Dear Barry,

The home I’m buying has been altered and enlarged, and the sellers disclosed that all work was done without permits. My agent assures me that many houses in the area have the same problem and that I should not be concerned. But this advice worries me. Does unpermitted work pose a problem? If so, what’s the solution? – Bill

Dear Bill,

You have good cause for concern, and so does your agent. Advising a client to overlook unpermitted construction is a shortcut to legal and financial calamity. No competent agent would offer such risky advice.

Unpermitted additions and alterations are bound to include building violations of one kind or another. The fact that permits are lacking is not only a “red flag,” it is an undefined generality. What you need are the specifics. Are we discussing minor building violations, requiring routine upgrades and repairs, or are there major defects, involving faulty foundations, unsafe electrical wiring, fire hazards, or who knows what? You need reliable answers, and that calls for the services of a qualified home inspector. This, rather than a flippant dismissal of the issue, would be the advice of an agent whose primary concern is the financial well-being of the client.

Once you know the general nature of the alleged “improvements” and obtain the inevitable list of observable defects, you’ll need to make a decision: to accept the property as-is, to cancel the sale, or to involve the local building department. Buying the defects as-is could merely forestall a host of inevitable unpleasantries. At the very least, you’d need to disclose all known defects to future buyers, and that could adversely affect your ability to resell. On the other hand, inviting the involvement of the building department could open another can of maggots. For example, if the property has been altered in ways that are not acceptable to the building authority, the property might have to be restored to its original condition, at considerable cost. That, of course, would be a worst-case scenario.

Typically, unpermitted building projects can be rendered “kosher” by obtaining what are commonly known as after-the-fact or as-built building permits. This is a process whereby the municipal building inspector evaluates the property to determine what upgrades are needed to warrant final approval. The primary, nail-biting downside to this approach is the chance that the inspector might require major upgrades and could insist upon partial deconstruction to enable full inspection of concealed conditions, such as piping and wiring within walls.

All such considerations should be weighed now, before you finalize this purchase. Such is the cautious approach to which you and your agent should subscribe.

Dear Barry,

A master bedroom was added to my mother’s home over 30 years ago. Unfortunately, the addition was built directly over the septic tank. To make matters worse, it was constructed without a building permit. Will this be a problem when we finally sell the home? – Tony

Dear Tony,

Having an unpermitted addition, and particularly having an inaccessible septic tank, are issues that will need to be disclosed to future buyers. The only way to pre-empt these concerns is to submit the property to inspection and approval by the local building department. However, they may require that a new septic tank be installed on the property to provide normal accessibility.

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

***

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