Auction raises neighbors' hackles

Property has issues, but auctioneer says buyers will be warned

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Stand behind the small bungalow at 20525 Johnson Road for a little while, and you can see why someone might want to live there: The sounds of a brook just out back compete with lively birdsong and, apparently not far away, the occasional crow of a rooster.

It's what isn't as visible that might give you pause.

Neighbors are riled up as they've watched the long-empty ranch house, an old barn and nearly 7 acres of land be listed for sale for a few years and then taken off the market because of many unaddressed defects, only to see the property now set for auction Wednesday with those issues unadvertised.

They are especially worried that because the septic system has failed, a new owner will move in and pollute the creek, their well water and eventually the St. Joseph River, into which they say the tiny waterway eventually runs.

Terry Heckman, who at 74 says he has lived down the road more than two decades, is one of the neighbors who has contacted health officials over the home's sale.

The property was once part of a bigger farm operated by two brothers. One of them, Robert Bolin, built the home on the east side of the same property in 1949.

Bolin's first wife died of cancer several years ago, Heckman says, and Robert died at the age of 86 in 2011. His second wife never lived in the small house and is now selling it.

The two brothers were cattle farmers who also raised corn and drove school buses for 40 years, at a time when few people even drove Johnson Road just south of the city, Heckman says. This was before the large Whispering Hills and Crown Ridge developments were built.

Once the house was initially offered for sale, interested buyers had inspections done that showed problems there, a real estate agent says.

You can still find the Cressy & Everett listing online that now reads "off market" and, in part: "Here is a remarkable opportunity to own mini-farm on just under 7 acres in Centre Township. ... Fix up the existing home and/or build your dream home on the hill. ... Property requires significant repairs plus new septic."

Real estate agent Laurie LaDow acknowledged last week that as potential buyers had tests conducted, more and more issues revealed themselves, and the seller declined to allow further testing, including septic estimates.

"The gentleman who built the house built the house without permits," LaDow says, ticking off issues that include: the chimney is separating from the house; the house requires new plumbing and wiring; and it includes mold.A dye test for the septic system showed it completely failed, LaDow says, and she suspects there is not enough room between the house and the creek for a new septic system.

"My best guess is you'd need to tear that house down and build a new house on the hill, and maybe you can build a new mound septic system up there," LaDow says. "But other than it failed or violated EPA regulations, that's all I can tell you for sure."

Disclosure laws

It's the potential pollution that most worries neighbors. They were perturbed when they called the health department, who Heckman says sent a woman out to look at the site but took no action.

"I am beside myself," says neighbor Jacqui Oberlin, who moved in nearby in December.

But Marc Nelson, environmental health director for the St. Joseph County Health Department, says state law doesn't allow a house to be condemned as a health threat unless someone is living there.

He noted the department had taken "multiple calls" about the property but, "If somebody moves in there, somebody just needs to call us and we'll be out there the next day. It'll be taken care of."

That doesn't satisfy Heckman, who doesn't think county officials should wait.

In an odd twist, when Robert Bolin died, Heckman says he and Bolin's sister-in-law -- who has since died herself -- went to the County-City Building to see how the property was listed. They discovered the home was not listed as existing for tax purposes, despite having been built six decades earlier.

Indeed, when I went to the assessor's office last week, 2013 was the first year for which 20525 Johnson Road was listed in its computerized rolls for tax collection.

Nonetheless, LaDow and Nelson note that auctions are exceptions to seller disclosure laws.

And because it's an estate and the owner did not live in the house, she also does not have to disclose anything she might know is wrong with the home, LaDow says. "I was very disturbed when I saw she didn't disclose things, but she knew."

The auction is set for 6 p.m. Wednesday, by Hahn Auctioneers in Nappanee. An online ad asks for bids of $40,000 or more.

Auction firm owner Phil Hahn said last week that those who attended an open house for the property were told about the septic system, and those who attend the auction will also be informed.

"We're not trying to pull the wool over anybody's eyes," he says. "The home itself has been vacant about three years and it's gonna need a lot of work inside, and that's all we've told anybody."

Of the neighbors' worries about pollution from the failed septic system, Hahn says, "You tell 'em to worry about the federal government and not worry about that, OK?"

Heckman, for his part, intends to be at the auction, since he's stirred things up.

"Oh, heck yes," he says, chuckling. "I don't want to miss this for nothing."


Terry Heckman, right, and Jacqui Oberlin are neighbors who worry about a home on Johnson Road being auctioned Wednesday. (SBT Photo/SANTIAGO FLORES)