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How to come clean to your local government about your illegal home addition

Some municipalities restrict the size of a home, the amount of livable space you can have on your lot, the overall height of the home and the amount of land that can be covered. (iStock)

Q: We remodeled our basement about 10 years ago and used a company that is still in business. It doesn’t seem like it obtained any permits for the work in our basement. We still own the home and plan to be here for some time to come. Do we have to report this to the local housing department, and what should we do about our home improvements?

A: You’ve asked two great questions. We’re going to start by talking about the remodeling of your basement.

When you undertake work at your own home, you must make sure that you (or the people you hire) can actually perform that work legally. Some municipalities restrict the size of a home, the amount of livable space you can have on your lot, the overall height of the home and the amount of land that can be covered, among many other issues.

Let’s say your basement height is too low and doesn’t meet local building regulations. Even if you completed the remodeling of the basement properly, the basement would never comply with the local regulations on basements.

If you tried to get a building permit now, the municipality would deny it, as the basement height would be too low to allow you to remodel that area for living space. Alternatively, if your home allows you to have a maximum of 3,000 livable square feet and you’ve maxed out that area, you won’t be able to get a permit for that work.

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Building codes are designed to help people live safely in their homes and to achieve other goals a community might have, including restricting the size of homes permitted on lots.

So now the work is done. What next? Well, you could take some steps to see whether your home improvements conform to local building codes and pull the proper permits. You might need to hire an architect to review the work completed, draw up plans for the work as it was completed, then consult with that architect or a municipal law attorney to determine how to approach the municipality about getting the permits — yes, there might be a financial penalty you’ll pay — and rectifying your situation.

We don’t know if you’ll be successful in righting the wrong from 10 years ago, but you could try. On the other hand, if the work you did would all be permissible then, is permissible now and was done correctly, you might find that the local municipality will let you pay the permit fee, inspect the work and give you the certificate of occupancy you seek. That would allow you to move on and consider the work permitted and completed according to the municipal requirements.

Those are two of your choices. The last choice is to do nothing and hope you don’t get caught when it comes time to sell. Many homeowners will hire people or undertake work in their homes without the proper permits. The question is the extent of the work completed and how well the work was done.

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Years ago, an owner of a property near where we live rented the home to a young couple. While they rented the home, the couple decided to add a backroom to the home. That couple did not obtain permits for the work and, worse, the work was done terribly. They did not put the addition on a foundation or footings, and the carpentry was done improperly.

When the owner sold the home, he hadn’t lived in the property for a long time and didn’t inspect it before it was sold. He didn’t know that the renters had done this to his home. The buyers found out about the work and discovered how poorly it had been done. This situation cost the seller dearly in the sale, but the municipality never got involved. In the end, the buyer tore down the home.

That’s got to be one of the worst-case scenarios we’ve seen. Certainly, putting up a whole house without permits could be catastrophic for a homeowner or that home’s buyer. If the home was put up illegally and regulations prohibited any building on that lot, the municipality could force the buyer out and subsequently force the home to be torn down.

In many homes, small infractions might exist. A homeowner might install a new roof, new air conditioning system or rehab a kitchen without permits. The municipality won’t get the permit revenue or know about the work but, in most cases, might let those issues slide. The question will always be at what point will the municipality really take issue with work done without a permit and what ramifications will the owner or subsequent buyer face.

You asked for our advice, but we can’t advise you to hide this issue from your municipality or hide it from your future buyer down the line. Because the work was completed so long ago, you have to decide whether you should continue to live with the basement (as you have done for 10 years) or start down the admittedly risky path of talking to experts and approaching your local municipality.

Readers, if you have faced this situation, please let us know how you decided to handle it and what the outcome was. We’ll share your experiences in a future column.

Ilyce Glink is the author of “100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask” (4th Edition). She is also the chief executive of Best Money Moves, an app that employers provide to employees to measure and dial down financial stress. Samuel J. Tamkin is a Chicago-based real estate attorney. Contact them through her website,

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