Q. When we bought our home, we knew that the bonus room was an addition, but the sellers never disclosed that it was not approved by the building department. Recently, we received a notice from the city that a permit for a bonus room was pulled and will soon expire. This means that the sellers applied for a permit but then built the room without having it inspected. We have no idea whether the room is up to code and are afraid to notify the building department. We don't know what we might have to pay in permit fees and penalties or whether they will increase our property taxes. We'd like to have the addition finalized but are afraid this could open a can of worms. How should we handle this situation?
A, This is a tough decision because the response of the building official cannot be predicted. Some building officials are excessively strict, some are unbelievably lenient, and most are various shades of gray between those two extremes. On the lenient side, there are building officials who make cursory inspections and sign off on additions, regardless of apparent defects. On the strict side, there are officials who charge outrageous permit fees and impose heavy fines, even when the homeowner is not the one who authorized the construction. Another form of strictness is to require demolition as a punitive means of code enforcement, regardless of the quality of construction. Fortunately, most are not as extreme as these examples, but even in cases of moderate enforcement, the costs and inconveniences can be unsettling.
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Some building officials require removal of drywall to enable inspection of the framing, electrical wiring, plumbing, and other pertinent conditions. If that were to happen in your case, you would have to pay for removal and restoration of the wall coverings. There would also be the potential costs to repair conditions that might be found inside the walls and ceiling. Additionally, there are potential costs if the foundation and roof do not comply with building codes.
Approaching the building department regarding an open permit could go well for you, or as you fear, it could open a "can of worms." Once the municipal inspector is on site, you are subject to whatever official decision is made. The outcome is a "roll of the dice." However, you can improve the predictability of the situation by having the addition inspected by a qualified home inspector or general building contractor.
If you do notify the building department and the addition is finalized, your property taxes will probably be increased, based upon an evaluation by the municipal tax assessor.
One final consideration is the matter of liability for the current situation. If the sellers knowingly built an addition without having it inspected and approved, they were required to disclose this circumstance when they sold you the property. You should notify them of the fact that you are now aware of this problem. If your costs turn out to be high, you may want to discuss the matter with an attorney.
• To write to Barry Stone, visit him on the web at www.housedetective.com, or write AMG, 1776 Jami Lee Court, Suite 218, San Luis Obispo, CA 94301.
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