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Home-buyer beware

If you buy a house that has been remodeled, know just what was permitted

Posted: October 31, 2008 8:51 p.m.
Updated: January 2, 2009 5:00 a.m.
 
“Don’t let this happen to you,” said the local man we’ll call Mr. Broke.

You see, Broke and his wife are now about $500,000 in debt for a home they purchased at about $250,000. And it’s all because of work done on the home before they purchased it — work that was not up to code and did not have the proper permits.

Little did they know.

“We thought we did everything right when we bought a house with a 30-year loan and a low fixed rate,” Broke said. “There was a small room addition built at the back of the house that was disclosed to us, as built to code, but not permitted. The house had been painted and decorated and looked great. We had the house inspected, everything checked out and we did everything required to purchase the house.”

Note the “not permitted” aspect — this is where it all went wrong.

“Four years later our house literally started to cave in. The sliding door in the back of the house completely froze up and the front door was suddenly very difficult to open. A big crack started developing across the ceiling under the center of the house, and cement roof tiles starting falling off the edge of the house.

“We notified our homeowners insurance company and they sent a structural engineer to assess the house. The can of worms was just opening, as it was then discovered there were cut and modified trusses under the apex of the roof. The original composite roof shingles, weighing less than one ton, had been replaced with cement roofing tiles, weighing nine tons, and all that weight slowly began to cause the structure to cave in. To make matters worse, unsafe electrical work was discovered in the attic as well as plumbing work, and gas lines had been tampered with.

"Ultimately, our insurance claim was denied due to construction defect, meaning the cost of this nightmare was now squarely on us.

“A check with Santa Clarita Building and Safety revealed none of the work had been inspected or permitted,” he said. “Our choices at this point (keep in mind we could not sell the house in this condition) were two. For one, we could walk away, filing bankruptcy and destroying our credit. We are both in our mid-50s and bankruptcy would destroy our hard earned FICO scores of over 720. The other option was to refinance the house and begin repairs at an approximate cost of $100,000.”

Going to court
The Brokes considered legal action.

“After consulting with a local attorney, and assured that we had a solid case, we filed suit to try and recover our cost of rebuilding and permitting our broken home.

"To make a four-year-long story short, we have spent thousands of dollars, are in debt for hundreds of thousands of dollars and recently lost the lawsuit in arbitration,” he said. “This little can of worms has financially devastated us, ruining any chance of ever retiring or paying off our house.”

Summing up, the Brokes not only had to pay the cost of rebuilding, but also the attorney fees for both sides of their case. The previous owner got off scott-free, as did his contractors, who had gone, conveniently, out of business. All of this, added to their original debt in purchasing the home, put the Brokes about a half-million in the hole.

Mr. Broke hopes his tale of woe will prevent others from making similar mistakes.

“The moral of the story is, if you are buying a house and suspect there have been modifications of any kind, check with Building and Safety to make sure they have been done legally! If it has not been permitted, do not just walk away — run away,” he said.

Realtor Larry Wims, of Prudential California Realty in Valencia, sympathizes with Mr. Broke, and agrees with his conclusions.

“Buyers, beware of possible problems with unpermitted additions to any home you are considering purchasing. Common sense must prevail,” Wims said.

“Some additions add great value to your prospective new home. Having the home inspected by a qualified California home inspector is the first step. If you discover a previous owner may have modified the original construction, you and your real estate agent should visit the city or county Building & Safety office to check the permit history of the home. Another quick check is to compare the total square footage the seller is representing and the square footage the county assessor is showing on the tax records.”

Permits protect you
Bill Read is the assistant building official for the Building & Safety Division of the Public Works Department of the city of Santa Clarita. As such, he knows the value of obtaining a permit for work done on a home.

“Every jurisdiction in California is required to enforce the building codes. The primary purpose of the codes is to ensure the health and safety of the people of California,” he said. “This is why permits are required.”

In reference to the Brokes’ disaster with a roof caving in, Read said, “Those are exactly the things we look for when we issue a permit. If there are any structural modifications, we’re going to look very closely at how the changes impact the structural integrity.

“They might have to go in and add a structural beam. That’s looked at before we issue a permit. A plan checker reviews the scope of the work. Then a building inspector goes out and makes sure it is actually constructed according to the plans.”

Read noted that any time you replace roofing material on a home it requires a permit. “The original framing may have been designed for a lightweight material, such as asphalt shingles or cedar shake,” he said. “A lot of products (such as cement tiles) are considerably heavier.

“If the frames were not designed to support that weight there can be structural problems, failures.”

And, when the work is done and the permit finalized, there will be records of the permit at City Hall. The homeowner should get copies as well. “When the work is completed, one of the things we leave with the homeowner is a final, signed-off inspection record card,” Read said. “It’s a card that documents the approvals for the various inspections we perform and final sign-off for approved work. The contractor should, technically, give that over to the homeowner.”

Read cautioned home buyers to check for permits. “If you are buying a home and the owner says, ‘Oh, yeah, I had a re-pipe done three years ago, and it’s all to code,’ it should show up in the system. If not, they did not get a permit,” he said.

Little-big jobs
Read explained that many times homeowners who have repairs done, or do them themselves, do not get permits, especially for smaller “repair-type” projects. Some of these projects include re-pipes, furnace and air conditioner replacements, and water heater replacements. However, these all require permits.

“From time to time, we see people doing small room additions and patio covers,” he said. “These would certainly require a building permit.”

“As a general rule of thumb, most all construction projects require a permit — except very minor ones that are not safety-related,” Read said. And he noted that the exemptions can be found on the city Web site.

“Pretty much, if it’s not listed on the work exempted, it’s going to require a permit,” he said.

Contractors & permits

If the homeowner does the repair, he or she may not know a permit is required, but a good contractor should.

“Generally, good contractors can make a job go very, very smoothly,” Read said. “They may even find things overlooked in the plan-check process. You run into problems with unlicensed individuals who do the work and don’t have the knowledge.” As was the case with the “contractors” who weakened the Brokes’ home, Read said these individuals are “looking to make a fast buck and then they’re gone.”

He said it was critical that homeowners check a contractor’s license and references. “You can look it up online. Is he licensed? Is the license in good standing?”

You must check
Read noted that there is nothing in state law that prohibits someone from selling a home that had un-permitted work done on it, as long as they disclose that in the agreement. However, as a potential buyer, you don’t have to accept it. “If the work is done without permits, you can certainly ask for the work to be permitted,” Read said. However, this can be a lengthy process. “Sometimes they have to open up walls.” 

Read said that if there is any doubt about permits, the potential buyer should check the records. For homes inside the boundaries of the city of Santa Clarita, records are on file in the Building & Safety office at City Hall. “Our front counter staff can assist homeowners to look up the records,” he said.

Things are especially easy for permits issued after 1985 in the city’s jurisdiction. These can be accessed online at the city Web site (www.santa-clarita.com, click on “e-Permits”). You can search by permit number or, if you don’t know that, you can get the permit history of a home merely by typing in the street address.

You don’t have to worry about a time lag, either. The record should be available the following day after a permit is issued.

For permits in the city’s jurisdiction prior to 1985, visit the Building & Safety office at City Hall on Valencia Boulevard. Los Angeles County permits for SCV homes outside the city are also available there. Call (661) 255-4935 for more information (city) and (661) 222-2940 (county).

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