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BEFORE YOU BUY A HOME
When it comes to homebuying, your Realtor can be your best friend, or he or she could just be the person who’s trying to unload a listing on you. Whether you’re buying a home or a condo or you’re just renting, it pays to know all you can about your neighbors and your neighborhood before you move in the TV.
It’s time again to flex your GRAMA skill. This time, think of requesting police-incident reports for the address of your prospective home as a kind of background check on your domicile. Call your local police station and ask if they have a special GRAMA form that can be downloaded from their website. Then request all incident reports for that address for a specific time period. The cost of a request may vary, depending on how far back you want to see reports. (For GRAMA tips and etiquette, see “GRAMA Knows Best”)
If there are few or no reports, then this service may cost little to nothing. You could also ask nicely of the police department’s records guru about searching nearby addresses or, to be more meticulous, you could submit the addresses of all the buildings on your street. This could give you a feel for whether the area is prone to burglaries, or if your neighbor’s band is prone to rocking out into the wee hours of the morning.
You can also check with your local health department to see if that funny smell coming from the house is really because the previous owner had too many cats or if the previous owner’s cottage industry was cooking meth. Visit Health.Utah.gov/meth/html/decontamination/decondetails.html#list and check the bottom of the page for a list of links to local health departments where you can search for the list of contaminated meth properties.
Know Your Hoodrats
Public records and resources are good, but sometimes, nothing beats talking to the people who know a neighborhood best—local community councils. At the neighborhood level, homeowners often don’t know about community councils until it’s too late—that is, until a cell-phone tower, power box or halfway house is already being built next to someone’s home. The dedicated neighborhood watchers of your community council, however, will know all the details about your prospective neighborhood and will be glad to jaw with you about the pluses and minuses of the area. In Salt Lake City, find local community council information at SLCGov.com/CommCouncils.
Plan on Planning and Zoning and Everything Else
Another curveball to be on the watch for is how your neighborhood handles renovations and improvements (or, depending on how you look at it, demolitions and eyesores). By visiting the state’s public meeting notices website at Utah.gov/pmn/index.html, you can search for all public meetings in a neighborhood, including area city-council meetings, planning and zoning meetings and school-district meetings. Each listing includes a staff contact person whom you can call and ask about pressing issues on your street, find out if they’re raising property taxes for new parks or crosswalks or find out if the city is holding hearings on new developments in the area.
Everyone deserves a second chance, but there’s nothing wrong with knowing which of your neighbors are already on theirs. Visit the Utah Department of Corrections at Corrections.Utah.gov/services/sonar.html to see if any registered sex offenders live in your neighborhood.
MediaOne’s public-records supersite, UtahsRight.com, is a nifty place for all sorts of public-records gawking, but for the prospective home buyer/renter, the site has in recent years added a new function that allows you to search for parolees and offenders on probation by zip code: http://extras.sltrib.com/offenders/. This information is new as of January 2011, but you could go the extra mile and GRAMA the information yourself through Utah Corrections by contacting Utah’s Department of Corrections.
BEFORE YOU PUT THAT NEW KITCHEN IN
Now that you’ve GRAMA’d and researched your way into a home and have successfully avoided living on the corner of Meth Lane and Stab Street, you may come to realize your fixer-upper needs the expertise of a good contractor. After you Google some possible contractors, make sure they actually have a license, or you’ll risk getting duped like the folks who hired the Backwood Cabinetry con artist Steven Sizemore.
Sizemore was sentenced in July to up to 15 years in state prison for a three-year period during which he took customers’ money for cabinet-making jobs that he never delivered upon. Sizemore apparently was better at making empty promises than making cabinets and, according to the Utah Department of Commerce, swindled 21 victims out of $117,000. Those victims could have saved themselves a lot of trouble had they first checked Sizemore’s license status and seen that he was not licensed at all.
It’s an easy first step to go to the Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing website at DOPL.Utah.gov and click on the “Verify License” link. There you can check to make sure your contractor is licensed and, under the “Agency & Disciplinary Actions Search,” you can also check to see if the state has taken any action against the contractor’s license for shoddy work or leaving folks high and dry with unfinished jobs.
Keep an Eye on Contractor Money
An underused but stellar tool for homeowners who want greater control over the work that goes into a renovation or construction project is the State Construction Registry. If a homeowner writes one big check to a contractor, that contractor can take that money and divvy it out to subcontractors and suppliers whom the homeowner may never meet or know anything about. If the project gets finished but somewhere down the supply line a subcontractor has shorted a supply company on lumber, tile or any other material, that supplier can smack a lien on the homeowner, who will be forced to pay double on supplies while the shady middleman is already onto the next job.
However, contractors are required by law to sign on to the State Construction Registry SCR.Utah.gov. This way, each person involved in building or renovating a home—from the contractor to the subs to the supplier—registers online along with how much money they are supposed to receive. This way, the homeowner can see how much each party needs and write a check to each one for exactly that amount. It also gives the homeowner the power to see who the subcontractor actually is so you can check them out with DOPL to see if he or she has a license or has gotten into trouble with the state before.
You can also see what projects contractors are currently working on at the State Construction Registry, which might give you an idea if the contractor is serious about finishing your job within the month or if he or she is trying to rush through half a dozen jobs at the same time.