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Living Freedom by Claire Wolfe. Musings about personal freedom and finding it within ourselves.

Want to Comment on a blog post? Look for and click on the blue No Comments or # Comments at the end of each post.

Claire Wolfe

What would you want them to do if it were your house?

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

I took the dogs for a walk downtown yesterday afternoon. Passing a vacant house, I noticed an awful lot of water on its patio. Normally, that’s not unusual, this being the NorthWET, but it hasn’t done more than sprinkle the last couple of days.

I poked around and sure enough, not only was the house sitting in a lake; I could hear ominous gushing noises inside the walls. I went up on the back porch to knock just in case. Water rushed under the door and over the dogs’ toes.

City Hall is just a few blocks away, so I hustled over and told the water lady what was up. They’re good around here. Before I could even make it back to the lake-house, two water department trucks and the head of the building department roared up the street ahead of me (though they’re not so good that they actually went to the correct address). Once we got to the right place and they verified the problem, they shut the water off at the street.

Chances are the water’s been running since last weeks’ beastly freeze unfroze. It’s a wonder none of the neighbors caught it earlier. So the poor folks who own the place (out-of-towners, the building inspector told me) will face major mess. The guys said they’d contact them right away.

Here’s the thing that made me wonder, though. Before they even shut off the meter, one of the water department guys started fishing around, obviously looking for a hidden housekey. He felt over the top of the electrical box, looked under the mat, and did all those things you do to find a key. (Which, as far as I know, he didn’t. But I didn’t stick around to find out.)

If that were your house, would you or would you not want water department employees — and possibly the local building inspector — letting themselves in to check for damage? Do you think they had a legitimate purpose for doing that? Even if they did, should they have notified you first?

And let’s say it happened to you. And they got inside, whether by key or other means. Would the interior of your house look otherwise innocuous to “officials,” beyond burst pipes, swollen drywall, and delaminated floors?


Before anybody asks why I didn’t just go home, get my meter key, and shut the water off without notifying “the authorities” — aside from the fact I didn’t think of it, the homeowners clearly needed to be notified ASAP to forestall even worse damage (e.g mold). That’s something I didn’t have the information to do.

21 Responses to “What would you want them to do if it were your house?”

  1. rustynail Says:

    Claire, That was a neighborly thing to do, notifying the water department, and a welcome response from the water department. All too often, these days, I fear that few would do what you did.

    Your cautionary comments about the possibility of governmental employees accessing your home and looking for information, things, stuff, without cause are also right on point.

  2. True Blue Sam aka David Johnson Says:

    Water meter readers have traditionally gone into homes to read the meter, and even with new technology that still goes on in many communities. A quick look inside could possibly prevent an electrical fire, or other calamity; and the water department person probably has met the owners on numerous occasions. Anyhow, meter readers aren’t cops, and I would give him a pass on this.

  3. jcard21 Says:

    For a homeowner who leave his/her home for more than a day or two…

    Why can’t the homeowner shut off the water inside their home before leaving? I have a main shutoff valve in my basement, but I’ve never used it.

    Even with forced hot water/baseboard heating, isn’t it a closed system?

  4. Joel Says:

    Since they’re seasonal, there are a couple of caveats here: They should have turned the water off themselves (a fact that their insurance adjuster may mention) and they’re unlikely to have left their favorite bong on the living room coffee table.

    In earlier years, a water guy coming into the house would have been considered completely innocuous and even helpful. But such people have been officially co-opted as the eyes of the state, at least since the beginning of the “war on terror.” Having one come into your house is perfectly analogous to having a cop do so, except that a water guy doesn’t need a warrant. This would make me very uncomfortable.

    As to what such a person would see in the Secret Lair? Oh, that’d be bad. They’d be left in no doubt as to my political persuasion. Or my attitude toward armed violence. I’m afraid if the Lair were in Portland it’d be on the evening news that very day. But it’s not.

  5. Karen Says:

    I think that reporting the problem was a wonderful neighborly thing to do.

    If it were my house, I think I would have wanted someone “official” to check out inside and be able to let me know the extent of the damage, maybe they’d even throw a sump pump into the mess or something. It’s hard for me to imagine leaving anything of value or notoriety in a house that’s unoccupied part of the year.

    But, then again, I wouldn’t have gone off and left it without having winterized it or leaving a key with a neighbor to check on it, so I can’t assign my thinking to anyone else.

  6. Claire Says:

    There’s a bit of a Catch-22 on shutting off water. Most older homes around here don’t have any main shutoff valve — just the water meter at the street. Although shutting off water at the street is simple when you look into it, it does take either a special tool or some jury-rigging. And shutting your own water on and off at the meter is … you guessed it, illegal.

    So there are barriers to doing the commonsense thing.

    Not that anybody would ever enforce the ordinance about shutting off your own water, of course. So most likely the owners just didn’t think about it or didn’t know how to do it.

    Also, not to absolve the homeowners of their responsibilities, but it rarely ever gets cold enough around here to freeze and snap pipes unless the pipes are in unusually exposed positions. Last week was a big, icy exception to our usual dreary-but-mild conditions. This burst pipe appeared to be inside the walls of the house.

  7. Claire Says:

    Thanks, Karen and rustynail for thinking me unusually neighborly. But really, I’m sure anyone who noticed would have done the same.

    Karen, you’re spot on about winterizing, leaving a key, etc.

    Until the city guys told me the owners were out-of-towners, I’d just supposed the house was foreclosed or something. I can’t recall seeing anybody there for months.

  8. MJR Says:

    Hey Claire,

    First let me say that I think your intentions were honorable.


    This past year really changed my mind about civil employees. I have seen a number of stories here hydro or city employees have contacted police about suspicious things and folks have been zapped these actions are not a good sign of the times.

    One thing I have learned from my brother-in-law who worked for State Farm as an adjuster is that there are no rules about being stupid in insurance policies. I learned this after a painful incident that was totally my fault for being stupid. Yes I learned, yes I now make sure my vehicle has snow tires and is maintained by professionals.

    But I digress…

    If the owners of the home had insurance then all would have been well. The only issue is that most policies have a rider that states the home must be checked every few days. If this was done then no worries to the owners except for the shock of discovery upon return.

  9. ILTim Says:

    I heard a noise and bit of commotion outside my house a couple years ago. I popped out the front door to see, and heard an odd rushing/hissing noise. After putting on my shoes, I found that a house just over a block away was leaking natural gas severely enough to hear it from inside my place around the corner.

    Just about then, it caught fire. If I remember correctly, it was about a six to ten foot flamethrower from the meter near the front door. Authorities had been called and the first officer arrived moments after the fire began.

    With a gathering crowd, the flames quickly engulfed a tree in the front yard, melted the siding, and began burning up the side of the building. By the time the fire department arrived something like five minutes had elapsed since the first noise I heard. Flames had engulfed both stories of the building. The structure fire was controlled almost immediately, and the flamethrower put out shortly after. But the fire department had to axe thru the walls and make sure nothing was burning inside.

    They then proceeded to enter the unoccupied home, and the unoccupied attached town home next door. Windows were opened upstairs and down to vent smoke.

    Portable lights had been set up. A backhoe was arriving to dig up and cap the gas line. It was a pretty impressive spectacle, well organized too. But what stuck with me (and I overheard several in the crowd commenting) was how you need to be ready for anything, keeping your home in order for anyone to see at any time.

    In the fire instance, of course your house will be entered. Risk of leaving smoldering embers behind is too great. In the water case, once its been shut off there is probably less reason to enter – at least urgently. I think contacting the owners first is preferable, but then maybe tending to a sump pump, opening windows to vent the moisture, there may be things they could do to prevent the situation from being worse.

  10. Claire Says:

    ILTim — wow. Did they ever figure out what caused that gas leak? That’s weird.

    MJR — I hear you (and Joel and others) on the hazards of “official” assistance. If I lived in a big city or some place with notorious law enforcement practices, I’d probably avoid calling in the city, too.

    Different here in this small town. Still always potentially problematic, but I know these guys and know they’d probably close their eyes to anything untoward that they found inside a vacant house — unless it was a corpse or a meth lab. Even the building inspector, who can be a tough little b******d if somebody tries to sneak a code violation past him, would probably ignore, say, a bong on the kitchen table.

  11. Fred Mangels Says:

    I don’t have a problem with the water guy trying to gain access to the house, although at that point I’m not sure there was much to be accomplished by doing so. The damage had been done.

    I did call the city over an emergency once where in hindsight I felt perhaps I shouldn’t have. I live in Eureka, CA- earthquake country. We had a big earthquake some years ago that caused considerable damage to the house. It was announced that the city would provide free building inspections to see if there was any danger involved.

    I took advantage of that and the inspector came out pretty quick, looked around and put a green placard on the front of the house which meant the house was safe for occupancy. A red placard would mean the house wasn’t safe.

    I got to thinking after he left that I probably shouldn’t have called the city. If the guy deemed the house uninhabitable, we could have been thrown out of our house. We were just as capable of deciding whether to stay in the house as he was- perhaps even more so, yet we took the chance of a third party throwing us out of our house.

    As it was, no problem. The only downside was calling the insurance company to see what damage they would or wouldn’t cover. That involved having one of their adjusters come out and go through the whole house. She found damage we weren’t aware of.

    She also noticed some things she felt might not be safe (like a blocked door) and reported it to the company. Our insurance agent then came out to reassess our insurance rate. Fortunately she was nice about it and didn’t see any reason to raise our premiums, but that was a possibility. Just another thing to consider. Don’t get the insurance company involved unless you have to.

  12. Laird Says:

    We have a summer house at the beach (NJ) which is unoccupied roughly 8 months of the year. We have a key hidden outside (the plumber knows where it is, because we have the house winterized every fall and re-opened in the spring) and a neighbor has a key, too (but they’re not around much more than we are). All that said, with a seasonal house I would have no problem with the water company or town official going in during an emergency in our absence. No one is going to leave anything “incriminating” in a seasonal house (especially one, like ours, which is used by lots of relatives when we’re not around). With my primary residence I might be a little more concerned, but I guess in an emergency (a true emergency, like a fire or water main break, not some trumped-up faux emergency) I’d rather have someone to in to check things out than not. But maybe that’s just me.

  13. Paul Bonneau Says:

    It could be that the water guy wanted to be sure the shutoff they picked on the street actually turned the water off inside. Sometimes the connection between the two is not what one would expect it to be. Personally, despite the current mess with our fascist “report everything” atmosphere, I’d still trust most of the utility guys to be decent individuals. Keep in mind the kind of folks who have such jobs – people willing to get out of bed in the middle of winter and in cold, freezing mud, fix some problem. Not the type to be a snitch, I think. I can still remember those electrical workers climbing telephone poles in the typical Portland ice storms… they have my respect and appreciation.

    I had this same thing happen to me. Our house in Wyoming had an improperly installed furnace, such that it stopped working in the middle of winter a couple years back. Like an idiot I had neglected to turn off the well when I left for Oregon, so there were two breaks, one in the garage and one in the kitchen. The kitchen, dining room and living room turned into a lake. The water in the garage shorted one of the garage door openers and the door opened; my neighbor, an old cowboy in his 70′s, noticed that, went in and found the shutoff and stopped the water. Then he called a local friend of mine (I was back in Oregon) and he and my friend went in and ripped out all the soaked carpet and dragged it outside, and generally secured the house until I got out there. I nominated him for world’s best neighbor!

    I had a hell of a time fixing that mess, I can tell you. The lesson was learned, my well pump is off when I am gone and the pipes drained. I fixed the furnace too.

  14. Tahn Says:

    The question is mostly irrelevant to me since I am off grid. No water coming in or sewage going out. No incoming electricity since I now have solar and wind generators. My only outside “utility” is a phone line and the phone company’s liability stops at the outside of the house. Still, there is the local sheriffs and volunteer firemen (pretty good people) but if I had a fire from my wood stove, the cabin would probably burn down before anyone could arrive. An insurance company wouldn’t care since I don’t have any. I consider this “lack” of oversight and inspection one of the many benefits of “off grid” living.

    Now if I could just get a neighbor to stop from lobbing ricochets from their target range my way. No, I didn’t shoot back or call the sheriff. Our family’s have been neighbors for over a hundred years and they will be right embarrassed when I see them on the road and mention the bullet hole in the side of the cabin. Everything in perspective

  15. LarryA Says:

    [But really, I’m sure anyone who noticed would have done the same.]

    But, as you noted, most people don’t notice stuff.

    [Even with forced hot water/baseboard heating, isn’t it a closed system?]

    Just shutting off the main valve won’t prevent burst pipes. Any water left in the lines will still freeze, expand, and burst them. You have to drain the water out of the system, including getting it out of all the low points, the water heater, the refrigerator or other ice makers, the dish washer, shower heads, etc. Proper winterization is quite a process.

  16. Jolly Says:

    Years ago, living in a condo in silicon valley, I left to pick up something at the store, and saw a small stream of water coming from the garage door from a neighbor in the same building.
    Upon returning 1/2 hour later – the stream was still there, though not bad, but still odd. I suspected a problem, nobody was answering – but I noticed the “WATER” labeled plastic covers on the ground near the street. With a leatherman, I pulled off one cover after another until I saw one wildly spinning. Using the same tool, I managed to shut it off.
    About 20 minutes later, somebody else noticed, and the fire department dropped by. Too little, too late. We didn’t authorize them to enter the building ( my wife was president of the HOA at the time ).
    About three hours later, the couple returned, and discovered the problem. A break in their hose to the washing machine. The condos were new, and the water was full-speed, so the level of water in the ground floor got up to about 3 inches, and started spilling into the garage under the door.
    If it had not been turned off, the water would probably have reached the wall sockets, and who knows?
    This was clearly self-preservation on our part, since we lived in the same building, but we did prevent the fire department from breaking down the door – which was overkill.

  17. Roger Says:

    Claire, over here you can get a ‘surestop’ cutoff valve which takes minutes to fit. It cuts off the water at the flick of a switch which is actuated by the water pressure itself so no batteries or power required. I know similar products are availble over there and would always fit one myself. The insurance companies btw list a split washer hose as the no1 cause of domestic flooding claims.

  18. water lily Says:

    When we lived in the mountains full-time in a vacation/weekend log cabin community, most of the part-timers left a key with the neighbors, or paid someone to come and check on the house periodically.

    I guess to answer your question, it really depends on where you live and who you are dealing with, govt-wise. I don’t like having people in my apartment when I am not there, not because I have something to hide, I just don’t like them in my home. But if it were an emergency, and I was not there, I think I would like a phone call FIRST before an “official” walked in my apartment.

    In the situation you described above, it would have been more prudent of them to call the owners first before doing anything, imo.

  19. jed Says:

    I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, hell no, I don’t want people I don’t know entering my apartment. I don’t even let people I know come in, with very few exceptions. For one thing, I have no furniture to speak of, but that’s really only a very minor consideration.

    But, in the event of a disaster, I probably would feel some appreciation for somebody forestalling damage to all my stuff, as long as that’s as far as it went. Of course, as a renter, the landlord is going to be that guy, so what can I say?

    In today’s political climate, I suppose my reloading bench would set off some alarm bells. Other than that, my place looks exactly like what you’d expect for someone who used to live in 1800 sq. ft., and now 525. I need at least 1 more decent-sized room.

  20. just waiting Says:

    A few years back, a neighbor of the folks was having some construction done in the off season. The contractor shut off the water main inlet in the house, then sometime after broke the pipe underground between the meter and the house. Since it was shut off in the house, and they didn’t use water, no one noticed. The builders weren’t locals, so they thought the saturated ground at a bayfront house was a tidal thing.

    After 9 months of construction, owner was ready to move back in, but there was really low water pressure and no one could figure out why. Back to the saturated ground and viola, a free running break. Worst part of it all, even after digging up their driveway and landscaping, the township sent them a $4500 water bill, which they were forced to pay.

    I bet they really wish they had Claire for a neighbor

  21. Ellendra Says:

    I’m extremely territorial. I would have issues with someone trying to get into my house, even if it was just to help. On the other hand, if they called me on the phone and said “I’m from (water department) and there’s a flood in your house. Would you like me to go inside and inspect the damage, or wait until you get here first?” Then, it would be ok, because he has shown respect for my boundaries.

    Territorial instincts aren’t always logical. Even though it would be the same result both ways, the fact that he showed respect for my property rights would make all the difference.



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