What the Building Department Doesn’t Know

Sometimes the cost of a building permit, the hassle involved, and the changes required make renovators dream about forgetting the permit. Why not just go ahead and not tell the building department? This is particularly tempting if all the work is inside: Who’s to know the difference?

There are a number of serious problems here. First, the building code is basically a “health and safety” code. It’s designed to ensure that whatever construction work is done will leave the property in a safe, habitable condition. If your planned work doesn’t meet code, it simply may not be safe. And if it does meet code, why not get the permit?

Second, if you do the work without a permit, you may run into trouble when you resell. A good home inspection will almost certainly reveal work done without a permit. (As part of a good home inspection, the inspector, the real estate agent, or you should get a list from the building department of all permits on file.)

Most work that differs from what’s standard for your home will stand out. If there’s no permit, the buyers will undoubtedly demand that the work be brought up to code (a permit obtained) before they make a purchase. That could mean redoing the entire job, a very costly procedure!

A case in point: Peter did renovations as a sort of hobby (buying homes to live in, fixing them up, and then reselling). But he refused to take out permits, complaining about the cost and the trouble of hassling with a building inspector. He would say, “If there’s a question when I resell, I’ll get the permit then.” Rescheck 

Peter did good work and for a long time there were no problems. Then, one day, a buyer questioned a room addition. Peter admitted he didn’t have a permit. The buyer demanded that the room be brought up to code as evidenced by a permit.

So Peter applied for a permit. By this time, of course, the room was finished-wallboard in place, electrical outlets installed, walls painted and ready. The building inspector demanded that Peter rip everything out. He wanted to see the size of the studs used, their placement, the type and gauge of electrical wire used, whether wires were anchored near every outlet box, whether there was appropriate insulation in the exterior walls, and on and on. In other words, before a final inspection, there had to be many rough inspections to check the work. Of course, Peter couldn’t do these because he had already finished the job.

So, in order to get the permit, Peter had to rip the job down to the bare wood and, for practical purposes, start over. At first he balked, saying he would find another, less demanding buyer. But he already had applied for. the permit and the city would hound him until either the work was properly completed or it was totally ripped out. Further, because of disclosure laws, which apply to most real estate sales today, Peter would be required to disclose the problems with the room to any new buyer. He simply gritted his teeth, did the work, and paid the bills.

All of which is to say: It’s often cheaper to get a permit than try to avoid it.

As soon as you get a permit, information about the job is forwarded to the assessor’s office. When you complete the work, a notice of completion is likewise forwarded and you can expect the tax assessor to raise your taxes according to the amount and cost of work done. Some people don’t want to get permits to avoid having to pay additional taxes. Their desire is understandable. Realistically, however, a permit and the accompanying reassessment are unavoidable. You just have to grit your teeth and bear it.

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