Consider costs when buying home with unapproved addition

Work done decades earlier likely subject to new building codes

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 6, 2012

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Work done decades earlier likely subject to new building codes

Barry Stone
Inman News®

DEAR BARRY: We are purchasing a home and have agreed to buy it as is. This includes a patio enclosure that was built without a permit. The seller has agreed to pay the fines levied by the building department, but we have to correct the defects in construction.

We searched the public records and found that a bedroom addition was permitted in 1962, but the permit was never signed off. The county inspector said that a new permit would have to be issued, and the construction would have to comply with current building codes, rather than 1962 codes. Shouldn't a 1962 addition be subject to codes in effect when the construction occurred? --Cheryl

DEAR CHERYL: Building inspections are based on codes in effect at the time of the permit, not when construction occurred. The opportunity to apply 1962 codes ended when the original permit expired. The person who purchased that permit was obligated to call for an inspection when the construction was completed. Unfortunately, failure to comply with that requirement has become a problem for you, who may not even have been born at the time.

The building official has the prerogative to waive some of the code changes that have occurred over the years, but health and safety requirements are not likely to be given that kind of leniency. Consider the following examples:

A significant code improvement since 1962 is the requirement for three-prong electrical outlets, instead of the old ungrounded, two-prong type. Under a new permit, it would be unacceptable for a building inspector to dismiss this type of safety upgrade. Furthermore, if the addition has two-prong outlets, the wiring in the walls might need to be replaced to provide ground wires for three-prong outlets.

Another example involves the dimensions of bedroom windows. The size and height requirements for bedroom windows have been changed to enable easier escape in case of a fire or other emergency.

Some building departments are stricter than others in addressing this type of situation. You should discuss this with the building inspector to determine the extent of strictness that will apply. For example, ask the inspector if wall coverings such as drywall or paneling will have to be removed to enable inspection of the framing, wiring, piping and other conditions within the walls. You should also discuss this with a licensed general contractor to determine the costs you are likely to incur. This will enable you to make an informed decision about proceeding with the purchase of the home.

DEAR BARRY: The rented room where I live is a converted attic. The floor area is large, but the ceiling is only 63 inches high, and there is no fire exit. Is this room illegal, and if so, should I take action against the landlord? --Martin

DEAR MARTIN: The room definitely does not comply as legal living space. A more pertinent question, however, is whether you were aware of these substandard conditions before you rented the space. If so, perhaps you should find another place to live, rather than taking legal action against the landlord.

However, to protect future renters from being trapped during a fire, the local building authorities should be notified of this illegal dwelling.

To write to Barry Stone, please visit him on the Web at www.housedetective.com.

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