Homeowner Liability

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Upstate homes typically come with some envisioned projects. The house surely needs some work, and if not, you can turn the shed into the guest house, and after that, the English gardens, and after that, build out the basement. The idea of a project – some big, some small – definitely dances delightfully in the imagination of many second homeowners.

Help with these projects can be challenging – the broken promises, the missed deadlines, or the worst case scenario, a deposit made with no work done in return. Most homeowners – old and new – have a story to tell about a run-in with a vendor that didn’t work out.

The labor pool to select from can be shallow, especially if you don’t know where to look. This can create a situation of urgency, and in a way, prevent due diligence – even for typically smart and cautious people.

I was reminded of this fact recently with an incident at a home we built in 2009, when 2 adults escaped with their two toddlers from a fire that didn’t destroy the home but was certainly frightening. Of course everyone and anyone got dragged into a lawsuit as the insurance companies looked to spread the cost of responsibility. Turns out the likely cause was that the homeowner hired a ‘fireplace guy’ who converted a gas fireplace insert into one with wood burning capacity – an effort that would require extreme care and procedure. As a careful builder the news of a fire was alarming (forgive the pun), but since no one was hurt, and we and our subcontractors are fully and overly insured, the incident was a near miss and hopefully a learning experience.

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Although fireplaces are a wonderful addition to your home, they come with their fair share of difficulties.

Our liability – actually, our lack of liability – hinged on the fact the homeowners hired their own vendor 3 years post purchase who may or may not have been properly insured and may or may not have known how to properly convert a fireplace. Now the situation gets messy since there were no permits, the vendor lacked insurance and the insurance company sees an escape from paying – a delicacy they rarely refuse. So you have 2 responsible adults – one even an attorney – who had the right insurance and were not trying to fool anyone, thinking they were doing the right thing but may now be on the hook for a $200,000 repair bill because their home improvement decisions resulted in an incident they may not be covered for, while the vendor they hired had little if any insurance.

Upstate projects are fraught with disappointing vendor experiences and demand proper insurance. Check with your own insurance company about your coverage while improvements are made to your sanctuary, and find reputable contractors. Anything else can result in a very nasty life altering experience and the discovery of what it means to have a true unlimited liability for a freak and unforeseen accident.

About Catskill Farms

Charles Petersheim founded design/build firm Catskill Farms in 2002 in Sullivan County. Continually inspired wholly by regional architecture, his 180 new old homes dot the Hudson Valley, including Sullivan, Ulster and Dutchess counties. His 20 years of Catskills building have given him broad perspective on how to succeed upstate, be it with farming, building, small business or just relaxing on the front porch.

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