Permits? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Permits
As a home buyer, I'm quite diligent about researching a property I'm seriously considering for my family's next home. I'm curious about future plans for development, past or potential environmental issues, or if a neighboring farm is going to become a retirement camp for aging carnival performers. Well, maybe that last one could be pretty cool.
Examining a Property's Previous Permit History
One of the steps that I take is a trip to the township offices. I'm primarily interested in what would be needed, should I plan significant repairs, restorations, or additions. Each time, the municipal staff has been quite helpful, including letting me view the file on the parcel I'm considering. These files usually contain the previous zoning/permit history. On one occasion, there was no record of a permit or inspections for a recent basement conversion into a complete in-law suite (this didn't surprise me as there was no emergency egress). Another showed no record for a newer family room addition. The most recent was a brand new multilevel deck built without approval.
Some seller's property disclosure forms include a section to list structural changes or alterations. Then there's questions about whether permits and final approvals were obtained. In my experience, many have not listed major recent changes and some list major work performed, but permits were not necessary. As a home inspector, there have been many occasions when I've recommended that buyers contact the local zoning/building department. The recommendation is based on inspection findings that show consistent, substandard work on recent improvements or alterations. Many of the issues that I find would likely not have occurred if the proper permit, inspection, and approval process had occurred. As an occasional expert witness, I've seen situations where new owners have taken legal action against previous owners. Attorneys have often extended the action to include everyone involved with the property and its sale.
The Importance of Permits
I've also heard of municipalities, having discovered previous work performed without a permit, required subsequent owners pay fines and/or make any corrections to meet current code standards. There have been some instances where alterations, improvements and even additions were required to be removed. Although individual municipalities vary in what specific items require permits, here are some common improvements and alterations that likely would require approval and inspections:
1. Any addition to, or extension of, the original building
2. Finishing a basement or attic
3. Structural alterations, like moving load-bearing walls or making window/door openings larger
4. Any remodeling that requires adding or moving plumbing, heating or electrical components (i.e. kitchen and bath remodels)
5. Replacing or making changes to HVAC equipment, electrical service or any electrical devices or wiring
6. Building or replacing a deck, porch, patio or anything that adds to the impervious surfaces of the property
7. Adding a shed, carport, garage, swimming pool, or spa
Some other items that have required permits in a few, but not all jurisdictions include re-roofing, installing a wood/coal/pellet stove or other combustion appliance, replacing a water heater, installing a fence and demolition of part of a building or outbuilding.
Some homeowners rely on their contractors to obtain the permit and inspections. They assume the contractor would know what work requires a permit and they take responsibility for the process. Unfortunately, there have been many cases where contractors have failed to follow the local rules or intentionally deceived clients into thinking permits were obtained. There was one case where the contractor, when questioned about the permit, went to the extreme of having a friend come to the property to impersonate a building inspector.
Whether or not there are any "red flags", indicating non-approved work on a property, I think it's wise to call or visit the local building/zoning department, to get the known history of a property and inquire about possible future improvements or changes.
Bill Kibbel is a home inspector and restoration consultant specializing in historic residential and commercial buildings. He is vice president of Tri-County Inspection Company, serving Southeastern Pennsylvania and Central New Jersey.