SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Our special Tipline Investigation exposes a flawed Santa Barbara city policy that's supposed to protect people. Instead, it might be doing just the opposite.
It's been going on for years, and by the time homeowners figure out what's going on, it's too late.
"The city is doing me wrong and a lot of other people wrong," said Anne Childress as she stood next to a pile of construction debris in her driveway.
In November, Santa Barbara city inspectors found major code violations at her home on Calle Cortita. Contractors had to rip out an illegal staircase and replace entire sections of drywall.
"I had to quit my job to move away. I can't afford to live here anymore. Now it's costing me more and more money. It's not right." said Childress as she wiped tears from her eyes.
Childress is in the process of selling her Santa Barbara home of 16 years. The buyers were ready to close the deal in October, until the issue of a ZIR came up.
Most people have never heard of a ZIR. It stands for Zoning Information Report. The city of Santa Barbara requires that a seller get one before they can sell their home.
It costs $465 and it's supposed to identify any health and safety code violations on the property. But many realtors say the ZIR's are grossly inaccurate and its been that way for decades.
"The city incompetence has cost good people to spend tens of thousands of dollars," said Santa Barbara realtor Steve Epstein.
Epstein is Childress' real estate agent. He said when she bought the home in 1998 the city gave the house a clean ZIR, meaning it had no violations. Childress never made changes to the home while she lived there. But, the new ZIR is riddled with violations that city code inspectors missed 16 years ago.
"I think we should have and could have been able to identify these improvements when we were there in 1998," said Santa Barbara City Planner Bettie Weiss.
Weiss admits the city made mistakes in the Childress case. She also admits clean ZIR's from years ago are coming back to haunt homeowners today.
"You may have one. You may think everything is fine and the next time you go to sell, all of a sudden there's the bomb waiting to go off," said Ed Fuller President of the Santa Barbara Association of Realtors.
Fuller said local realtors have been fighting with the city over this issue and trying to find a solution for the past five years. He also believes 20% of all ZIR's are wrong.
"The city is intruding in a process where they're not needed, where they have no liability, where they're producing inaccurate reports and then doing enforcement on things that may not be a problem," said Fuller from his office in downtown Santa Barbara.
Fuller and other realtors suspect it's about money. They said Santa Barbara is one of the few cities in the entire state to require ZIR's. They believe the fees are too high and the number of enforcement cases went up during the recession.
"This process does not have a cost, it's not a 100% cost recovery. It does not pay or give a profit in any way shape or form to the city's community development process," said Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider during our interview in front of City Hall.
Schneider also believes ZIR's have a purpose. Besides, ensuring that buildings are safe, ZIR's also act as a deterrent and keep people honest.
But, what about honest and innocent homeowners like Anne Childress?
It's now February, the sale is still on hold and city inspectors are finding even more violations.
"The wall used to be right here, touching. and now we're just doing this and moving it a half inch," said a worker as he showed us the wall he was working on inside the kitchen at Calle Cortita.
Rebuilding that exterior wall cost Childress another $12,000, and that illegal staircase cost her $28,000 to tear out and replace.
Childress, like other homeowners stuck in this ZIR nightmare, did nothing wrong. But, they're being forced to bear much of the burden for mistakes the city made years ago.
"But, we're not taking responsibility? If what you mean by that, is paying the contractors for the work or the architect for the drawing. So, I do feel that we're responsible and we're acting responsibly in trying to solve the problem. But it's not a complete responsibility in terms of bearing all the costs, I realize.," said Bettie Weiss.
Weiss said the city did waive some fees and tried to speed up the process for Childress. But she also blames the person who did the illegal work at Calle Cortita, sometime between 1977 and 1998 and failed to disclose it before Childress bought the home.
"The bottom line is, these city reports in the hands of the city is the letter of the law. In the hands of the buyer or seller is a worthless, meaningless document. There in lies the problem," said Epstein.
Childress has paid more than $50,000 in repairs so far, money, she said she didn't have.
"Something has to be done. the city has got to rectify this situation.," said Childress.
The question is, how to do that?
Mayor Helene Scheider said the council will get an update from all sides in the next few months.
Vining Construction and Jarret Gorin of Vanguard Planning agreed not to be paid until the deal closed because they knew what Anne Childress was going through. Even the buyers, who lost about $10,000, hung in there to the very end.
We learned that city inspectors finally signed off on the house and Childress hopes to close the sale by this Friday.