To the extent possible, the safest approach to impending construction is to try to avert any possible damage before it occurs. This is far less time-consuming and expensive than it is to get damage reimbursed and carry out the repair after the damage is done. This page gives some tips about how you might get ready for significant construction planned in your area.
Check Your Home Insurance Policy
Most home insurance policies include exclusions (i.e. statements of what kinds of losses the policy will not cover) for "earth movement". Policies with such exclusions will not cover damage from what the insurance company defines as "earth movement". While majority opinion in the courts seems to be that general "earth movement" exclusions apply only to natural events (e.g. earthquakes), your insurance company will almost certainly deny any claim you make for vibration damage under an earth movement exclusion.
Most home insurers offer coverage endorsements (additions to base policy coverage) for earth movement that you can add to your policy to protect yourself during the construction. It is a small price to pay, relative to the cost of repairing damage yourself or suing the contractor, sponsor and your insurance company to get them to pay for the damage for which they may be responsible.
I strongly suggest that homeowners facing construction in their area using heavy equipment consider adding the "earth movement" endorsement to their homeowner's policy for the time of the construction and a reasonable period (say, 6 months) after completion of construction. Be sure to read the endorsement before you put down money to make sure that vibration damage isn't excluded in the endorsement. Such endorsements often carry large deductibles (tens of thousands of dollars), so be sure to check the deductible language in the endorsement, too. For more information on "earth movement" exclusions, see the CVDG document, Pursuing a Claim.
Pre-Construction Documentation of Your Home
If you are aware of planned construction in your area, i.e. within about 300 yards of your home, take an hour or so and document on video the pre-construction condition of every room in your house, the exterior and any other structures on the property. Narrate the video with the facts of the locations seen and whatever other information you believe is important. If you don't have a video camera or smart phone capable of video and can't easily borrow or rent one, photos can also be used for this purpose, though you will have to have an accompanying written log detailing the locations of the photos, etc. If damage occurs, these records will greatly strengthen your claim that the construction is responsible for it.
Such a record can also have the side benefit of providing evidence of the contents of the house in case of a fire or other insured loss. Just make sure you videotape or photograph the walls, wall penetration corners, door frames and other elements of the house structure while you are also recording the contents. Record at the highest resolution of which your recorder is capable. Once you have recorded the home condition, transfer it to DVD (if possible) and place the DVD and the original tape or photographs in a safe place outside the home, where you can get to it in time of need.
Web Site Project Information
Many infrastructure projects (roads, water mains, etc.) are funded by governmental entities (towns, cities, states, Federal government). These days, virtually all such projects are announced in some form on the web site of the sponsor. Such announcements may take the form of Requests for Proposals (RFP's), public comment meeting announcements, minutes of governing body meetings and others. You can often find what you're looking for fairly quickly just by searching the site for the name of your street and nearby streets. When you become aware of work ongoing or planned in your area, one of the first things you should do is visit the public entity web site and find out everything you can about the project as it is intended to be done. Print the pages so that you have a permanent record, making sure that the printed pages show at least the URL of the pages being printed and the date printed.4 Information which you may need from the site includes:
and just about anything else you can find.5 The contractor may cite the availability of this information online, but will be less thrilled to talk about any examples where it violated the rules and plans laid out on the public site. If the contractor has a web site, you should find and check this out, as well. If either web site has a comment section about the project, make factual comments about your concerns and keep a hard copy of your comments. Of course, if you are litigating against those parties, say nothing whatsoever on the web sites.
Using Public Information
You will collect all this information because it provides a defense for you in the event that damage is done. Often, contractors will blame the homeowner for failure to attend public meetings or express concern as a means of shifting responsibility for damage to the homeowner. If you can show from the documentation that you have collected that the contractor or the public sponsor of the work didn't follow published work rules or the contract, didn't carry through on notifications to homeowners of service disruptions required by the contract, failed to follow state or Federal regulations, didn't observe safety standards for its employees or a potential host of other issues, any claims the contractor might make that the homeowner failed to take advantage of available information will become irrelevant in consideration of the contractor violations. Any homeowner "failures", claimed or real, will pale in the light of violations by the paid contractor. The CVDG Pro chapter, Researching a Claim, has much more information about how to use information from public sources to best advantage in a damage claim.
Most governmentally-supported construction projects are announced in advance. The public is often given a chance to comment about the upcoming work, both in writing and orally in meetings prior to start of work. Of course, you will not know in advance if you will have damage, but you would be well-advised to attend such meetings, voice concerns and ask questions related to the vibration potential of proposed work. These meetings are announced in the legal section of the newspaper and may also be publicized by flyers or on the web site of the sponsoring entity.
Such public meetings may be videotaped; if so, make a note of it so that you can get a copy of the tape later, if necessary. Use your smart phone to take a photo of the recording setup in the context of the meeting, so you can prove recording was done later. If not, and you have specific concerns, you may want to do so yourself, unless forbidden to do so. Take written notes of the names and topics discussed by every speaker or questioner, unless you are video or audio taping the meeting.
In such a meeting, one would want to ask if any blasting is contemplated, or if vibratory compactors, pile drivers or other equipment with significant vibration potential will be used in the project. The FTA Noise and Vibration Manual indicates that such activities could be problematic in "sensitive areas".1 If so, ask for the manufacturer and model numbers of the compactors and pile drivers to be used. This allows you to get the specifications for these pieces of heavy equipment online; just do a search for "compactor [manufacturer and model number] specifications". Pay particular attention to hammer pile drivers and vibratory compactors with nominal vibration frequencies under 40 Hz. If you have an older house with plaster on lath walls, a historic home or any other special concerns about vibration sensitivity, you should voice such concerns at public comment meetings. You could download a copy of and take with you the FTA Noise and Vibration Manual or the CVDG to bolster any objections you may have.
It would also be wise to ask if any ground vibration monitoring (example setup just below) is to be done in connection with the project, either prior to or during the construction. If there is no monitoring expected, ask why not. If monitoring is being done, find out when, where, by whom, and to what purpose. Your goal here is to learn whether any such monitoring will be done meaningfully and correctly and whether the information gained will be made accessible to the public.
You should inquire about what kind of "pre-construction surveys"3 are required or expected as part of the contract. If interior video or photos of residences are planned, make sure you take some control over the visit conditions and that you get copies of the video and/or photos generated as a condition of interior access for pre-construction surveys. See our Conditions Documents (CVDG Pro) page for some example documents you can use to control such visits.
Also find out the name of the responsible person at the sponsor for the upcoming work. The goal here is not to find out how to file a claim, but to determine who to contact in the event of problems. If there are problems, you will not want to spend hours on hold waiting for someone willing to admit some responsibility. Get contact numbers and names. Find out what the process is for making any complaints or comments about the work after it starts.
Learn how the sponsor intends to supervise the work. Will there be an occasional "look-see" or will someone representing the sponsor visit the site(s) on an everyday basis? The better the supervision, the more likely it is that things will be done correctly, without damage. Note that there is no guarantee that the sponsor will pay any attention to your concerns, no matter how many you raise. However, your position will be strengthened immensely in a damage situation, if you have a record of having voiced concerns/objections at public comment meetings.
Ask whether any "experimental" or non-standard procedures will be used in the work. When faced with indisputable vibration monitoring evidence at trial that the contractor had exceeded virtually all vibration standards in the U.S. in a paving operation, the contractor's representative put forward the previously completely unheard argument that the paving operations in question were "experimental". If anything unusual is going to be done, you need to know about it.
To the extent possible, you will also want to ask about the requirements of the construction contract, including expected dates and times of work, whether work will be done on weekends, etc. In most cases, the construction contract will already have been let; the winning contractor bidder may be represented at the meeting. While individual entities will have their own contract provisions, many will incorporate by reference the Standard General Conditions of the Construction Contract of the Engineers Joint Contract Documents Committee. This is a widely used boilerplate document which has many provisions and lays out many responsibilities for the contractor, including ones for adjacent property protection. You have to pay to get a copy, but, because so many contracts incorporate it, you can usually find a copy for free on the Internet as part of a published contract, if you search for it by name. It would be useful to know if this has been made a part of the contract for the proposed construction; if so, you should get a copy of the whole contract, including addenda and attachments. You might also want to find out how much insurance coverage the contractor is carrying for the job and the contact name and number at the insurer for the contractor.
Research the Contractor
If you are particularly concerned, it would be desirable to spend a little time on the Internet digging around to find out what you can about the contractor's record (see Researching a Claim in the CVDG Pro for much more information on finding and using such information), and, if it has worrisome aspects (lawsuits, records of complaints, etc.), bring copies and broach the subject at the comment meeting. Don't expect the contractor to admit openly anything unfavorable in its record, so take copies of any documents you find with you. The CVDG Pro page, Researching a Claim, has more information on how to find out about a contractor's record in previous jobs.
Keep in mind as you ask your questions that no damage has been done to you or your property yet and none may ever be done. Make sure your tone is friendly and non-challenging, even if you have to be persistent in getting your questions answered. Make it clear that you are just trying to understand what will be done and what consequences can be expected from the work. Chances are that the contractor and the sponsoring entity are simply trying to do a professional and timely job, while taking into account the rights and comfort of homeowners.
Of course, once construction starts, your hard work in getting your questions answered may come to nothing. The contractor might be determined to cut corners, ignoring the people affected by the work. At the very least, you will have documented things in case you have to get work stopped or moved - or if something more serious happens.
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