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I lost my home to Sound Transit’s light rail

When Sound Transit broke through at the University of Washington in Dec. 2014, we knew the days in our Shoreline home were numbered.

Then we received a letter in March 2015: “You are receiving this letter prior to publication of the Final EIS because your property at (address) is identified as potentially impacted by the preferred alternative and a property that Sound Transit may need to partially or fully acquire in order to construct the project.”

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Do we sell with the market still recovering? We might just break even on our home, bought at the height in 2007. Would we have to disclose Sound Transit’s plan? If indeed, the agency kept its word to pay fair market value, cover the move, and pay the difference for a new home, we thought it might benefit us to sit tight for a market recovery.

Months passed and then more news broke. Light rail would come to the east side of I-5, Northgate to Lynnwood. The UW station opened in March 2016 and not too long afterwards came another letter:

“On October 27, 2016, the Sound Transit Board will consider a resolution authorizing Sound Transit to acquire property interests needed for the construction, operations, and maintenance of the Lynnwood Link Extension. Public records indicate that you own the property identified above that will be impacted by the Lynnwood Link Extension.”

Two men from Sound Transit visited the house with a “Property Acquisition and Residential Relocation Handbook,” their contact information, and assurance that they’d offer fair market value. An appraisal was next.

We de-cluttered, swapped out favorite fixtures with Home Depot clearance items, touched up paint, planted some new flowers, and prepared.

What happened over the course of the next 11 months is a period of my life that I don’t like to think about, mostly because it makes me sad when I think of the good times we had working on our first house. But, also hearing from Jasmine Donovan about Dick’s Drive-In’s struggle with Sound Transit reminds me of the level of incompetence that drove me nuts.

To set the stage, here’s an example of an email that I received 10 months into the process:

Me: Please let me know if there’s anything you need from us to get the Sound Transit surveys going. I’m happy to work with someone to get those scheduled.

Sound Transit: I did receive a call yesterday from our Engineering Department asking how to get in touch with you to schedule the survey. I did not have your phone number and directed them to call [attorney]. If you would like to send me your phone number, I would be happy to pass it on. Thanks.

You know where I live, but you don’t have the phone number that I wrote down during your first visit? Really? But then comes their silly policies.

The most frustrating policy that Sound Transit follows goes like this: ST must offer you an active home on the market of equal or better value. That sounds attractive on surface, but the agency provides you your options based on your appraisal. In our case, our 1925 bungalow (remodeled kitchen, attic suite, new plumbing, new windows, among other things like original hardwoods), was compared to three dumps. The one that stuck out was the split-level home with fire damage, located on a main thoroughfare. Sadly, it was one of the three with the highest value. Our real estate agent was ready to do battle after seeing that.

The operative word in their policy is “active.” It makes sense if you’re really going to go live in one of their options, but in many cases, like ours, you’re just using that comp to make the official offer.

It took weeks to find houses that were on the market long enough for Sound Transit to draw up a package for us that fit into their lowball offer — about $100,000 less than our real estate agent would have liked. And if you have half a brain, you know that a house on the market that long in the Seattle area must be a real piece of garbage. And they were. Not to mention, many homes on the open market were being sold over asking price.

Time was ticking. Ideally, we wanted to get our kids moved during summer, but that didn’t work out. We knew it was a lost cause once July rolled around and we decided to appeal the agency’s first offer. We opted to go through another appraisal, hoping for more money. This time, we used our own appraiser that would be reimbursed up to $5,000. And wouldn’t you know it, the appraisal cost $5,000 because a typical appraiser wouldn’t come near us. You wonder why these projects cost so much? They also covered $7,500 for our attorney, and paid for the move (which included $150 to tune the piano).

The new goal was winter break, so that the kids would be able to make an easier transition to a new school. A couple of months later, the updated appraisal came in and we had a new offer with a 60-day close, twice as long as a typical close. We found a home in October and began negotiating down the closing date because a 60-day close didn’t fit our timeline. Thankfully, the sellers of our new home were patient and worked with us on timing. There were days in the fall of 2017 that I thought we’d be living out of a hotel in Shoreline while waiting for Sound Transit to accept our counteroffer.

Finally, ST informed us on Dec. 6 that they would be targeting a Dec. 26 closing date. They scheduled movers for the 26th-28th. Our counteroffer ended up gaining us $20,000 more, but ultimately, we could have made much more on the open market in the summer of 2017.

Now here we are, in a beautiful home just an hour north of Seattle (25 minutes on a good day) and we’ve all forgotten 2017. That is until I see a story of some poor soul doing battle with Sound Transit. I know their pain.

As of last week, the house was still standing. Someone has taken the fence rails and boards and a few plants and the lawn is three feet tall. The cherry tree that I planted is gone. Sound Transit told us before the first appraisal that they typically knock down houses within a few weeks of ownership to prevent squatters from moving in.

The neighbors and the woman across the street also lost their homes, as well as at least another 20 or so families between 175th Street and NE 190th Street.

Below is a timeline of events:

January 2017:
Our house was appraised by an independent appraiser at no cost to us.

February 2017:
Sound Transit made a second attempt at a survey – Design and Wetland Assessment, ALTA Survey, Civil Survey and Design. “This request is voluntary and without compensation.” We didn’t recall a first attempt and declined to let Sound Transit on our property. This would come up in the 11th hour.

May 2017:
Sound Transit came to the house to meet with us with an offer (Replacement Housing Payment or RHP) about $100,000 below what we wanted. We were told we had 120 days to sign or appeal the RHP before it went to court. We hired an attorney for $350/hour, but Sound Transit would reimburse us up to $7,500. Sound Transit still owed us a monetary figure for a differential payment, based on comps.

“The comps aren’t staying on the market long enough to get them approved which delays things a bit and makes it all the more challenging,” the relocation agent wrote. “The home that is chosen as your #1 comp must be available for you to purchase. Sold homes aren’t eligible for consideration when selecting comps.”

June 2017:
On June 23, Sound Transit finally delivered the active comps and made a differential payment offer – another $70,000. We had 60 days to appeal. Our relocation agent suggested watching that #1 comp to see if it sells for higher, and then appealing if it does.

Sound Transit also agreed to pay for incidentals (title search, recording fees, appraisal fees, loan origination fees, credit report, home inspection and other approved costs). We were also entitled to a moving payment.

Our real estate agent began putting together an independent report and comps on our house.

July 2017:
We decided to appeal after our attorney advised a counter-offer based on our agent’s report and the 7-month-old appraisal. We asked for $50,000 more than what we were offered and were told we’d need to find an independent appraiser. Easier said than done.

August 2017:
Our attorney found an appraiser – with Kidder Mathews – willing to do the job for $5,000. It’s the exact amount Sound Transit reimburses for appraisals.

September 2017:
Sound Transit said it was going to hand our case over to legal counsel because little progress has been made. The appraisal came back at $20,000 more than Sound Transit’s original offer. We maintained our counter offer, asked for a 30-45 day close and our attorney convinced ST to hold off on legal counsel. Also, school started.

Sound Transit made its second offer via email, coming in at exactly what the second appraisal stated and with a 60-day close.

October 2017:
We agreed on the purchase price, but had questions about the differential payment. We were advised by our attorney that a Purchase Agreement should probably be signed before negotiating a differential payment. Drafts went back and forth. A signed Purchase Agreement could take as long as 30 days.

We met with our relocation agent, who told us it’s unlikely we’ll receive more money as we’ve eaten through our original differential payment. But we were told we could always appeal.

We found a house we liked and determined a 60-day close would put us up against winter break. But we still didn’t have a signed Purchase Agreement, which meant the clock was ticking.

November 2017:
Sound Transit said it wasn’t sure the agency could agree to a closing in as soon as 60 days per the earlier commitment.

“His explanation was that you had apparently rejected a request made early on by Sound Transit for access to your property for purposes of making a survey, and Sound Transit could not commit to a closing date without first understanding and determining whether property line issues might exist. This is the first time any representative of Sound Transit has advised me that a survey was still part of their checklist of items that needed to be done.“

We scanned a copy for the attorney of the “second attempt at a survey.” See the first date in the timeline.

Sound Transit sent over a draft of the Purchase Agreement stating that survey can be done sooner than previously believed. It also states that a closing could occur as soon as 45 days after mutual execution and no later than 100 days.

We officially “gave up” the battle and signed the Purchase Agreement. We also made an offer on the new house. The sellers agreed to a 45-day close – Dec. 26. Then we had to get that February survey done.

December 2017:
After an inspection, just in case Sound Transit had to rent back to us, the agency informed us that it was targeting a Dec. 26 closing date. They scheduled movers for Dec. 26-28.

Both properties closed on the same day and the movers arrived the day after Christmas. The legal fees came in at $9,012 and Sound Transit covered $7,500. They reimbursed us for a piano turner and paid for the movers.

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