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

As-Built Permits for Sellers

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: In past articles you’ve mentioned “as-built permits” for additions and alterations that were done without building permits. I have a property that was totally renovated — new electrical, plumbing, heating, and roof — all done without permits. I’m going to list the property for sale and want to know if an as-built permit is a good idea before I sell. Could you explain how this works?  Lou

Dear Lou: When you sell a home with non-permitted alterations, you have two choices: You can sell it “as is”, but with full disclosure of non-permitted work, or you can get an as-built permit and, hopefully, make everything legal. But before you apply for an as-built permit, you should be aware of the pros and cons.

Most building departments offer as-built permits as a way to bring maverick additions and alterations into legal conformity. On its face, the concept is quite simple: You submit a set of plans to the building official with an application for a building permit. With a normal building permit, you obtain permission to perform work. With an as-built permit, you seek approval for work that was already completed, to be sure that it complies with the building code. If the proposed plans conform with municipal standards, they are accepted, and a building inspection is scheduled. If the scope of work is not acceptable, the permit is denied, and the building official may order restoration of the building to its original state.

Examples of unacceptable changes would be additions that are too close to property lines, a garage conversion where enclosed parking is required, or a second living unit where single-family occupancy is the limit.

If the plans are approved, the next hurtle is the building inspection. In the best of cases, the building inspector performs a visual, walk-through inspection of the project area. If no building violations are found, the work is officially approved, and the completed work is given the same status as construction that was permitted in advance. In most cases, some code violations are cited, and a correction notice is given to the property owner. When faulty conditions are corrected, the property is reinspected, and final approval is given. But “cakewalk” approval of this kind is not always the case.

If the building inspector finds significant defects that warrant further evaluation, or if the inspector is overly committed to hardcore scrutiny, or if the inspector just happens to be having a bad-hair-day, you could incur demands that would make your head and pocketbook spin. For example, the inspector might order partial or total removal of drywall and other finish materials so that wiring, plumbing, and framing components can be inspected. Excavation of foundations or of buried utility lines might be ordered so that code compliance can be verified. If concealed deficiencies are found, the inspector could demand numerous upgrades and improvements or demolition of all completed work.

To prepare for this process, you should hire a qualified home inspector to perform a preliminary inspection. This will alert you to defects likely to be cited by the municipal inspector. With that information, you can make an educated choice between an as-built permit or disclosure of defects and of non-permitted work.

Once Again: Why Sellers Need Home Inspectors

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We’re planning to put our home on the market but are not in agreement about hiring a home inspector. I believe we should know every possible issue prior to listing the property, while my husband believes that doing so increases the number of defects we will have to disclose. Do you see pre-listing home inspections as an advantage or a disadvantage for sellers? Sheila

Dear Sheila: The subject of pre-sale home inspections for sellers has been addressed from time to time in this column because so few sellers are aware of the advantages of hiring their own home inspector. Basically, there are four compelling reasons for sellers to have their home inspected prior to listing it for sale:

  1. When you present an inspection report to prospective buyers at the outset of the deal, it eliminates the need to renegotiate after the buyers hire their own home inspector.†In most transactions, the entire deal is contingent on the buyers’ acceptance of their home inspector’s report. A thorough report by your own inspector reduces the likelihood of new findings by the buyers’ inspector.
  2. Providing an inspection report to buyers promotes an atmosphere of trust. It indicates to buyers that you, the sellers, have nothing to hide and are willing to disclose everything.
  3. If an undisclosed defect is discovered after you sell the property, you are less likely to be suspected of having concealed the problem intentionally, especially if you hired a home inspector with a reputation for thoroughness.
  4. A presale inspection enables you to transact an as-is sale, while still meeting your obligation to provide disclosure. You simply state that you are not intending to make repairs but are providing, instead, a complete list of conditions that warrant repair. Presale home inspections provide strong advantages for sellers, yet few sellers exercise the option or are even aware of it as a consideration. In today’s buyers’ market, sellers need to take this proactive approach to disclosure.

Is Seller Liable For Faulty Furnace?

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: My daughter just purchased an 85-year-old house. The sellers disclosed that the gas furnace was in working order. After moving in, we had a furnace repairman check the system to make sure that everything was ok. It turned out the furnace is not up to code and will need to be replaced. Are the sellers liable for the cost of replacement? Craig

Dear Craig: If the furnace is unsafe or inoperative, the sellers could be liable, depending on whether they were aware of the problem. But there is an inconsistency in the repairman’s findings, as you described them.

Furnace replacement is necessary if the fixture or its components are damaged or deteriorated. Lack of code compliance is typically a matter of improper installation and is usually correctible. Three pertinent questions for the repairman are, “What, exactly, is wrong with the furnace? What are the specific code violations? And can the furnace be made to operate safely?” An additional question for you and your daughter is, “When you say ‘repairman,’ do you mean a licensed HVAC contractor?” If not, you should get a second opinion from a qualified professional.

The next issue is whether your daughter hired a home inspector before she bought the property. If not, she made a crucial error. In that case, a home inspector should be hired now to determine what other defects remain undisclosed. If she did hire an inspector, why was the furnace problem not discovered at that time? The answer to that question would depend on the nature of the furnace issues, whether the defects were visible at the time of the inspection, and whether the furnace is truly faulty.

Again, specific details regarding the alleged defects are needed.

Why Sellers Need a Home Inspection

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: I was wondering if you recommend hiring a home inspector before putting a home up for sale? This was recommended to us by a friend. But whoever buys our house is likely to hire their own inspector anyway. So what good does it do us to pay for a home inspection? Richard

Dear Richard: There are four distinct advantages when sellers have a home inspection prior to sale:

  1. Providing an inspection report to the people who buy your home demonstrates that you have nothing to hide as a seller. It establishes a basis of trust among the parties to the transaction and thereby increases the likelihood of closing the deal in an atmosphere of good relations.
  2. If an undisclosed defect is discovered after the sale of the property, it is less likely that you will be suspected of having deliberately concealed the problem, especially if the home inspector you hired is someone with a reputation for thoroughness.
  3. When you present an inspection report to buyers at the outset of the transaction, it eliminates the need to renegotiate the terms of the deal after the buyers hire their own home inspector (assuming, of course, that the home inspector you hired did a thorough job). In most transactions, sellers await breathlessly the outcome of the buyers’ home inspection, hoping that some adverse revelation will not kill the deal. A home inspection in advance of the transaction eliminates this tense ordeal.
  4. A presale inspection enables you to conduct an as-is sale while still meeting your obligation to provide disclosure. You simply state that you are selling the property in its current condition, as you provide a full report of what that condition is.

Presale home inspections offer strong advantages for sellers, yet few sellers exercise this option or are even aware of it as a consideration. Realtors would do well to promote home inspections when listing properties for their clients.