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Ramseys: Permits help ensure house meets basic standards

Barbara,Clair Ramsey

Life is a series of choices and risks. When you buy a home -- the largest asset most people have -- how do you know your new purchase was built properly? Is the structure safe for your family to live in? What precautions were taken to protect against fire? Can this home withstand an earthquake, high winds or a flood? If remodeled, was work completed to code so your family is still safe?

Typical homeowners may not realize the complicated processes that go into constructing homes but they do expect minimum standards of quality and safety. Minimum standards begin with a building permit.

While many can be frustrated with the bureaucracy of the building process, here are a few thoughts on why the process is important. A building permit sets expectations that the contractor will meet certain structural building code standards. Specific component standards include footing/foundation, structural framing, plumbing, mechanical, electrical, well and septic systems, fire code compliance, zoning, drainage and flood hazards and more.

A municipal inspector, as the unbiased professional, verifies that the work meets building code standards during certain set points of construction. For example, before the sheetrock is put up, the plumbing and electrical are inspected. Any code violations are noted for the contractor to complete. Once items are corrected, a final inspection is done, then the permit is approved and closed out.

To see the improvements in building codes over the years, a mockup of 1960 construction and current construction will be on display at the Permit Center office (4700 Elmore Road) by the end of March and at the municipal booth at the next home show.

While building permits are clearly beneficial for new construction, a lot of confusion exists on why and when a building permit is needed for an older home.

If you structurally change an existing home (including the electrical, gas, mechanical or plumbing systems), a building permit is needed. This protects the homeowner by ensuring the contractor does not overlook building codes or health safety issues. If a contractor doesn't want to get a required permit, perhaps he doesn't want anyone checking his work.

Not getting a required permit carries a hefty penalty for homeowner and contractor. The first offense can result in a $1,000 fine, with fines doubling on subsequent offenses.

A permit is not required for the following examples of common remodeling work:

• Fences under 8 feet

• One-story storage/tool sheds, playhouses or similar structures

• Painting, tiling, carpet, cabinets, countertops or similar interior items

• Swings and playground equipment

• Window and door replacement of the same size as the original

A permit is not required outside the Building Safety Service Area. To check your area, go to www.muni.org/building for "Building Safety Service Area" map above the hours of operation.

For an existing home, unresolved open permits from previous owners can also cause problems when the new homeowners need a permit. Besides the concern that the work may not have been done to code or that critical items have not been completed, the potential exists for fines, the additional cost to complete unfinished work and the cost of an inspection to verify that work was completed properly. When you purchase an existing home, ask your Realtor and/or title company to verify that any open permits will be closed out by the seller.

Considering the importance of a building permit as a check on the construction process to ensure minimum building code standards and public safety, a recent assembly ordinance allowing builders to hire their own professional reviewers in place of an unbiased third party seems illogical. While the majority of builders produce quality products, what protects the public from those who don't have the same consistent standard? We hope the professional reviewer will protect public safety and not the person paying his fee.

For more information about permits or to offer comments (positive or negative) about customer service, you can contact Building Safety at 343-8211.

Barbara and Clair Ramsey are local associate brokers specializing in residential real estate. Their column appears every month in the Daily News. Email them at info@ramseyteam.com.


Barbara and Clair Ramsey
Housing