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

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We bought our home about four months ago, and now have a big, undisclosed problem. The house is very old and was completely renovated; not by the person who sold us the property, but two owners previous to them. Our Realtor advised us to check for permits at the city hall, which we did. The city showed us copies of permits for the electrical, plumbing, and mechanical work. But we did not notice the absence of signatures on the permit records. We didn’t know that people could apply for permits and never call for inspections. Our second mistake was buying the property without hiring a home inspector. We’d like to blame someone for this mess, but I suppose the lesson here is “buyer beware”. What should we do to get all of this straightened out?  Alison

Dear Alison: Some home inspectors routinely advise buyers to verify the sign-off on building permits. This is because many people have taken out permits for additions, renovations, remodels, and even new construction, without ever calling for an inspection. Municipal building departments don’t check up on every property that has an outstanding permit because many permits are issued without work ever being done. This makes covert work, without inspections or signoffs, an easy sleight of hand. Unfortunately, the victims are the unsuspecting buyers who are easily fooled by the display of an unsigned permit.

At this point, you need to know what is right or wrong with the work that was done. A qualified home inspector can help you find those answers. This, of course, should have been done before you purchased the property. Unfortunately, too many buyers find reasons not to hire a home inspector.

After you review the findings of the home inspection, arrange for the building department to inspect and approve the renovations. But be prepared for anything. This process could be quick and easy, or it could be complicated and expensive, depending on the style and approach of the municipal inspector. For example, the inspector could order you to remove drywall to expose the piping and wiring within the walls. Hopefully, the corrective work, if any, will not be too costly or involved.

After the corrections are completed and signed off, you’ll know that the renovations are safe and in compliance with code. When you eventually sell the property, you can do so without fear of undisclosed defects.