Featuring America's Home Inspector: Nationally Syndicated Columnist, Barry Stone

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I’ve made an offer on an unpermitted home that was red-tagged in 2001 by the county building department. The property is located in the mountains, surrounded by other unpermitted homes, and the real estate agent says the building department is not likely to require demolition, as long as property taxes continue to be paid. But this seems risky. The price for this property is tempting, but I don’t want to get stuck with a vacant lot. When a home has been red-tagged, can the building department eventually order its removal? Mark

Dear Mark: In most cases, municipal building departments don’t require demolition of unpermitted buildings. This, however, does not mean they can’t or never will do so. Building departments are empowered to enforce the letter of the law. If future policy changes should incline them toward rigid enforcement, they could order the removal of substandard structures that have been red-tagged. Conditions that could prompt such a decision might be major construction defects in the building, zoning violations, noncompliance with water and septic requirements, or the capricious imposition of authority by an over-zealous bureaucrat.

Demolition, however, would be a worst-case scenario. A more likely enforcement position would be to prohibit occupancy of the dwelling until it is permitted, inspected, and approved.

A prudent approach, before you sign a purchase contract, would be to visit the county building department and to discuss the situation and possible options with the chief building official. What you need is clarification of their policy toward properties of this kind. Ask the building official about an as-built permit. Find out how much the permit process might cost and what the chances are of obtaining approval for the building. You’ll also need a list of defective conditions likely to be cited by the building department. So be sure to hire an experienced home inspector for an evaluation of the building.

Buying a red-tagged home has it’s risks, but the greatest of these is to proceed without a full knowledge of the situation.