Check home’s permit history before buying

Old fees may come back to haunt

Now more than ever, it’s important to protect yourself from unexpected surprises when you buy a home. The goal is to find out as much about the house as possible before closing.

Your offer should include an inspection contingency even if you’re making an offer in competition. The contingency wording should be broad enough for you to inspect whatever you deem necessary so that you are confident the home will satisfy your housing needs within a budget you can afford.

If the inspections reveal defects that can’t be corrected, or ones that can but the sellers won’t participate in the solution, you should have the option to withdraw from the contract and have your deposit returned.

Most buyers have a home inspected by a home and structural pest control ("termite") inspector. Additional inspections recommended, such as for roof or drainage, should also be done.

Ideally, you want to know not only the severity of a defect, but how much it will cost to repair. It’s a good idea to ask for written reports and repair estimates, despite the additional cost. Written reports can be effective in negotiations with the sellers over inspection issues.

Even if you don’t intend to negotiate, written reports provide a record that will help you complete the needed repair work. It will also serve to inform the future buyers about the condition of the property when you bought it.

HOUSE HUNTING TIP: An item that is often overlooked during buyers’ inspections is the permit history on the house. It can be a hassle dealing with the city bureaucracy, and few buyers have time to go to the city planning department. Some even pay others to take care of this task. One way or the other, it should be done. Ignoring this detail can result in problems.

Several years ago, a buyer in the hills of Oakland, Calif., didn’t check the permit history when she bought. When she applied for a permit to do work on her house, she was denied because of outstanding permits taken out by the previous owner that hadn’t received final approval.

In order to obtain a permit, she had to have the property inspected by the city and do any work necessary to receive the final approval — all at her expense. This can cost thousands of dollars.

Recently a homebuyer in Oakland’s trendy Rockridge neighborhood obtained the permit history on the home she was buying. Two items became apparent that required further investigation.

One involved a remodel done by a past owner, not the current owner, for which a variance was granted. The permit received final approval. However, final permit approval was conditioned on the seller agreeing to record a notice of property use limitation on the title to the property. The preliminary title report on the property didn’t show a notice of property use limitation.

The title company searched the title record again, aware of the dates around which the notice should have been recorded, and found it. The title company issued an amended report correcting its mistake.

The permit search also indicated that there were fees owed against the property. The buyer was concerned because she planned to do work after closing and didn’t want to be stuck paying fees that she hadn’t incurred, especially having no idea how much was owed.

It turned out that the fees would not be charged to the new owner. One was for an application made by a past owner that had expired. The city had not performed any services. The other was from 1997, which was deemed to be too old to collect.

THE CLOSING: While you’re checking the permits, be sure to ask if any fees are owed. You may need to check directly with the cashier.

Dian Hymer, a real estate broker with more than 30 years’ experience, is a nationally syndicated real estate columnist and author of "House Hunting: The Take-Along Workbook for Home Buyers" and "Starting Out, The Complete Home Buyer’s Guide."

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