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Who's To Blame? Bergen Attorneys Weigh In On Shattered Real Estate Dream

Mike Van Riper took this photo of his wife, Amalia, and son, after closing on his Prospect Street home in Little Falls.
Mike Van Riper took this photo of his wife, Amalia, and son, after closing on his Prospect Street home in Little Falls. Photo Credit: Mike Van Riper

LITTLE FALLS, N.J. — Mike Van Riper was anticipating great joy and happiness with his wife and 1-year-old son after closing on his first home in Little Falls in June.

A seemingly arbitrary and unexpected reassessment of his Prospect Street home by the building department three weeks later, however, cared little for Van Riper's dream.

To Van Riper's shock and surprise, there had been open building permits on the house dating back to nearly a decade ago, when the seller put an addition on the back of the house. No one noticed those open permits until a month after Van Riper closed on the house, increasing his taxes nearly 25 percent, and tacking on an additional $200 a month on the mortgage.

Aside from the massive financial burden that Van Riper is now stuck with, he struggles to pinpoint exactly who erred, and where: the town, the real estate agency, his closing attorney, the seller — or everyone (scroll to bottom for legal opinions).

"If it was caught before the closing, I would have never bought this house," said Van Riper, who moved from Jersey City.

"We were counting every single penny and we put everything we had down on the house... so this is a big jump for us.

"We were sold on Little Falls for its hometown feel for young, working professionals. But our experience has been anything but."

TIMELINE/WHO'S WHO:

  • April 24, 2017: Van Riper enters into an agreement with seller's realtor Van Der Wende Associates (Century 21) for the property, with advertised taxes at $9,200.
  • June 1, 2017: Little Falls issues certificate of occupancy, which Van Riper's closing attorney Daniel Barli of Barli Associates of Little Falls told him means that Little Falls acknowledged there were no code issues or outstanding permits.
  • June 8, 2917: Van Riper closes on the house and moves in.
  • July 6, 2017: Town of Little Falls assessor sends notice regarding open permits on construction from 2007.
  • August 2017: Van Riper allows for inspection by the Little Falls Building Department to formally close the 10-year-old open permits, followed by a reassessment of construction.
  • Later that month: Assessor Clerk Debbie Liscio informs Van Riper of an increase in taxes by 25 percent to $11,600 — which is expected to rise over time, the new owner said.

WHO'S TO BLAME?

**Van Riper last week acquired an attorney, Michael Schonberger, who declined to comment on Sept. 13 because he needed more time on the file.** (SCROLL TO BOTTOM FOR THIRD-PARTY OPINIONS)

  • Sellers, William Angelo and Kelly Allen?

The pair, who own Little Falls business For Dancer Only, allegedly did not disclose there were open permits on the house, and the process of closing the permits following construction was never completed, Van Riper said.

"The seller was aware that taxes were never increased because of the significant improvement to the original structure by adding on the addition," he said.

Fairview Attorney John Anlian said the average home owner is unaware that they have to close their permits with the town (scroll for more).

  • The Town?

Van Riper feels that Little Falls should not have issued a certificate of occupancy on June 1, saying it is the town's responsibility to keep tabs on the open permits.

Township Administrator Charles Cuccia is shifting the blame in another direction.

"The closing attorney and real estate agent did not do their due diligence, and there happened to be an open permit," Charles Cuccia told Daily Voice, citing the New Jersey Permit Extension Act, which allows permits to remain open indefinitely.

"It's up to the agent and the closing attorney to find outstanding bills and permits. That's why you hire attorneys and real estate people to help with closings."

Anlian said the onus falls "squarely on the town" (scroll for more).

  • Closing Attorney Daniel Barli?

Barli told Van Riper he missed the open permits, but knew there was significant construction with an addition to the house.

"He never ran an OPRA, followed up, cared to investigate, ask the sellers attorney or Van Der Wende Century 21about construction issues or permits," Van Riper said.

In emails obtained by Daily Voice, Van Riper's closing attorney Daniel Barli blamed the seller's contractor, Affordable Homes, saying the company would have been responsible to obtain approvals.

Daily Voice left a message with Barli's secretary on Sept. 13.

  • Affordable Home Services Owner Jim Federele?

Federle told Daily Voice he was familiar with the home and the nearly "9-year-old project." When asked if it was his responsibility to inform the township of the open permits, Federle declined to comment.

  • Could it be the buyer himself, Mike Van Riper?

According to Waldwick Attorney Russel Anderson, yes.

"It's always on the buyer to do his or her due diligence. Whether he or she pawns that off to someone else is always an open question."

Van Riper, however, opines otherwise.

"We are not responsible," he said. "I paid a lawyer good money to process the transaction."

MORE FROM THE ATTORNEYS

Anderson says he wouldn't cast blame on anyone, but ultimately, the old adage holds true: Buyers beware.

Anlian, who represents both buyers and sellers, says the blame is "squarely on the town."

"Typically, when you go in to get a certificate of occupancy, the building department should check records to see if there are any open permits," Anlian said.

"It doesn't happen that often... This is something they should have known before they issued the certificate of occupancy."

HOW IS VAN RIPER HOLDING UP?

For now, Van Riper will be living in his new house while seeking a resolution.

He says he plans on filing a lawsuit, but has not disclosed against whom. Still, he said, money cannot make up for the disappointment he has experienced.

"It hurts," he said from inside of his new and very costly home.

"It's like meeting the person of your dreams and finding out they are careless, heartless, cold and empty. It makes you feel differently after the experience.

"It's taken the joy out of the experience. The anticipation and dream of it all was more positive than the reality of it all."

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