Home > Pre-aliya > The Back Stairs

The Back Stairs

We are stuck within that zone of seemingly limitless time and maximal frustration — the region between receiving a contract for the sale of a home and the actual closing. This is the first time that I’ve been involved in selling a home during a “buyers market.” The last time I sold a home, the buyer paid more than I asked and basically took it “as is”. That’s not the case this time.

It hasn’t really been that bad — I can’t say that everything has gone wrong, but the whole experience has been…. well, unpleasant. To give you an idea, the night we decided to put the home on the market, we broke the glass cooking top on our stove. This happened while the realtor was signing the contract with us. In fact, it happened because the realtor was busy with us signing the contract. It’s almost like the house resented our decision.

With all of that in mind, I’m going to tell you about the backyard stairs. The home has a back door leading to the backyard. The door is a couple of feet above ground level. The builder didn’t bother adding stairs; they just put a couple of 2x4s across the exit. This isn’t the safest approach; any child (or adult) could crawl between the boards and fall the two feet to some horrid fate. But, apparently, this is “to code.”

I’m not really much of a “do it yourself” kind of guy. I’m pretty good with my hands, but I just don’t have the time and therefore never bothered to get the tools and therefore never really got much practice. However, I was perfectly capable of removing those pesky barriers so that we could have access to the backyard.

At first, we just used that one, huge, two-foot step that the builder didn’t provide. That lasted a couple of days. Then I started putting my wife’s step aerobics equipment outside. That lasted for a few months, but the rain really made a mess of it. Finally, it became obvious that I really needed to build steps (or a deck, but the steps seemed easier.)

I bought a kit from some Home Depot type store and built a set of very solid steps. The steps looked great and they were even level! Unfortunately, the ground near the door was not. So, not really knowing how to properly level the stairs, and because I was already tired of the job, and because I just wanted it finished even if it wasn’t quite right, I tore up the ground and forced the stairs in place.

These unlevel, railless stairs worked just fine for years until their genesis was mostly forgotten. Then we sold the house (or at least received a contract). The buyer’s loan is contingent on a home inspection and an appraisal. It’s a VA loan, so there are special rules. We were told that the appraiser identified the stairs as a problem and that they needed to be fixed.

Now, the way this works is the appraiser notifies the buyer’s realtor and the buyer’s realtor notifies our realtor and our realtor notifies us and we describe the problem to the “certified repair guy”. Have you ever played “telephone”?

We were told that the stairs need a railing so that it is up “to code.” Fine. We hired some “handymen” to fix odd little problems and we asked them to handle this. Please add a railing. They added a railing and also leveled the stairs as an added bonus: check.

About a week before settlement, we received an urgent message from our realtor. She says that she received a call from the auditor who needs to verify that the back stairs are up “to code”. Through this conversation, she learns that the stairs also need to be attached to the house. Back stairs: uncheck.

We bring back the contractors and ask them to attach the stairs to the house. Apparently this is not trivial because there is a duct under the stairs. Lot’s of talking ensues. Through this discussion, I have a realization: the appraiser doesn’t want a railing and he doesn’t want the stairs attached to the house — he wants the stairs brought up “to code”. Gulp. What the heck does that mean?

I call my realtor and ask the obvious question: “Do we need to attach the stairs or do we need the stairs ‘to code’?” Silence, followed by, words of uncertainty, followed by recognition that the auditor had stated in the written report that the stairs needed to be replaced. She decided to make some phone calls and I decide to talk to the contractors.

At this point, it is obvious to me that the stairs need to be to code. Do these stairs (with the new railing) look like they are “to code”?

These contractors know how to build things. They don’t know how to sell houses. Even so, they have a brilliant idea: ditch the stairs in the neighbor’s yard and put a couple of 2x4s across the door. That way, it will be “to code.” Brilliant. That’s how I bought the house and it was good enough for me. However, that’s not the way things work around here.

The buyer bought a house with stairs in the back. In addition, the house was appraised with stairs in the back. The stairs may have been old and worn-out, unlevel, without railings, and, in general, a hazard, but the house was still bought and appraised with stairs. So we can’t just get rid of the stairs without forcing a renegotiation of the contract and requiring a new appraisal. What? Those simple stairs that I slapped together and couldn’t get level — the loan hinges on those stairs? Apparently.

I could have eliminated the stairs by removing them before the buyer gave me a contract. Now, I must have stairs that are “to code”. So, I had the contractors build a brand new set of stairs, with railings, “to code”. I lived fine with the old set for years. Now, a week before the house is sold, I’m putting in a proper set for someone else. And the irony is that they are probably going to tear the brand new set of stairs down and build a deck. At least the appraiser is happy.

Here’s the final set of stairs…

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  1. janice e. nelson
    2010-08-05 at 2:33 pm

    I can truly enjoy the somewhat comical irony in all this. Been there, done that. I always say that you might as well laugh now at these things, because you know you will laugh later about them.

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