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posted: 5/3/2013 3:51 AM

Finishing a basement or attic may require building permit

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Simply painting or paneling a basement or attic usually doesn't require the building department's permission, but upgrading the electrical system or adding plumbing is an entirely different matter.

Q. We have a fairly large basement that we don't really use, so we'd like to convert it into a "rec room" with a television, pool table and maybe even a small refrigerator. Would we have to get a building permit to do the work?

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A. It depends on where you live and the extent of the work that would be involved.

Most cities and counties don't require a homeowner to get a permit to remodel a basement or attic if the conversion involves basic changes, like painting or paneling. But you almost certainly will need to get one if you are adding, say, new electrical outlets or plumbing.

Some municipalities also require homeowners to insulate their basement or attic if they plan to convert it for uses other than storage. Contact your local building department for details.

Q. Our local home improvement store has been running advertisements for "standard composters" and also "compost tumblers." Is there a difference?

A. Yes, there's a big difference. And you have asked a timely question, because April 22 was Earth Day, when nations around the world hold various events to demonstrate their support for environmental protection.

Composting is a good way to help Mother Nature -- and save money, too. The cost of store-bought fertilizer has been rising, and many contain potentially dangerous chemicals to kill bacteria and spur vegetation's growth.

Conversely, composting can create even better fertilizer than those sold at garden-supply stores and is made with stuff that you would otherwise throw out -- from lawn clippings and watermelon rinds, to used coffee filters and even those "dust bunnies" under your couch.

A "standard" composter is a bin that's typically made of plastic. You throw in the recyclable stuff and then use a spade, pitchfork or small shovel to stir the decomposing mixture once or twice a week.

"Tumblers" are a bit easier to use. They are spun by hand, so you don't have to open the top and stir up the mixture with a pitchfork or shovel. Many tumblers are made of steel, which tends to make them more durable and longer lasting than standard bin composters.

Several websites have tips for choosing the type of composter that's right for you. Among the best are www.sierraclub.com and eartheasy.com.

Prices for a standard bin composter usually start at around $100, while those for tumblers are typically 30 percent to 50 percent more. Just make sure you read the owner's manual carefully so you know what can go into the unit and what stuff shouldn't.

Q. We made an offer to purchase a house through our agent for $5,000 less than the listing price. Two days later, our agent called to say our offer was rejected because another buyer had agreed to pay the full asking price. We subsequently found out the new buyer was represented by another agent who works for the same brokerage firm. Isn't this illegal, or at least unethical?

A. Unethical, maybe. Illegal, probably not.

Real estate law in all 50 states generally requires an agent to act solely on behalf of his or her client, whether it's a buyer or seller. Your agent did exactly what you instructed him to do, so there are really no solid grounds to sue.

It would have been nice if he had told you another agent in the office was showing the same property to a different home shopper -- assuming your agent knew about it -- but he had no legal obligation to do so. Neither did the brokerage firm's management.

A case remarkably similar to yours was decided in favor of a would-be buyer's agent and the agent's firm by New York's Court of Appeals about five years ago. You can get the details by looking up Rivkin V. Century 21 Realty LLC, 2008, on the Internet or by visiting your nearest law library.

Real estate trivia: The average household of four produces about 6,400 pounds of trash each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

• For the booklet "Straight Talk About Living Trusts," send $4 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to David Myers, P.O. Box 4405, Culver City, CA 90231-4405.

2012, Cowles Syndicate Inc.

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