A hole opened in front of home we're inspecting. What do I need to do?
April 20, 2014 9:31 AM   Subscribe

We're under contract on a home and the inspection was yesterday. During the inspection, the front tire of the inspector's van collapsed into a hole in the road. I'm obviously now worried about the house.

A photos of the hole is here. It's about 2 feet wide and looking inside, it's quite deep (I couldn't see the bottom).

The hole is not directly in front of the house but rather between the house we're buying and the neighbor's house. The fire hydrant in the photo was apparently installed a year or two ago so perhaps that has something to do with the hole.

As buyer of the home, is this a potential Florida style sinkhole (I'm in NJ) that I should be worrying about or more of a common municipal roadwork issue that shouldn't affect my property? I plan to call the department of public works in the town tomorrow to inquire but is there anything else I should be doing in terms of independent inspection before going ahead with the purchase?
posted by gfrobe to Home & Garden (15 answers total)
What did the home inspector say?
posted by Joh at 9:39 AM on April 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

When was the home you are buying built?
posted by kimdog at 9:40 AM on April 20, 2014

You ask your real estate agent and lawyer if this is something you can use to end the contract. If not, you take issue with something else. And you tell the seller to figure this out. Nobody else is going to buy it when there's a hole in the road, without knowing whether it affects the property. You can go back and buy it later.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 9:42 AM on April 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

The inspection is to give you a chance to get out of buying the property if something is seriously wrong, for example if random holes are opening up in the yard. Unless they're portals to another time/dimension, in which case please do buy the house and invite me over.
posted by teremala at 9:45 AM on April 20, 2014 [26 favorites]

I wouldn't panic (yet). Ask the inspector, call the county... but do not back out unless you know for sure. That fire hydrant right there... no coincidence, I think. One thing I would check is, would the owner be liable for paying ANY of the bill for repairs? Will the repairs necessitate the lawn being torn up?
posted by brownrd at 9:48 AM on April 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

First, look at the agreement you signed to get the house under contract to begin with. It will contain "contingencies" which are reasons why you're allowed to back out. For example, there's an inspection contingency so you can back out if the inspection reveals problems. You want to see what other contingencies there are. Does your contract allow for a structural inspection or other to-be-named specialized inspections? Talk to your agent and look at the document yourself.

Second, yes, talk to city hall and anyone else you can reach locally. Look in local news archives to see if there have been sinkholes in the area.

Third, try to find a geologic map of your area. Often these are online if you look persistently. The first thing you want to know is, is the bedrock in your area karst or limestone?

You are absolutely right to look into this and not just ignore it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:52 AM on April 20, 2014

Just quickly, here's a general geologic map of New Jersey (PDF). The areas marked as Devonian or Silurian there are the most obvious places where one would worry about sinkholes.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:57 AM on April 20, 2014

Here's a USGS overview page about sinkholes, which has a map of areas in the US with the most susceptible bedrock. In New Jersey, again, that's the northwest part of the state.

If you're in the northwest part of the state, you can probably find a more detailed geologic map, either for mining/resources or for hazards, and that might allow you to see what the bedrock is more specifically under the place you're considering.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:09 AM on April 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks. The home was built in 1940. The home inspector was not alarmed and said it was a road works issue and not to worry about it.

Lobstermitten, the home is not in Devonian or Silurian. It's gneiss, granite (Morris).

I will call back inspector tomorrow but I think he's going to tell me the same thing he said before. As a home inspector, I'm not sure sinkholes in the road would necessarily be his area of expertise.

Like I said, I'll call Department of Public Works tomorrow but if they tell me it's simply a road repair and not my problem, who would I go to check into this further? Also, is there a difference between a small road collapse like this and a sinkhole? In other words, are these kinds of road issues common?
posted by gfrobe at 10:23 AM on April 20, 2014

These kinds of holes are not unusual anywhere. The holes and the conditions that cause them (possibly a little leakage from the hydrant) are easily repaired. The house will be fine.
posted by beagle at 10:40 AM on April 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'd be very surprised if this didn't have something to do with that hydrant and nothing to do with the house.
posted by humboldt32 at 11:11 AM on April 20, 2014

It could be just an extra large pot hole. I am wondering if there is a small leak in the hydrant below the road bed. That, coupled with months of freeze-thaw cycles during a particularly hash winter could generate some pretty mean pot holes.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 11:23 AM on April 20, 2014

Maybe you can be reassured with this image of a fire hydrant installation. As you can see, they need to dig out pretty deep (sometimes deeper I'm sure, depending on the configuration of other buried utilities), but the adjacent earth is left undisturbed. They then backfill the hole with whatever materials, and as such, I would suspect the "sinkhole" you saw is not natural, but rather the consequence of some problem with the hydrant installation or roadbed, perhaps complicated by a leak in the water line(s), and as Seymour Zamboni suggests, varying weather and temperature conditions. If the house is on granite, I probably wouldn't worry too much. It seems like the risk would be no different from the risk posed to the property from any public-works fail, which is going to have more to do with the town's infrastructure than the house itself.
posted by gubenuj at 11:36 AM on April 20, 2014

Because of the way fire hydrants incorporate internal drains (so that when they're turned off, the water drains down below the frost zone), a hydrant that isn't fully shut off can undermine and wash out a lot of dirt. I would request someone from the water authority out there ASAP to gauge the damage. My guess (just a guess!) is that it's highly localized.
posted by itstheclamsname at 3:33 PM on April 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Like I said, I'll call Department of Public Works tomorrow but if they tell me it's simply a road repair and not my problem, who would I go to check into this further?

Maybe a geologist? In California licensed geologists prepare reports for real estate all the time.

As a non-geologist, that hole in the ground next to the fire hydrant looks like it has something to do with the fire hydrant.

More seriously, if public works blows you off, I'd call the local fire department, who might relay the query to the fire hydrant guys, who might ping you back. Firefighters have the opportunity to be chatty and helpful when they're not busy. Public works employees are more regularly busy. Or something.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:02 PM on April 20, 2014

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