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Permits for Home Improvement Projects--What’s the Big Deal?

Why should homeowners obtain permits for any remodeling jobs they are considering, and why should buyers care if modifications were done with permits? The most obvious reason has to do with the primary purpose for thepermit process, which is to ensure that health and safety codes are met. While there are many jobs that homeowners can effectively complete on their own or hire unlicensed labor for, small mistakes can create repercussions ranging from minor safety concerns to the extreme—loss of life. For all of you “do-it-yourselfers” and “do-it-on-the-cheap” home improvement novices, your non-permitted improvements could come back to bite you in your “you-know-what” later on if you don’t!

The metro San Diego area where I live and primarily work is an older community with the majority of homes built from the early 1900’s to 1960’s. Many of these charming homes have been expanded and/or remodeled—some many times—for many reasons: original building materials became worn or obsolete, style trends and owner’s tastes changed, etc.

It’s fairly common, when I ask a home owner or their agent about permit status of an addition or remodel in these old homes, that they say they don’t know if permits were obtained for projects completed prior to their ownership. While permit records are usually maintained by local municipalities, San Diego’s Permit Records and Mapping Department provides only permit records from 1955 to present. Rumor has it there was a fire that destroyed many records prior to 1955. While not an official policy, these older modifications are often considered “grandfathered” and escape scrutiny. For work completed post-1955, I recommend highly to buyers that they investigate permit status for obvious modifications in any property they are considering.

Giving credit where credit is due, many homeowners undertaking remodel or upgrade modifications take into consideration quality of work and safely concerns, putting effort into finding and hiring individuals they feel are qualified to do the work. But for whatever reason, many fail to obtain permits. Admittedly, I’ve never heard anyone say the permit process was easy or enjoyable. Time, money and the perceived hassle are the most common reasons voiced for skipping the process, while I suspect lack of understanding of the associated risk plays a large role.

While these homeowners may feel confident the improvements were completed by a competent individual and per specifications, it may be difficult to convince a future buyer of the same. I have seen deals fall apart when sellers can’t provide proof of permits. Many buyers are wary of work completed without permits. What they may not know is that the new owner may inherit any liability and risk associated with the unpermitted work. If they aren’t, it’s my responsibility to advise them of such.

Another compelling reason for obtaining permits is that penalties for failing to do so can be substantial, ranging from fines that could be quadruple what the original cost would have been to do it right, to tearing out project and having to start over. Not worried about getting caught? I’ve heard of disgruntled neighbors reporting infractions, estranged family members making the anonymous complaints, and workers who felt poorly compensated for their work reporting their former employers.

Still not convinced permits area better way to go? Let’s suppose you sell the home and a serious problem arises for the new owner that could be linked to unpermitted work done during your ownership…can you say lawsuit?

Chances are, homeowners making any structural changes to their home will need one or more permits. When in doubt, contact your local municipality and find out if your plans will require permits, or contact a reputable General Contractor. If the scope of work is beyond your expertise or you don’t want to deal with the permit process yourself, licensed contractors generally take care of obtaining required permits for their work. Hiring a General Contractor to ensure proper building techniques are used and current health and safety requirements are met may cost a little more up front, but in the long run can minimize risk and future expense.

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