Ask the Architect

More on permits

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Q.We recently moved into our first home and know we need a permit because we want to add a master bedroom and bath. When we closed on the house, our attorney said the title report showed a “clean” C of O. Now we hear that isn’t true, that there were permits never closed and we are now responsible for them. We met with an inspector, and he said we have to get the permits and inspections, with little explanation about why, since one is for an addition that wasn’t done and another was for a deck that’s already there. Can you explain what this all means? We want to just move forward, but feel we’re moving backward.

A. The process for getting a permit, what a permit is and how to close one out to “just move on” can be confusing, especially because there are so many jurisdictions in your county. With 74 different building departments and different sets of rules, there are some things that are basic. A permit is necessary for most building projects, but in some jurisdictions a shed or deck may be allowed without one, or the deck may be allowed if it’s below a very low height. Safety is the main reason for permits, so you’d expect a swimming pool or something requiring a beam would need a permit.

If you buy a house, typically the title company checks to see whether approved permits were ever closed out by being given a final inspection which is attested to with a certificate. A Certificate of Occupancy, or C of O, is generally issued either when a building is first built or when so much work is being done that the building is so different that it needs to have a new C of O. Otherwise, most jurisdictions will issue a C of C, a certificate of completion, for work done to an existing building. In your case, the applications made by a former owner weren’t given a permit, so they’re just an open application. In many jurisdictions, open applications aren’t listed when title companies do their search, so you’re not made aware that a building department still has an open file.

I know this is confusing, but unless building departments provide a more in-depth disclosure, or unless title companies dig deeper, this glitch will continue to exist. I often learn about open applications while going through the process of review after a new application has been started, usually for something just like what you’re doing. To make matters more difficult, many building departments either require a waiting period after filing a Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, request, or a letter explaining that you are now the current owner and authorizing the individual acting as your agent to review the active file. Someday, a computer-based system may speed this process, but for now, you, as owner, are now responsible to follow through.

© 2017 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to yourhousedr@aol.com, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.