How to Research a Construction Building Permit
With the surge of foreclosures in the past few years the lack of construction building permits is creating problems for buyers. This can be true of any home, however, when buying a foreclosure the buyers don’t receive any disclosure documents on the history of the home.
It is not unusual for homes in Marin County to have some work done without permits and often the work is done professionally but here are a few example of dangerious or shabby workmenship I have personally seen.
- Shower tiles installed over white sheetrock. The shower will look fantastic at first but over time the tiles will fall off the wall and cause dry rot to the underlying structure.
- Drainpipes not connected to the sewer and dumping water under the house.
- Roofing installed without proper flashing which will cause dry rot or mold in the house.
- Mold on interior walls painted over to hide the damage.
- Decks not properly fastened to the house.
- Large windows installed without headers to support the roof above the window.
- Plumbing without proper venting which can cause the water to suck out of the pipe and let sewer vapors in the house.
- Tile installed over a sub-floor without proper support. This will cause the tile to crack.
- Dangerous electrical work. This is the most common work a homeowner thinks they can do and often it is done wrong. This can range from recessed light fixtures without proper clearance to wires in the walls connected together outside a junction box.
- Additions done without any permits or design review. The county of city can require the addition be removed.
- Interior walls removed or moved without engineering design.
When you are buying a house, during the inspection period, it is important to look for work on a house that does not look original This might be a Jacuzzi tub in the bathroom in house build in the 1950’s or a deck that is obviously new, or maybe just a new roof. Many times these are disclosed to you by the owner but when you look at the building permit history there is no record of the work.
To research building permits you must first determine if the home is in unincorporated county or within city limits (this may be different depending on which county you are in, bottom line is you need to determine what agency has jurisdiction over the permits). Now go (in person) to the building inspection department and ask to see a history of the building permits. Be sure to ask for the full history because sometimes the older permits are in a different location that newer ones. If the house is very old there might not be any permits at all, not even the original construction permit. It will help your research if you have an understanding of the process involved in obtaining and finalizing a permit as outlined below:
- The Zoning department is usually the start of the process. If you are doing an addition it is necessary to determine your compliance with zoning laws. Zoning will let you know how large or small a home can be and what percentage of the lot can have improvements or if your home is subject to historic structure laws.
- Check with the fire department, you might need to install sprinklers. Some cities have cumulative improvement laws which mean that if you improve your home over, for example 50%, you are required to install sprinklers. They might include work done by prior owners when determining the percentage improved in which case just a small change might require sprinklers throughout the house. Find out how close you are to that threshold.
- Building plans are drawn and submitted to the building department and/or design review (using concurrently with the zoning department).
- Some additions require special taxes from schools, water districts, etc., do your research on this too.
- Your building permit is issued and your building plans are stamped approved and you are issued a “Job Card”.
- As you go through the construction process the building inspector checks your work and checks off the progress on the job card.
- When your construction is completed the final permits is signed and you have a Certificate of Occupancy. The permit is then finalized.
This is what you need to check for; was a permit issued and if it was issued was it finalized? I have seen contractors and owner get a permit so if a neighbor complains or a building inspector drives by they are not busted for lack of a permit but they have no intention of ever calling the building inspector for an inspection. The inspection process is usually passive meaning that if you never call the inspector they never come and eventually the permit expires. You need to verify that every permit was finalized.
The other issue is work done beyond the scope of the permit issued. Maybe they get a permit for a new roof and partial siding replacement and instead remodel the entire house (I actually know of a house where this was done). Be sure to ask the owner, and contractor if you can, not only what work was done with a permit but was ANY of the work done without permits and if so be very specific so you know exactly what was done.
Sometimes the owner will the permit under their name and have contractors or unlicensed workers do the work, this is legal but there are some pitfalls. When a licensed contractor gets the permit their license number and name is on record so the new owner can go back to him/her if the work was not done properly (assuming the contractor has any insurance/assets). It might be more difficult to find an old owner named John Doe when you have no idea where they live. Worse yet the old owner were foreclosed on and have no assets. If a contractor wants you to get the permit in your name red flags should start to be raised.
Lastly when you are looking at the old permits look at as many details as you can, did the improvements follow the plans? I would guess that most average homeowner are not qualified to review this whole process so it would be a good idea to have a contractor and/or engineer help you with the process. This is NOT something that will be covered by a Home Inspection.
Because you can’t see the majority of the work (inside the walls) on a remodel no one will be able to tell you exactly what was done but if the work was done with building permits and checked and finalized by a building inspector you have one more level of comfort.