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by CareyBot

Dear Barry,

We received a notice from our local building department informing us that our garage was converted to a bedroom without a building permit. The conversion was actually done by the previous owners and they disclosed this to us when we purchased the property. We never thought to ask them for an as-built permit, but now we wish we had. Is this a serious problem? –Kim

Dear Kim,

When building departments become involved in permit violations, the potential for seriousness is undeniable. The direction, degree and outcome of that seriousness, however, depend on a few variables. The first consideration is whether garage conversions are even allowed in your neighborhood, even with a permit. In some areas, enclosed parking is a requirement. In those cases, building departments can order restoration of garages to their original function, at considerable cost to homeowners.

If garage conversions are allowed in your area, the question becomes one of building-code compliance. Was the work done according to required standards? (Home inspectors are often told by sellers, “We did this without a permit, but it was all done to code!” — as though sellers were sufficiently versed in building codes to make that determination.)

The final arbiter of code compliance issues is the local building official who inspects the conversion after you apply for an “as-built” permit. Such permits enable municipal inspectors to evaluate unpermitted construction after the work is completed. Issues that commonly arise during these inspections include floor and ceiling heights, room dimensions, wall and ceiling insulation, smoke detectors, number and placement of electrical outlets, light switches at doorways, exterior windows for light, ventilation and emergency escape, and much more. In nearly every case, some code violations are cited. Once these are corrected, the inspector signs off on the permit, and the conversion becomes just as legal as though the garage was converted under permit.

Unfortunately, there is an element of unpredictable risk in the as-built permit process — specifically, the discretionary attitude of the individual inspector. If the sun of good fortune shines upon you that week, your inspector will be a reasonably good-natured civil servant, diligently performing the duties of building-code enforcement.

On the other hand, your case could be assigned to an inspector who is consumed with the zeal of high office, or is simply having a bad day. This could expose you to any number of costly and burdensome consequences. For example, you could be ordered to remove drywall to enable a full inspection of the framing and electrical wiring. You could be assessed a fine for the unpermitted work, even though you were not the one who made the conversion. In the worst of cases, you could be ordered to restore the garage, as a punitive consequence of the unpermitted conversion, again with no regard for the fact that you were not responsible for the conversion. Fortunately, abusive enforcement of this kind is not the rule, but complaints about such treatment are not as rare as one would hope. Appealing to an elected official, such as a county supervisor or a member of the city council, can often resolve difficulties of this kind.

Hopefully, your as-built permit will be processed and approved without too much controversy. This will enable you to sell the property at a later date, without having to disclose that there is an illegal conversion.

To write to Barry Stone, please visit him on the Web at www.housedetective.com.