Buyers usually have no reason to suspect that an outstanding permit exists on a home they intend to purchase. After all, repair or remodel work may not be obvious during a visual inspection of the property and standard purchase contracts often do not include a contingency clause for verification of open permits.
Buyers rarely request that the seller disclose work that was performed years ago. The outstanding-permit issue may lay dormant until the new owner tries to modify an electric meter, remodel a room or repair a heating system, only to find that previous work has not been officially inspected and approved.
Since open permits or building code violations will not be listed in the preliminary title report nor be covered by the title insurance policy, it is important to clear up unpermitted work early on and avoid a possible delay in the closing.
One couple who were in the final stages of selling their house awoke in the middle of the night — right before their scheduled closing — to a loud alarm. They called 911 and later learned that the home’s previous owner had put in an alarm system that was hidden from view and incorrectly installed. Unfortunately, a permit for the work had never been closed out. The sellers were obligated to either have the system removed or correct the faulty installation before the sale could go through.
Work done without a permit can also cause problems for a new owner. The residential alteration may have been completed according to the local building code, but if no permit was filed, the new owner may be liable for a fine. And if the work is found to not be up to code, the new owner will be required to fix the problem, bring the alteration up to standard and get a final inspection.
There can be several reasons why previous homeowners did not obtain a permit. The owners may have used a local handyman to install a washing machine inside a small closet — a job that required new plumbing and electrical work but that would not be visible when the closet door was closed. The owners may have felt that a permit was not needed because — in their opinion — the job was relatively insignificant and took only a few days to complete.
In another scenario, the owners may have added a fence to their back yard and not have been aware that an ordinance required a permit for fences over a certain height.
Sometimes owners may avoid securing a permit either to get around paying the fees or because they are afraid that their property taxes might rise if the authorities become aware of their remodeling work. Or owners who did the work themselves may have been confident the job was done correctly and didn’t see the need to apply for a permit or submit to an inspection.
Before taking a listing, many real estate agents will ask sellers if they are aware of any open permits that exist on the property. And then they will inquire if any upgrades or changes have been made that would have required a building permit.
Agents may also ask the local title company to run a courtesy permit history search, which should reveal all permits — whether pending or closed — on a property. In some parts of the country — such as Florida, where weather-related natural disasters have caused large-scale emergency repair work to be done on short notice — a permit search is common practice whenever a property sells.
Buyers can take the initiative and look up the permit history of a property by contacting the local regulatory building department for their area.
In the District, for example, permit information is available from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) at dcra.dc.gov/service/get-building-permit . Go to “Online services” and then “PIVS” (property information verification). Enter the address, then click on “Find,” and all the permits issued (or holds on the property) will appear.
The DCRA also takes phone inquiries at 202-442-4400 (option #3), and will help you with permit questions, such as what type of work requires a permit and how to begin the process.
D.C. homeowners and contractors licensed in the District can also apply online for a “postcard permit,” which is acceptable for repairing an existing feature such as a deck, fence or front porch.
The DCRA Web site lists the type of work that fits into this “postcard” category. You may be doing only a minor repair — such as modifying a fence or adding a window — but to avoid problems later on, it pays to check with the building department before you begin the project.
When you hire a licensed contractor, he or she will be responsible for obtaining a permit for the work to be performed and closing out the permit after the job is completed.
Ask your contractor to give you a copy of the closed permit for your files.
Sandy Gadow, a freelance writer and author of “The Complete Guide to Your Real Estate Closing,” is a former title officer and licensed real estate agent with more than 20 years of experience. Gadow will answer readers’ questions in future columns. Contact her at email@example.com.