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St. Louis City Inspections: So what exactly is a violation?

*NOTE – This article was originally written in March of 2007 for the newsletter. It was written with the help of, then intern, Will Roestel.

Being new to the investment world, I don’t know a whole lot about the inspection process. In an attempt to learn more, as well as see what resources are currently available on the subject, I assumed the role of a prospective rental property buyer and paid a visit to the St. Louis City Inspections Department in City Hall, Room 407.

Upon my arrival, the receptionist politely asked if she could help. I told her that I found several rental properties I was interested in purchasing, but wanted to get a general idea of the codes and regulations inspectors would be looking at so that I might identify problems and calculate their costs. I explained that I was trying to minimize my headaches, by being proactive about addressing violations.

She asked if I had the exact addresses so she could look to see if there were any current violations. I told her that while it might give me part of what I was looking for, I really needed a resource that would allow me to cover all my bases, not just for specific properties.

She appeared baffled. The widely distributed Landlord handbook, InfoRent, was out of stock, but they had a brochure that might be of some help in my quest for knowledge. It was a Missouri Landlord-Tenant Law booklet. Not exactly what I had hoped for. Asking if there was any other office I might visit with helpful information, I was told to try “next door” in Room 406, the Housing Conservancy Office, or at 418, the Neighborhood Stabilization Team. She also stated that if I had specific questions I could make an appointment to talk to one of the inspectors. I noted that if I couldn’t even get guidelines for inspection expectations, it surely would be difficult to ask pointed questions.

Next door at the Conservancy I waited at the front of an entry area unfolding into a large office area. After a few moments of staring at the housing and community preservation brochure, a woman leaned backed from her desk and asked if she could help. Repeating my previous request, I was quickly informed that the brochure I was holding was all the available literature they had. So it was across the beautiful atrium to room 418, and the Neighborhood Stabilization Team office.

This group’s mission is to: “To empower constituents to sustain a quality environment within their neighborhood through assistance, education, intervention and organization.” Sounded like a place that may provide some much needed assistance in proper property management. Unfortunately, all the young receptionist could provide was a typical 8.5” x 11” piece of paper with the general concepts surrounding the Team and its officers. She told me, as I had been told before, to look at the InfoRent booklet, but she added that it was available online.

She pointed to a link listed at the bottom of the page. I skimmed the document, and noted the bulleted item outlining “problems” the Team addresses listed “physical violation of health, safety, and/or property maintenance codes.” This seemed as good a lead as any, and I asked if they had any documentation on the codes/regulations that governed these problem issues. I was told that all their information could be found on the website, and was given a brief tutorial on how to find their page through the City’s homepage.

I thanked her for her time and left City Hall after almost an hour of searching with only a Landlord-Tenant law booklet, an outline of the responsibilities of a Neighborhood Stabilization Officer and a Housing Conservation brochure to show for my time.

The latter came closest to answering my query with a small section at the bottom of its interior middle tri-fold. It read:

“More commonly cited items include:

  • Smoke Detectors
  • Overcrowding
  • Unsanitary Conditions
  • Doors and Locks
  • Falling or Cracked Plaster
  • Defective Electrical or Plumbing Systems”

That’s all well and good, but what specs need to be followed when addressing these issues? How can I be expected to fix something if nobody can tell me what I need to fix?

The City’s inspection process seems to reward neither initiative nor forward thinking. The overworked inspectors, and the property owners that deal with them, would both greatly benefit from a readily accessible and comprehensive information source outlining the responsibilities and expectations of each, and from one to the other. Not so dissimilar from the Landlord-Tenant guide I received in their department, just a bit more on target.

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