Dear Barry,

When I bought my home, the home inspector recommended that I have a radon test for an additional $100. My agent, who also attended the inspection, said there had not been any high radon levels in the area and that the additional fee was a waste of money. So I didn’t get a radon test. After closing escrow, I bought a radon test kit at the hardware store and discovered that the radon in my home is three times the level recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency. Is my agent liable for his misleading advice? –Mickey

Dear Mickey,

Prudent real estate agents know better than to advise clients on matters that exceed their professional expertise. Unfortunately, there are numerous examples of agents crossing this critical line. Some advise against engineering and soils reports, against research of building permits, or against even having a home inspection. Those who give such advice misrepresent the interests of their clients, while exposing themselves to serious levels of liability. For an agent to discourage the specific aspects of the discovery process is not only risky, it is unethical.

Radon is a radioactive gas that is emitted from the soil and that may become concentrated in a home. It is often a very localized occurrence, rather than being typical of an entire neighborhood. In some cases, radon can reach high levels in one house, while being negligible at the home next door. This fact is not likely to be known by many real estate agents, which is why agents should withhold uninformed advice to the contrary. From an ethics standpoint, your agent bears some liability. Legally, oral recommendations are difficult to prove, although you could test the matter in Small Claims Court. If you do this, the amount in question would be the cost of installing a radon mitigation system, usually between $1,000 and $2,500.

Dear Barry,

I’m planning to modify the interior of my condo and want to know if I need a permit. The project involves the construction of additional walls to make a bedroom and closet. I’ve hired a licensed engineer to draw up my structural plans, and I intend to do the work according to his specifications. What risks do I face if the work is done without a permit? –Scott

Dear Scott,

When you alter a building without a permit, you should consider the issue of disclosure when you eventually sell the property. By law, you must inform buyers of all significant defects, and that would include work done without permits. In that case, a buyer might insist that you obtain an as-built permit. The building department could then require full restoration of the living space to its original condition or removal of drywall to enable inspection of the added framing and electrical wiring.

Since you’ve already done the hardest part of project preparation — having plans engineered and drawn — why not go the extra step and have everything done “according to Hoyle.” Remember, the code mandates the taking of a permit. Therefore, work that is not permitted cannot, by definition, be said to comply with code, regardless of how perfectly it is executed.

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

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