Buying an Existing Home

in General Discussion edited January 2014
As the owner of a Raleigh Home Inspection firm, we often inspect properties for our home-buying clients that have been modified...additions constructed, decks added, electrical systems altered, etc. And we often find evidence that there has been unprofessional and improper work associated with many of these "improvements". And to make matters worse, many of these improvements are often accomplished without the benefit of having attained required permits from the Authority Having Jurisdiction of the local municipality. When we discover evidence of un-permitted work, we always advise our clients to make sure that they undertake some additional due diligence and check with the local authority. So...when is a permit required? And what does it mean to a home-buyer if there are improvements to the house under consideration that were not properly permitted and inspected by the local Inspections Department?

Any time the topic of whether or not a permit for any particular project is discussed, it must be preceded with one general caveat. Because rules and regulations vary greatly between municipalities and jurisdictions, the only way to know for sure whether or not a permit is required for any particular work, in any given jurisdiction, is to make a specific inquiry. That means picking up the phone and directly contacting the appropriate authority; they will (usually) be quite happy to educate you about the applicable requirements that relate to your particular project. With that caveat having been stated, when is a permit required?

Generally, a permit is required when the anticipated work involves electrical systems, plumbing systems, or mechanical systems (heating and air conditioning). A permit is likely required any time a project involves structural support changes (roof or floor), load bearing walls, screened porches, decks, and balcony projects. Accessory structures such as detached garages, sheds, platforms, green houses, etc. might require permitting. And there is often a permitting requirement for any project that exceeds a certain dollar value. The installation of skylights, the construction of retaining walls above a certain height, the installation of irrigation systems when connecting to a municipal water source...the list of projects that may require a permit is quite long in most jurisdictions. And as previously stated via caveat, you won't know for sure unless you ask.

What would it mean if you were to purchase a home where there were un-permitted improvements that required a permit to be attained? Well, first, any such work would be considered illegal...and that's probably not the best way to begin ownership of your beautiful new home. Secondly, it is important to know that there aren't any Life Safety issues in places you can't see, such as inside walls. Third, if square footage was added to the property without the project being properly permitted and inspected...and this comes to light when you are trying to sell your home...even years later... you may be required to tear out the finished work so that the concealed "rough-in" installations and framing can be properly inspected. This can be a significantly costly mistake that is best completely avoided. One way to avoid this potentially disastrous scenario is to secure the services of a professional Home Inspector to inspect the property for any visible and obvious evidence of illegal work having been implemented. And the seller of the property should be queried as to whether there are any known additions or improvements and whether or not proper permits and inspections were attained.

In summary, permits are required for a wide range of home improvements. Unfortunately, many improvements to existing homes are implemented without having attained required permits and inspections. As a home-buyer, you need to know that all improvements have been properly permitted and inspected. If you were to purchase a property with illegal improvements, then you may be setting yourself up for a significant amount of trouble and heartache...not to mention a potentially significant and unanticipated outflow of dollars from your wallet. The importance of due diligence when it comes to illegal home improvements should be well understood and not under-estimated.
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