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City of St. John’s rejects owner’s pleas to tear down burnt-out house. Now she says she’s stuck

A burning smell lingers inside Tiffany Elton’s former home. Holes cut throughout the drywall reveal charred wood, releasing a scent Elton knew was there all along.

“I don’t need a puffer anymore,” she said, explaining her breathing has improved since moving out. It’s a bright spot in an otherwise dreary situation. 

“I live in my mother’s basement. And then also I run a business, so I do a lot of production from home as well. So it’s been a little bit difficult there and she wants her TV room back at some point.”

Elton is stuck with her 776-square-foot home in central St. John’s. She can’t live in it, she can’t sell it for someone to occupy, and without an affordable builder and money for a costly teardown, she has few options. 

“It hurts to see your house like this. Like all the kitchen cabinets, I sold them. They’re gone. I’ve been taking the doors off, just getting all the stuff out and selling what I can, piece by piece, whatever I can sell,” she said.

Elton purchased the home on Summer Street in July 2020 for $168,000. The following spring, she discovered an opening at the front of her house which led her down a frustrating fact-finding mission that still hasn’t concluded. 

A CBC News investigation in January 2022 revealed Elton’s home was originally a double-car garage that had been in a fire and rebuilt as a home by covering up the charred walls with new drywall.

The property was sold as a home years before, despite the city having never inspected the property following its conversion. It had exchanged hands multiple times since the 1980s, and the city had been collecting property tax on what it considered to be a residential property. 

Soot lays on pink insulation in an attic that is encased in blackened wood. There is a rusty metal casing where a light once was.
A metal casing still hangs inside Tiffany Elton’s attic signaling that the property was once a commercial garage. (Paul Pickett/CBC)

After Elton alerted the city to the problem, she was handed a long list of fine notices. The property doesn’t have an occupancy certificate and now cannot be lived in.

“I need it torn down. I think the city should have to tear it down because they’re the ones who got me in this mess,” Elton said. 

In 1986, the owners applied to have the garage converted into a home, and the city council of the day approved the conversion.

However, there is no record on file that indicates the city ever received a permit application to do that work or inspected the property after its conversion to a residence.

The city does not have a record of the fire at the property, although it is evident that there was one. The only permit application made to the city was for window and siding replacement in 2006.

As the city never received an application for a permit to work on the property, there is no record of an inspection ever being done or an occupancy permit being issued.

WATCH | In the original CBC Investigates report, Tiffany Elton describes her shock at discovering her new home’s true history: 

city of st johns rejects owners pleas to tear down burnt out house now she says shes stuck 1

St. John’s woman discovers she bought a garage — not a house

1 day ago

Duration 6:29

Tiffany Elton is saddled with a house that is inhabitable after learning it was in a fire prior to her puchasing it.

In January, Elton’s lawyer Joe Thorne wrote the city a letter urging them to demolish the property for her. 

“While many of these problems can be laid at the feet of others, the city bears some responsibility as well,” Thorne wrote.

“The cost of the demolition work is a significant burden to Ms. Elton but would be very little to the city.”

Request denied

The city denied the request and said it didn’t fall under the criteria it sets out for demolition, including when a property is condemned or becomes a public nuisance. 

“Further, the city denies any negligence or negligent misrepresentation on its part. As previously set out, no permits were ever sought or issued for any work at 11 Summer St. with the exception of windows in or about 2006,” a city lawyer wrote in a letter to Elton’s lawyer.

“The city had no knowledge that the extensive changes were actually made to the property.  All compliance letters state that a request does not result in an inspection of the property. While your client is able to pursue any claim she chooses, the city will strongly resist any claim in this matter.”

The City of St. John’s declined to comment on the matter. 

A woman wearing a black dress has her hand land on a for sale sign outside a beige home.
Tiffany Elton stands outside her former home on Summer Street. The property is for sale, but whoever buys it next can only tear it down. (Ariana Kelland/CBC)

“My city has been dragging me through [this] for three years and, I feel like, treating me like I am at fault when I did not do this, and it feels nefarious. It feels like they’re sticking me with this when it was their mistakes,” Elton said.

“And what’s crushing me is I’m one little small business lady in their town — who cares if I’m OK in the end? It’s their money that they’re protecting, and I think it’s the principle of the matter to them. It would be admitting fault in a way to help me out of this.”

The cost to tear down 11 Summer St. is around $20,000. 

Leaving the property opens Elton up to the potential of liability — her home insurance dropped her because it’s not actually a home. 

“It’s still my responsibility. I’m still paying property taxes on it as well, so as long as it’s standing, it’s a worry for me and a stressor for me.”

Thorne was, however, able to advocate for Elton to settle with title insurance to discharge the mortgage, reversing a previous decision.

Court too costly

Elton explored the option of bringing the former owner and others to court. 

She has found a duct for a propane stove cut through the burnt wood in the living room, suggesting the person who installed it knew the property had been in a fire. However, she’s been advised taking the matter to court would be extremely costly. 

“And in going to court, you have to bring everybody to court who were a part of it,” she added.

In an email to questions from CBC News last year, the previous owner stated they were not aware of any issues with the home in the 10 years they owned the property.

A metal duct sticks through drywall and burnt wood.
After being contacted by a previous tenant of the property, Tiffany Elton found a propane stove had been installed in the living room. Whoever installed it would have had to cut through the burnt wood to do so. (Ariana Kelland/CBC)

Now 42, Elton has drained whatever savings she had and has no house to call her own. She is now trying to sell the property as is, for someone to tear down. 

“It’s your biggest purchase and there’s no way out. There’s no way out,” Elton warned.

“Nobody has that much money in savings to take it to court to find a solution. So whatever you buy, you’re stuck with it.”

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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