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Property's Permit History Helps Buyer Look to the Past for Problems

By Barry Stone
Saturday, February 26, 2005; Page F24

Q DEAR BARRY: When I bought my home, I hired a home inspector and only minor problems were found. But now I'm remodeling the interior and the building department informs me that the addition and the attic conversion were not permitted. Before I bought the home, I asked the previous owners and both agents about the legality of the addition and conversion, and everyone said that all of the building changes were permitted. Aren't these people liable for false disclosure? -- Nick

A DEAR NICK: For the sake of discussion, let's give the sellers and agents the benefit of the doubt and assume that they didn't know about the lack of building permits. For example, perhaps a previous owner altered the building and no one was aware of the absence of permits. The current sellers and agents, then, would be guilty, at worst, of making bad assumptions. In that case, their answer to your question regarding permits should have been, "I don't know."

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In your case, the sellers might have been excused on the basis of not having understood the finer points of real estate disclosure.

The agents, however, would be subject to higher disclosure standards, under which an uninformed disclosure of this kind would constitute professional negligence. Qualified agents know better than to say there are permits without checking with the local building department. In fact, many agents have made it a standard practice to check for permits on every transaction, or to advise their buyers to do so.

Some home inspectors conduct permit searches as an added service for an additional fee, but this is not within the scope of a home inspection itself. Prudent inspectors, however, make it a practice to recommend to all buyers that they consult their local building department for a permit history of the property, before closing on the purchase.

As to the question of liability, much will depend upon what disclosures were made in writing, rather than orally. Consult a real estate lawyer.

DEAR BARRY: We signed a contract to buy a new home and were told by the real estate agent that a home inspection is not necessary for new homes. Trusting this advice, we waived our right to have an inspection and now believe that we made a mistake. We now want a home inspection and wonder what we can do now that the contract is signed. -- Kelly

DEAR KELLY: It is the height of professional irresponsibility for any real estate agent to advise a client against having a home inspection. All new homes have defects -- no exceptions.

If you now want an inspection, you may have to dig in your heels. Let the agent know that you insist. If necessary, consult a real estate lawyer to clarify your rights.

Barry Stone is a professional home inspector. If you have questions or comments, contact him through his Web site, www.housedetective.com, or send mail to 1776 Jami Lee Court, Suite 218, San Luis Obispo, Calif. 93401.

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