Insight on buying a home that was remodeled without using permits

updating a home to sell

In October, we answered a question from a reader about buying a house that was updated without the necessary permits. (In some areas of the country, it’s difficult and time-consuming to pull a permit, and so homeowners may not do so even though it is required by local ordinance.) We recommended buyers use a qualified professional home inspector to help determine whether the home is safe to buy.

Recently, we received a long comment about that article and both home and building inspectors. We thought it worthwhile for you to hear the perspective of a building inspector on the home construction and homebuying process and suggest you keep our correspondent’s comments in mind when buying a home and starting any home renovation project. (This email has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)

Reader comment: I read your article about buying a house that had work done without a permit. It had many valid points for homebuyers seeking information about the present condition of a building.

I have been in the construction field for 44 years and a building inspector for 12 years. I have met home inspectors and the underlying feeling is they work for the buyer. As it should be.

Your article recommends using a qualified professional home inspector when buying a home where building permits may not have been pulled. People generally hire home inspectors by word of mouth or advice from friends. Very seldom does anyone research the company, their qualifications, their certifications, their past performance, etc. Some states have no requirements for home inspections except an application and a fee. Others have licensing requirements.

Some reasons you stated for not applying for building permits were correct. The one you did not mention is that the contractor may not have any experience performing the work. As you stated, a building inspection is not about workmanship, and that’s true. Many areas use the International Residential Code (IRC) as a model for residential building and remodeling. This is the minimum of construction practices. When the code is applied to the project usually the workmanship follows. For example, the code will state how long a wood board can be before needing additional support.

I am surprised that more homebuyers do not seek out the local building inspector to perform a presale inspection. Maybe the reason is this simple: When an inspector arrives, they recognize the home and may have had past code violations.

I once asked a contractor about his use of a 2-inch-by-6-inch-by-18-foot floor joist, as I didn’t think it was adequate to support a second floor. He had never looked at the IRC book and commented on how big it was. I once asked a rough carpenter what size nail should be used to join a two-by-four wood wall stud to the supports of the second floor. He replied, “Whatever nail I have in my nail pouch.” These are the reasons why you have a building inspection: to verify the products are installed as intended.

You should use a professional, qualified home inspector on a home now and not when building a home. A home inspector can determine the age of the roof or furnace and give an idea where they are in their life span. Future homebuyers are not trained in construction. We seek out advice in other walks of life, like auto repairs, doctors, dentists, lawyers, bankers and workout instructors.

I inspect about 10 properties each day at different stages of construction. I attend classes to sharpen my skills as an inspector. The field of home inspections is an open field. Once it reaches the level where certifications or licenses are required, it can become a consistent inspection process benefitting all buyers and homeowners.