Remodeling? Don’t Forget the Permit

Home owners who fail to get a building permit for a remodeling project can jeopardize a sale.

September 1, 2011

When home owners take on a remodeling project, they’re often far more focused on choosing glistening fixtures for a new bathroom or debating the type of granite to use on a kitchen countertop than, say, navigating the intricacies of the building permit process. That could be a huge mistake, however, and it may not even come to light until the house is put up for sale. Ignoring local approval requirements not only poses safety and legal problems but also can potentially derail an otherwise smooth sale.

Home owners using licensed contractors for remodeling work typically don’t have to get involved with permitting. Most licensed contractors will handle the cumbersome process for them—filling out the paperwork with the municipality, collecting fees, and being present for the required inspections, says Michael Hydeck, president of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. But when home owners tackle do-it-yourself projects or use unlicensed contractors, they risk problems later.

The permit process varies widely from city to city and state to state). But the purpose of the document is the same everywhere: It offers ­assurance by a municipal building department that the work being done meets all safety codes.

Ask Sellers Before You List

Home owners may be asked about permits in the process of selling a home. At closing, they may have to disclose any remodeling work they did and verify permits. A home inspector evaluating a property for a buyer may want to know whether a permit was obtained. Furthermore, the buyer’s appraiser may want to see permit records to check the legality of any home renovations.

“If no permits are found and it’s obvious the home has been renovated, the bank will likely refuse to make the loan,” according to the American Bar Association’s book Legal Guide to Home Renovation (Random House Reference, 2006). If the permitless work isn’t discovered until after closing, the home’s value could even be subject to a lawsuit, such as in cases when an addition added extra square footage to the home’s value but the construction wasn’t done legally with a permit.

That’s why contractors and legal experts say real estate practitioners are well advised to ask sellers before they take on a listing for a renovated home: “Did you get a permit for that?”

Remodeling contractor John Price in Merced, Calif., has been called in to help home owners after permit problems have been uncovered. He once worked with a home owner who installed siding by himself, but added it too far down along the wall of the house, so it rubbed up against dirt and picked up moisture. Eventually the poor installation led to mold growing in the drywall throughout the inside of the house.

Some home owners, however, are tempted to sidestep the permit process not wanting to pay the fees (municipalities generally charge a minimum issuing fee—such as $25—as well as an additional fee—sometimes 1 percent—of total construction costs), or they might not want to risk delaying a project or a sale by waiting for city inspections (obtaining permits can take anywhere from a day to six weeks or more).

“People have strong incentives to cheat, and some of that lays squarely on the feet of policymakers who have sometimes created a system that is time-consuming and frustrating,” Price says.

But caught without a permit during resale, home owners may face big consequences. They may have to pay fines (possibly up to quadruple the original permit cost) or may have to tear the project down and redo it.

Virtually No Job Is Too Small

Home owners making any changes to the structures of a home will likely need a permit—and you may need more than one, Price says.

While kitchen and bathroom remodels and housing additions are obvious permit candidates, people may not realize they might also need one for such projects as installing a window, adding a new light switch, or replacing a shower. “There are not too many jobs you don’t need a permit for,” Hydeck adds. “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”


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