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A Lurking Monster

January 15, 2014


It was a modest house, referred to by locals as an Old Portland, built nearly a hundred years before we purchased it in 2003. Mrs. Chatterbox and I weren’t looking for a fixer upper but this house spoke to us. Had we listened more closely we might have also heard rumblings of something sinister. Beneath this shabby chic house hungry for restorative dollars lurked a monster that nearly drained our savings and threatened our upcoming retirement. 


Skip ahead five years and Mrs. C. and I were ready to sell. The thrill of living downtown in close proximity to restaurants, galleries and boutiques had vanished beneath inconveniences such as crime, traffic congestion and parking difficulties. It was 2008 and the economy was going down the toilet, but we’d lovingly restored our home and figured we could still make a profit if we sold quickly. Three months later we received our one and only offer, a surprisingly good one. This was when we learned that a monster dwelled on our property.


We’d paid for an inspection before making our purchase so we knew about the old oil tank in the backyard, but records showed it had been deactivated in 1952, the year I was born. Besides, there were other pressing issues to deal with, like a furnace requiring repair and a roof that needed replacing. We’d dealt with these issues and knew our home was in tip-top shape—until the issue of the oil tank was brought up.


The buyer’s lender required a certificate stating that any oil tank on the property had been properly decommissioned. Tanks drained and filled with cement sixty years ago weren’t in compliance. Portland’s DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality established in 1969) was responsible for these certifications, which they provided for a hefty fee. In our case, they required soil samples to see if oil had leached from the tank into the ground, which it had.


Our agent Paul, who claimed to be an expert in such things, reassured us that this was all just a formality and these decommissions never cost more than two thousand dollars. While negotiating with the buyer, I told Paul I wanted to counter by placing a limit of $2000 to cover the tank. Paul was adamant we not do this. He wanted a clean sale and told us he’d cover all costs over $2000 from his commission. I got this in writing.


At one point, the DEQ wanted to rip up a busy intersection behind our house to check for something called chemical bloom. The estimate for this was $200,000, which the DEQ expected us to pay. We fought this for weeks. While this was going on the housing bubble burst and real estate sales ground to a halt in Portland. We’d only received one offer and I felt like we were on the last lifeboat to leave the Titanic. We were okay, unless we failed to close because of the iceberg in our backyard.


Along the way, several drill bits brought in for collecting soil samples broke. They cost $800 each. I was about to pull my hair out when the person supervising the DEQ returned from vacation and took pity on us. He signed the document certifying our tank as decommissioned. This piece of paper ended up costing our realtor $12,000. I felt bad but a contract was a contract. I figured we’d make it up to Paul by purchasing our next home from him, but after this transaction he refused to take my calls.


I can’t help but feel bitter about this experience. $12,000 just for a piece of paper; that blasted tank is right where it’s been for a hundred years. Equally infuriating, the houses on either side of us are still using their hundred year old leaky oil tanks. 




I have a very similar story but am still to bitter to write about it!
By: Tabor on January 15, 2014
At least you got the realtor to cover that overage. Well played.
By: PT Dilloway on January 15, 2014
Welcome to my world. I have to deal with these paper pushing bureaucrats all day long, or at least I did before I (semi) retired. They don't live in the "real" world, so they have no idea what mayhem they're causing the public they're supposed to "serve". And if they're worried about a little oil in the ground, they'd stroke out if they knew about the ocean of oil underneath us here in TX.
By: Scott Cody Park on January 15, 2014
I'm with Scott. The ancient huge reserves of oil underneath us here in Texas haven't hurt us. I wonder what the DEQ would think about that....
By: Shelly on January 15, 2014
Selling a property, especially an older one can be a minefield. As for comparisons of oil beneath the sea and oil seepage on one's property really holds no merit. Would you plant a garden in contaminated soil and eat the produce? Would you purchase a property with contaminated soil?
By: Daniel LaFrance on January 15, 2014
ha ha. laughed at the realtor not taking your calls. serves him right!
By: TexWisGirl on January 15, 2014
I owned the exact house sold the same time and had the exact oil tank issue. I was lucky it only cost $1500. I bot the house 10 years earlier and apparently nobody cared then.
By: Cranky on January 15, 2014
Unbelievable. I'm glad it worked out for you. I'd be sad for Paul if he hadn't been completely responsible for how it ended for him.
By: Mitchell is Moving on January 15, 2014
There is a whole new industry just to check these friggin tanks...I guess it is good for the economy (talk about tired old bullshit, if something sucks rat turds, it is always good for the economy!)
By: Cranky on January 15, 2014
It looks like such a lovely house -- it's such a shame you had so many problems while living there and such a nightmare scenario when you sold it.
By: The Broad on January 15, 2014
Reminds me of a very funny movie, "The Money Pit" (1986) with Tom Hanks & Shelley Long!!
By: fishducky on January 15, 2014
What a nasty experience. I'm glad you managed to work it out eventually and not have to foot the full bill.
By: Hilary on January 15, 2014
My sympathy -- we have a situation with our house, and will probably never be able to sell at all.
By: mimi on January 15, 2014
what???? Ridiculous and you were a smarty pants to hold the line on the cost to you and your sweetie. I had an oil tank buried in my side yard in SW Portland-fortunately I sold the house in 1981 long before it would have been an issue.
By: Kathe W. on January 15, 2014
Well, this is something I never knew about with old houses. Thank you for writing it; I am more the smarter for having read it.
By: Michael Offutt on January 15, 2014
I'm stunned that you received such a vow in writing from a realtor. He should have sucked it up and sold you your next home. It would have been better for his business. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on January 15, 2014
Like Cranky said, it is odd your lender had not made the fuss when you bought it. What a nightmare for such a darling house.
By: Akansas Patti on January 15, 2014
I've loved every house I've ever owned, but if I had to do it all over again, I'd have a yurt. Houses can be nothing but trouble. If a hurricane approaches, I'd just roll up my yurt and drive to, well, Nebraska or something.
By: Pixel Peeper on January 15, 2014
Wow, I didn't even realize houses HAD oil tanks like that, and here this one cause such a major headache and so much money. I can't believe the 200,000, though. How could they think anyone could afford such a thing? Good thing you insisted on that $2000 clause in writing! And, on another note, I had to start a new blog. Here's the link in case you want to visit :)
By: Kianwi on January 15, 2014
You need to be on one of those HGTV shows!
By: Val on January 15, 2014
Wow. I don't understand any of it, except that you and Mrs. C. are victims of a really bad flukey nightmare having to do with your lovely home. And for the DEQ to just say "Hey, give us $200,000"? Crazy. xoRobyn
By: Robyn Engel on January 15, 2014
It must have been very stressful and whilst you may on the one hand have felt fate treated you a low blow when you came to sell your home, you were glad to get away with the outcome you had.
By: John on January 16, 2014
The bureaucratic monster raises its head again. Few things more stressful than moving house.
By: Bryan Jones on January 16, 2014
Oh...good...grief! Now that I've read your tale, I am so glad we don't have anything like that on our property. But, rest assured that, if I did, it would "disappear" in the middle of the night one evening. I know it's a TERRIBLE thing to say, but the ocean is very deep indeed.
By: Al Penwasser on January 16, 2014
Ah, dealing with various government agencies. What fun. Somewhat akin to having a root canal while being bitten by a pit bull. At least you were able to get the thing passed by someone. It galls me to no end that one guy can't, the next one says yes, but it will take $$$, and when it's all finished, you find out if you'd "just done thus", it wouldn't have cost anything. At least that's what has happened to me... Cat
By: Cat on January 16, 2014
WOW! This makes me glad I live in the middle of nowhere where all I have to worry about is my well and septic tank!
By: Leslie Moon on January 17, 2014
As I am a Realtor...let me just say that Paul is/was an idiot. While thankfully he promised to pay the difference, why would he do that without doing to research to find out what it might cost. AND what the hell prompted him to distance himself from you. This wasn't your fault. I would of wanted the next commission of off set my losses. As for all the "EPA" rules. CRAZY. I get that we need to rectify the old problems and prevent newer ones but, I singular homeowner can't pick up a 200K tab to explore the possibility of a problem. The DEQ had their head up their ...
By: Cheryl P. on January 18, 2014

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