’s likely more. To what extent we don’t really know, as they’ve never disclosed this information to us. We’ve been able to surmise what work they likely undertook from dates on materials (wiring, plumbing, drywall are all date/time stamped when manufactured). M’s work would have shown the fire damage in it’s entirety. Electrical wire and plumbing was run through burnt joists and framing and drywall was screwed directly to burnt materials. M later, in a without prejudice meeting, revealed that they knew about the fire.
- M sold the house to “Q”, a friend of theirs. From the copy of the property disclosure statement between M and Q that we were able to get, the fire was not mentioned. Chances are good that Q didn’t know about it, at least on paper. Q lived in the house with her family. About a year after moving into the house someone did renovations in an untouched area of the basement. Like M’s renovations these were done without permit, but they show a level of quality that aligns to a weekend warrior, not a tradesman. Those renovations included framing, drywall and electrical that also would have revealed the fire damage. These renovations also covered up some other defects. They also revealed a set of initials on the ceiling and a date – that of Q’s now deceased husband. Q moved out a few years later after her husband was killed and rented out the house until she sold it to us in 2010. When it came time for Q to sell the house, the fire damage, the work Q did without permit, nor the work that M did without permit was disclosed to us.
From a legal standpoint, we only really had a case against Q. The burden of proof was on us and we had to prove that Q knew about the fire damage. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. In fact, all Q had to say was “I didn’t know”. Unless we could prove otherwise, we were unlikely to recover anything. Later on as we pieced together details on the house, we decided to involve M as well – this was a good decision. How the law works is that we sue Q and she in turn sues M if she felt they weren’t forthright in their disclosure. It was in M’s interest to avoid being dragged into this matter indirectly and to help find a resolution.
In the end we explored all angles we could, but nothing could be found to help us prove things conclusively. In the meantime the other two parties came forth with a settlement offer – and we rejected it. They came back with another counter offer – and we rejected it. They then came back with a final offer, this one time-limited – so we had some decisions in front of us:
- We could settle without going to court. The sum was not great, but likely better than proceeding to trial.
- We could push forward, hoping for a larger dollar amount to come out prior to trial. In all likelihood though, the parties involved would have taken their chances and both had deep pockets.
- We could proceed to trial, dropped the writ, attempt to carry the legal costs over the next couple years (expected to be in excess of $150K) and hope for a sympathetic judge who would have sided in our favour. At best that would have gotten us a judgment with no guarantees that we’d be able to collect. In the meantime we’d still have a damaged home and all of our legal costs to contend with.
- We could have rode it out, went to court and lost. In this case we would have been on the hook for our legal costs, a substantial portion of both M and Q’s legal costs, and still had a damaged house to deal with.
During all of these we’d be living in a substantially damaged home.
We recently settled with M and Q. The decision to settle was a difficult one. It didn’t feel satisfying. I liken it to having some food you’ve been thinking about for days only to find out that it was not what you were craving. We got some money, but still have our legal costs to pay, so the balance will be less than is needed to remedy the fire damages.
The path in front of us is complicated and each of the options – selling, repairing or rebuilding – all pose challenges for us financially.
I’ve spent many sleepless nights and have beaten myself up, wondering what else we could have done. I’ve pulled at small threads hoping that something would lead to a bigger piece of yarn and that they would maybe eventually expose a silver bullet that we could use to win our case. But those never came.
I’m mad about the options ahead. We may have to sell at a major loss. Our equity that we’ve worked hard to build will be gone. The prospects of starting over are daunting and not something I had expected to have to do in my 40’s. It is compounded by where we live, in a city of multi-million dollar homes, where we may be unable to find a new home. If we choose to stay in the house, the costs to repair – in the multi-hundreds of thousands of dollars – are extensive and are going to place additional burdens on us financially. They are also likely to be full of surprises given the limited disclosure we’ve had from the prior owners during this legal process.
I’m mad that the organizations that should protect us in the end really don’t. The City of Vancouver who’s fireman likely put out the blaze years ago but didn’t take the time to ensure proper repairs were undertaken or that records were attached to the home for future buyers to consider; BC Assessment and the City who happily noted a “major improvement” to the property in 2000 so they could collect more taxes and show an ever-increasing valuation, but who never explored the work undertaken; and the courts – who really didn’t protect our investment and who offer up a weak Property Disclosure Statement that holds few sellers accountable.
But mostly, I’m mad because along the way seemingly intelligent people made decisions, evaluated risk and made choices that brought us to this point. They elected not to be honest and that when given the opportunity to stand up and doing something right, they chose not to take responsibility. In the meantime, their lives go on, a bit lighter in their pocketbooks, but getting essentially getting away with murder.