What about permits? What makes them so special?

One of the first questions we get asked about a home is whether or not work at the property was done with permits. But what about permits? What makes them so special?

Permits are required in most cities and are designed to keep building practices standardized and safe. One problem is that the inspection of work performed is only as good as the inspector overseeing the project. We’re not disparaging these civil servants, but in some cases, the profile of a city inspector is one that might not be quite as sharp when it comes to code requirements as a general contractor. We’ve also had the unfortunate experience of being on the receiving end of very painful and punishing behavior from an overzealous inspector, who as it turned out, were wrong and had to be reined in by their superiors. This Napoleonic temperament is unfortunately all too common in this field. On a side note, right about now is probably a good time to mention the reader that we are NOT referring to Belmont’s division of Planning. Their office has been one of the absolute best we have worked with in recent years.

When are Permits Needed?

Each city can set their own regulations for what work requires a permit, but a good general example might be a kitchen remodel. If you replace existing counters do you need a permit? How about changing the flooring material? The counter tops, faucet? None of these items would normally require a permit be pulled in order to effect these changes.1.

If the same work is done and a new electrical outlet is installed, then that would evoke the necessity of getting a permit. Are you relocating the sink, dishwasher, oven—than you can bet you’ll need a permit for that as well.

Is a building permit required for window replacement?

Sometimes. Whenever the exterior finishes of the building are disturbed. In other words, if stucco, siding, or exterior trim is removed to accommodate the installation of the frame of the new window, then a building permit is required. If the window replacement is a retrofit project, where none of the exterior finishes are removed, then a building permit is not required in Belmont.

It’s easy to see why whether or not a permit was needed or obtained is a hard question for real estate agents and owners to answer.

When buyers ask if the seller obtained permits, perhaps the better question is, did they need to—and was the work done properly.

There’s often a lot of emphasis put on the decision by many buyers as to whether or not to make an offer on a home, that is dependent upon whether work performed was permitted. The property inspectors with whom we work often roll their eyes at permitted work and wonder who signed off on the job—a term use by professionals in the industry for the finalization of a permit by a government official building inspector. Work lacking in proper installation techniques often flies under the radar when there is a less talented city inspector.

Then there are times when permits are just missing. Prior to the advent of the internet, permits were stored on microfiche. If that little microfiche slide was misfiled in another home’s folder, one would never know that a home actually did have approved permits.

In one case when we went to the city to view the permits status of a property which we owned, the city had no record of it even being constructed, let alone permitted. But there it was, tacked up on a wall in our garage—the a copy of the original final building permit.

Often we will see the county records conflicting with the city records—another issue with moving from analog slides to the digital realm in the early 1990’s.

The system if not perfect. When looking at a home, it’s our experience that reviewing the property inspection, when provided, will tell you far more about a home than any permit, or lack thereof.

  1. Each city/county can make and enforce the permit process differently. This article is intended to provide general insight and is not to be relied upon in your particular situation. Always check with the city in which you live before beginning any work to your property.

Drew & Christine Morgan are REALTORS/NOTARY PUBLIC in Belmont, CA. with more than 25 years of experience in helping sellers and buyers in their community. As Diamond recipients, Drew and Christine are ranked in the top 50 RE/MAX agents nationwide and the top 3 in Northern California.  They maybe reached at (650) 508.1441 or emailed at info@morganhomes.com.

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The information contained in this article is educational and intended for informational purposes only. It does not constitute real estate, tax, insurance or legal advice, nor does it substitute for advice specific to your situation. Always consult an appropriate professional familiar with your scenario

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