Q. When we bought our home, the seller disclosed that the added bathroom was built with a permit. He even showed us a copy of it. After moving in, we learned there were numerous plumbing and electrical violations and that the work was never signed off by the building inspector. How could this happen if the work was permitted?
A. The answer to this question involves a little-known fact. It is an easy matter to acquire a building permit. All you need is a set of approved plans and payment for the permit fees. However, once there is a permit, it is up to the property owner or contractor to request an inspection when each stage of the work is completed. In most municipalities, the building inspector does not visit the property simply because a permit is on file.
It is not uncommon for people to take out a building permit and never proceed with the work. Building officials know this and therefore do not regard it as unusual when there is no request for an inspection. Unfortunately, there are also cases in which an owner obtains a permit, completes the construction, and does not notify the building department that work has been done.
In these instances, the owner can display the permit to interested parties, such as prospective buyers, and claim that the work was permitted. Buyers, such as yourselves, see the permit and trust that the work was officially approved.
The seller in your case appears to be guilty of false disclosure and accordingly should be liable for the costs of repairs to make the bathroom comply with applicable code requirements.
Whenever someone shows a permit for completed construction work, it would be accompanied by a copy of the signed inspection card. If the card is not available, the records at the local building department should be consulted.
Q. The people who are buying our home hired a home inspector. According to the inspection report, the front porch steps have improper rise and run. What does this mean?
A. The building code is very specific about the dimensional requirements for a staircase. The purpose for these standards is to minimize potential trip hazards, the general premise being that stairs of unequal or unusual sizes may cause a pedestrian to miss a step and stumble.
The terms "rise" and "run" refer respectively to the vertical and horizontal dimensions of each step. Specific requirements governing rise and run are as follows:
• The rise (height) of a step shall be no less than 4 inches and no more than 7 inches. In a residence, however, a rise of 7¾ inches is allowed. In older homes, different codes were in effect and 8-inch risers are grandfathered.
• The tread (the surface on which you place your foot) shall have a heel-to-toe dimension of at least 11 inches. Once again, residential steps are the exception, with 10 inch treads being permitted. In older homes, 9-inch treads are grandfathered.
• The height of the largest step in a staircase shall not exceed the height of the smallest step by more than three-eighths of an inch.
• The same rule applies to tread sizes -- three-eighths inch maximum variance.
If these regulations seem confusing, try adding the numerous variables that pertain to circular stairs, spiral stairs, landings, handrails, etc. If you need further details regarding the inspection report for your home, the home inspector should answer your questions.
• 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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