by Nick Gromicko, CMI®
What is a building permit?
A building permit is a permit required for new construction or renovations to existing structures. Local municipalities issue building permits for work that could affect the public’s health or safety, if improperly performed.
How is a building permit obtained?
In order to obtain a building permit, certain information must be given to the local building official. Intermediate and final inspections may need to be performed by their inspectors to verify that the work was performed in accordance with applicable building codes.
A building permit may be obtained by the owner or a licensed contractor after filling out a few forms and paying a small fee. Plans and specifications prepared by an architect or professional engineer describing new work or alterations are required for large projects where structural elements are involved, or when major electrical, air conditioning or plumbing systems are altered. Minor alterations may require a permit, but usually do not require plans and specifications.
These common alterations and improvements usually require a building permit:
- structural additions;
- installation of a new roof;
- adding or blocking off a door or window;
- adding or relocating electrical outlets;
- adding or relocating plumbing fixtures, such as showers, sinks or toilets; and
- converting a garage or storage area to an air-conditioned, occupied area, or installation of central air-conditioning systems.
The burden of an unobtained permit is passed on to subsequent owners.
If, for instance, major alterations were made to a property without a permit, and the property was later bought and sold several times, the building official can force the current owner to obtain a permit and satisfy all code requirements. Previous owners are not held responsible for permits that were not obtained, and the current owner becomes solely responsible for compliance.
The penalty for non-compliance is usually double the fee for the permit. The permit can be applied for by the current property owner or by a contractor, but the problem often doesn’t end when the fee has been paid. If inspections and construction documents would have been required to satisfy the original permit, these items must now be obtained. Also, all work must now meet the current code -- not the code that was applicable when the alteration was made.
The current property owner then must have an architect or engineer (who often don’t like evaluating other peoples’ designs) document that all work meets current code. A general contractor may be required to dig up, disassemble or otherwise expose all elements that need inspection. This process can cost much more than what it would have cost to complete the project in the legal manner by obtaining a permit in the first place. Fines and liens for unresolved issues often make it cheaper and easier to remove the addition or renovation and start from scratch.
Small violations usually are not detected by the local building department, as they are quite busy and don’t actively pry into peoples’ homes or buildings. Building owners often add electrical outlets and light fixtures, or convert a garage into an extra bedroom without a permit. Even if the building department discovered the violation, the owner can easily remove or change the alteration to its original condition. In most cases of small violations discovered by the building department, only a small fine or reprimand results.
Avoid permit issues by doing research.
Before purchasing a commercial property, check if any additions or alterations to the property were made after the original construction. You can be at risk if you do not check with the building department regarding past and current building activity.
When you hire an InterNACHI inspector to inspect a property prior to your purchase, you should ask them if there is any evidence of work that might not have been permitted properly. If you employ a real estate attorney, he can help you research records in the building department, or you can call or go to the building department yourself and ask them to look up permit activity and the status of final inspections for the address of the property you are interested in purchasing.
In summary, you should take seriously any evidence of large, undocumented building alterations before you purchase any commercial property.