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October 18, 2001

Sink Holes Can Sink Dreams

By Stuart Lieberman

Realty Times

When you purchase a new home, it's usually best to have a professional home inspector evaluate the property before you close. The key is to identify problems before the sale because they can be negotiated before the closing. After the closing is usually too late.

One thing that you want your inspector to consider is the possibility of "sink holes." Sink holes are craters which form in the ground, causing things on the surface, such as homes, people, and cars, to sink into them.

Sink holes can be deadly . For example, in 1993 a 100 foot wide sinkhole formed under a hotel parking lot in Atlanta. Two people died and numerous cars were destroyed. That sinkhole was 25 feet deep.

Before you build, you should have a professional ensure that your subsurface is in good shape. You do not want to build without ensuring that the surface will remain in tact, and will not collapse into a sinkhole. A professional can perform ground penetrating tests to ensure that you will be ok.

Sinkholes can form for a variety of reasons. To some extent, the reason one might form depends on where the property is located.

For example, if you live in a mining community, you may suffer from a sinkhole caused by an abandoned underground mine. In Pennsylvania, where mining has occurred for hundreds of years, this is so common that the State has created a sinkhole insurance fund. The name of the State program is the Mine Subsidence Insurance Fund and it is administered by the State Department of Environmental Protection. The Fund has paid many claims.

Each year mine-related sinkholes cause millions of dollars in damage. If you are purchasing property in a current or former mining area, at a minimum you want to check the subterranean integrity and consider purchasing this kind of insurance. Many homeowner policies will attempt to exclude these kinds of claims, so beware.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, sinkholes can occur naturally as well. Underground water streams can erode a subsurface area, thereby resulting in a surface area collapse. Again, consult a qualified professional before you purchase. You do not want to get stuck with unbuildable property.

Any underground void can cause a sinkhole. This can include underground storage tanks that were emptied and kept in place. Over the years, these tanks may collapse from surrounding pressure, causing a sinkhole to develop.

A leaking water main can also result in a sinkhole. In New Jersey, sinkholes have developed that have been caused by buried construction debris. Though not technically legal, some builders will bury small amounts of debris after they have completed their project. This burial can create a void, which in time can result in the formation of a sinkhole. Several years ago, one such sinkhole engulfed a small New Jersey child in a new construction area, killing the child. Criminal charges and civil litigation followed.

If you buy a new home with sinkholes, you may have rights against the seller. You need to find out how the sinkhole developed. Was the cause of the sinkhole something that the seller knew or should have or could have known?

Also, what promises did your seller make in the sales contract. Certain express or implied warranties may prove helpful in making your case . In the case of new construction any warranty program may provide you with some relief. Since these are difficult, often dangerous and costly issues, legal counsel is often required so that your rights can be fully explored and protected.

For more articles by Stuart Leiberman, please press here