Building Permits

You can’t afford not to have them!
Permit usually require certified plans and all work must be inspected. Required by law and crucial for public health and safety, building permits are the last place to look fro cutting corners on home improvements.

Permits required

The permit process is part of the Uniform Building Code’s system of legal specifications for building materials and construction techniques. The system was developed over the years to protect public health and safety by requiring sound, durable, built-to-code construction.

Most municipalities require that remodelers obtain a building permit before making modifications that could cost as little as a few hundred dollars. For example: installing a water heater, a new toilet or putting up a fence may require a permit.

Which projects require permits and which do not, vary from one city to the next. Best option: Check with your building department before beginning any home improvement project.

The process

To obtain a permit, usually you need to visit the building or planning department, fill out some forms and submit a building plan. For smaller projects, a description of the work to be done, plus the application, may be enough.

Provided the plan complies with the codes, the building department issues a permit for a fee. That triggers inspections of the work in progress, upon completion, or both. Building inspectors give the job the once over to make sure it complies with building codes and that you are using the proper materials and building techniques.

Beyond the benefits of code-complying building practices, a compelling reason to obtain a permit is the cost of not obtaining one. If the building department discovers illegal work, the fines or costs to rebuild can be staggering.

Who’s going to know?

Limited and sometimes poorly handled record keeping in some building departments could prevent anyone from ever discovering you’ve worked on your home without the proper permits.

“In many cases it is a matter of the work being completed years ago and the local permit departments not keeping records dating back that far, so verification becomes impossible,” says appraiser Greg Stephens, co-founder of ABNET, LLC, an Olney, Maryland-based national appraisal company.
In many cash-strapped cities, building officials find it impossible to patrol neighborhoods looking for violators. But in smaller towns or suburbs, they might.
There is a good chance your illegal construction will get noticed eventually if not immediately. How?

  • Your construction process has angered neighbors or you have cranky, nosy neighbors who call the building department on you.
  • You’re selling your house and during the inspection, alterations are uncovered. Normally, the buyers will research the home’s permit record. If the proper permits aren’t in place, that could kill the deal.
  • Later in the purchase transaction, an appraiser may also seek permit records to learn if significant renovations affect the value of a home. In many cases: No permits, no loan.
  • Another incentive for obtaining a permit is future remodeling work. During a building official’s scheduled inspection of a perfectly legitimate home improvement, he or she could turn up the older illegal work. The building department could then “red tag” the job and issue a stop-work order.

What could happen

  • If an inspector suspects illegal work, you could have to pay for the cost of any inspections required to make a further determination. You could be required to remove dirt along the foundation so it can be checked, or tear down sheet rock inside, so the inspector can look at framing, insulation, wiring, and plumbing.
  • If the work is deemed illegal, you must legalize the work before you can sell the home and that could mean tearing out old work.
  • If the illegal handiwork is yours, costs can continue to mount. The building department could levy higher punitive permit fees as well as fines. There are also liabilities associated with hiring an unlicensed contractor.
  • Illegal work could stop an escrow cold or linger as a bomb waiting to go off after closing. You and your agent are legally required to disclose any known conditions that could affect the value of the home for sale. If buyers think they can prove you knew about illegal work, but didn’t disclose it, they can back out of the deal. They could even seek restitution. “We have been engaged as expert witnesses to determine the loss suffered by home purchasers where no disclosures were made of unpermitted work by the agent or seller,” Stephens said.
  • If, after close of escrow, buyers discover work completed without a permit and the local building department decides not to approve the work, a chunk of the home’s value could become a legal issue. “Any difference in value based on what was not permitted at the time of sale, becomes a point of litigation,” Stephens said.
  • Even if unpermitted work complies with current building codes, building departments often issue only a statement of compliance – not a permit. Because the statement applies only to the visible work, a lender or buyer may not be satisfied and demand that you obtain a permit.

A permit may add time and expense to a home improvement project but any immediate savings realized by skirting the law could end up costing much more, and create the potential for long-term liabilities. So, the smart money is on getting a permit.