QDEAR BARRY: I'm embarrassed to confess that I broke your cardinal rule: I bought a property without having it inspected. The building was originally a single-family home, but the seller divided it into three separate living units by adding two kitchens and a few partition walls. The conversion was nearly completed, and the property seemed to be in acceptable condition. All that remained was some patch-up work in the new kitchens. But now the building department says the conversion is illegal and I can only have one kitchen in the building. The trouble is, I need three rents to cover the mortgage. What can I do? -- Bernard
ADEAR BERNARD: There may be no satisfactory solution for your problem. The building department is the final arbiter of what is a legal and acceptable use for a building. If the property is specifically zoned as a single-family residence and the building department has decided to uphold that use, you have no choice but to comply. Not only will you lose the benefit of the additional rental income, but you will also have to pay to reconvert the building to its originally intended use.
The lack of a home inspection, however, was not your only error. You also should have determined the permit status of the work. When considering a property that has been altered in any significant way, it is essential that buyers learn whether the work has been done with permits and has been signed off on by the building department. Without legal approval, financial consequences can be severe.
A further concern in this transaction is the matter of seller disclosure. If the work on the property was done without a building permit, the seller was obligated to reveal that circumstance on the disclosure statement. Failure to divulge matters of importance is a violation of law in most states. In that regard, the seller would seem to bear some liability for your current position. Check with a lawyer.
When buyers forgo a home inspection, they save a few hundred dollars that could have saved them thousands. Nothing should ever be assumed when making an investment as large as residential or commercial real estate. Buyers need to know what they are buying before they buy it. Or to paraphrase an old adage, "Don't count your kitchens before they're patched."
DEAR BARRY: We are remodeling our 80-year-old home. It has a lath and plaster interior, and we're concerned about the lack of insulation in the walls. If we inject insulation into the wall spaces, we might not get even distribution of the insulating material. The alternative is to remove the plaster and replace it with Sheetrock. This will enable us to install fiberglass batt insulation. What do you recommend? -- Lewis
DEAR LEWIS: If you blow loose-fill insulation into existing walls or if you inject plastic foam, it's difficult to fill the stud spaces completely. Fire blocks, wall bracing, electrical wiring and the plaster residue that protrudes between wood lath can all restrict the full distribution of insulation. Some companies that install these materials try to compensate by injecting insulation at high and low levels at each stud space, but even this approach does not guarantee that cavities will be completely filled.
The alternative, replacing the lath and plaster, is considerably more costly and labor intensive, but the outcome is certain and of higher quality. All wall cavities will be fully insulated, interior surfaces will be more evenly finished, you will have a chance to evaluate concealed portions of the construction in need of repairs, and you will be able to install new electrical wiring without restrictions. If you can afford it, replacing the interior surface materials will be a more effective way to upgrade your home.
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 Ct., Suite 218, San Luis Obispo, Calif. 93401.
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