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A St. Paul resident’s nightmare home becomes a cautionary tale for inspectors

Dana DeMaster and her family had no idea their St. Paul house was a death trap.

Dana DeMaster and her family had no idea their St. Paul house was a death trap. Dana DeMaster

This is a story about home ownership. It’s also a horror story.

Like all horror stories, it starts with a fateful decision. In 2007, Dana DeMaster bought a house in the St. Paul's Midway neighborhood. It clearly needed a little paint and TLC, but the housing bubble was full to bursting, and homes were going fast. She had it inspected, and didn’t uncover anything she thought she couldn’t handle. She decided this was a place she and her family could invest a little money and a little love in.

Eight years later, DeMaster decided to get some new siding for her place. The professional opinion was that she shouldn’t take on the siding project until she had someone look at their roof, which was sagging. So, she hired a roof contractor to check it out.

“You don’t have a chimney,” the contractor told her. “Did you know that?”

She did not know that, and furthermore, it didn’t make any sense. If they didn’t have a chimney, where exactly was the exhaust from their furnace and hot water heater going?

As it turns out, it was all venting straight into the attic. The roofer hired by the house’s previous owners had built right over it, and all that heat and moisture had turned the house’s upper story into a sagging, soggy mess. They’d need to replace much of the second floor: about $40,000 to $80,000 of work. Meanwhile, they were still $50,000 underwater on their mortgage.

DeMaster looked for some kind of grant or program that take the edge off, but she and her family didn’t fit any of the criteria. Finally, she decided to contact the city of St. Paul and see if they could help.

This was also a fateful decision.

“You can’t live here,” the inspector told her when he came to examine the property. Eight years of carbon monoxide had been flowing pretty much right over their bedrooms. The house was criminally unsafe. The inspector told DeMaster that it was shocking she and her family weren’t dead already.

The tripwires in DeMaster’s story had been set up long before she came to own her nightmare home. It turns out, at the time DeMaster had bought the house, there was an “open permit” on the roof. It was one of nearly 59,000 construction permits pulled in St. Paul over the last decade that have not received a final inspection from the city. Without that final approval, it’s almost impossible to tell whether construction work is legal, or safe, or even complete.

Up until 2007 – a pivotal year for DeMaster -- St. Paul’s Department of Safety and Inspections used to follow up on permits automatically to make sure the projects were inspected and “closed.” After 2007, under a policy change put into place by the city attorney, it was up to whoever pulled the permit to contact the city and set up a final inspection. And if they never did… that was that.

The next chapter in DeMaster’s life would be spent grasping at straws. She contacted three different attorneys and found that there was nothing they could do legally to the contractor who had walled up their chimney, or the realtor who had sold them the house, or the inspector who didn’t catch it in the first place. They couldn’t cover it with homeowner’s insurance, because it had happened under the previous homeowners’ tenure, not theirs. The old homeowners themselves had moved to California and split up, leaving DeMaster to try and litigate their contractor’s grave error on her own.

She even got a legislative hearing with the city to try to get her home moved from a Category II vacant house (which can’t be sold without the city’s approval) to a Category I (which can), so it would at least be easier to get off their hands. The city determined the house was too dangerous to justify the change, and she was denied.

There was nothing else to do. DeMaster’s family couldn’t live at home, and they couldn’t afford rent and a mortgage.

“We let it go,” she says. They foreclosed and transferred the deed to the bank, which eventually sold it to a company that fixed it up and resold it for $300,000.

With the help of her family, DeMaster landed on her feet and she’s comfortably living in a new home. She thought she’d closed the book on the single hardest year of her life, but it recently resurfaced in an unexpected way.

Not long ago, she was at an unrelated city meeting, and she says she was approached by Travis Bistodeau, the deputy director of the Department of Safety and Inspections. (Bistodeau didn’t respond to interview requests.)

DeMaster says he told her that her testimony before the city council was now used as a case study for home inspectors in St. Paul. Every manager and director had the video saved. They’ve used it as justification to hire more inspectors and increase the funding to follow up on open permits. Policy is being changed to make sure every permit actually gets an inspection. She says he called her the “poster child” for why they need to do their job better.

“I didn’t want to start crying at that meeting, but yeah, that’s what I did,” she says.

Overall, DeMaster is happy with the city’s efforts to improve, and she sees herself as fortunate. Without help and support, she never could have bounced back the way she did. But she’ll never forget what that year – and that house – nearly did to her. And now she knows the city won’t, either.