QDEAR BARRY: We received a notice from our local building department informing us that our garage was converted to a bedroom without a building permit. The conversion was done by the previous owners. They disclosed this to us when we purchased the property. We never thought to ask them for an as-built permit, but now we wish we had. Is this a serious problem? -- Kim

ADEAR KIM: When building departments become involved in permit violations, the situation can become serious. How serious depends on a few variables. The first is whether garage conversions are allowed in your neighborhood, even with a permit. In some areas, enclosed parking is a requirement. In those cases, building departments can order restoration of garages to their original function, at considerable cost to homeowners.

If garage conversions are allowed in your area, the question becomes one of building code compliance. Was the work done according to required standards? (Home inspectors are often told by sellers, "We did this without a permit, but it was all done to code!" -- as though sellers were sufficiently versed in building codes to make that determination.)

The arbiter of code compliance is the local building official who inspects the conversion after you apply for an as-built permit. Such permits enable municipal inspectors to evaluate unpermitted construction after the work is completed. Issues that commonly arise during these inspections include ceiling heights, room dimensions, wall and ceiling insulation, smoke detectors, number and placement of electrical outlets, light switches at doorways and exterior windows for light, ventilation and emergency escape. In nearly every case, some code violations are cited. Once these are corrected, the inspector signs off on the permit, and the conversion becomes just as legal as if the garage was converted under permit.

There is an element of unpredictable risk in the as-built permit process: The individual inspector has wide discretion. If you are fortunate, your inspector will be a reasonably good-natured civil servant, diligently performing the duties of building code enforcement.

On the other hand, your case could be assigned to an inspector who is consumed with the zeal of high office or who is simply having a bad day. That could mean costly and burdensome consequences. For example, you could be ordered to remove drywall to enable a full inspection of the framing and electrical wiring. You could be fined for the unpermitted work even though you were not the one who made the conversion. In the worst cases, you could be ordered to restore the garage as a punitive consequence of the conversion, even though you were not responsible for the conversion.

Appealing to an elected official, such as a county supervisor or a member of the city council, often can resolve difficulties of this kind.

If you're lucky, your as-built permit will be processed and approved without too much controversy. This will enable you to sell the property without having to disclose that there is an illegal conversion.

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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