Ask the Architect

A permit for a repurposed porch?

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Q. I want to know what to do about my porch now that we’re selling the house. We changed it from a screened porch to a year-round sunroom (though it’s not heated) about 15 years ago, and thought it was no problem. Our closing was held up, and we lost our buyer because our title company got a title search, and it showed we needed a permit for Hurricane Sandy repairs. Then the Building Department saw that we changed our porch, and said we had to get a permit for the “enclosed room.” It isn’t that different, just windows and low walls, but they say it’s different, and we’re frustrated because none of our neighbors got permits and did the same thing. Our lawyer and the buyer’s lawyer agreed to just let it go, but the bank said no. Is this fair? Are we the only ones? Why aren’t our neighbors being made to do the same thing — get permits, too?

A. Every week, for years, I’ve gotten this question, and I realize that everyone has that special neighbor who gets away with everything, for a while. The problem is that the rules are there but not enforced. Twice this week I was in homes of sellers with your dilemma, and twice they called back to say their attorney had “worked it out” so they no longer needed plans or a permit, no certificate of completion, no electrical inspection, nothing, and the sale was moving ahead.

When your home was discovered to have a habitable enclosed space, not just a screened-in room, your neighbors weren’t being examined for the same deficiency; only you were scrutinized. Your enclosed room creates a different set of safety issues, from potential use of space heating to blocking escape from the adjoining rooms, since the code doesn’t allow escape from room to room through doors — only wide, doorless openings. The screened porch wasn’t a room, but the weather-enclosed space is, along with more regulations intended to keep every inhabitant, from generation to generation, safe.

It would also be a political problem if officials were assigned to go to your neighbors to let them know they’re in violation, and you can imagine that they’d suspect that you told on them; hence, a good reason to be moving away. The issue is that the building permit process is thought to be too complicated, to take a long time and to encumber workers who just want to make a faster dollar and move on, even if what they build doesn’t pass a later inspection. There’s a lack of public knowledge of safety regulations, an understanding that you are being taxed anyway, sporadic enforcement, political issues, lawyers who enable their clients to move ahead without following the law (yes I know that not every lawyer does that) and minimal penalties for the parties involved, including the homeowner, so the system perpetuates itself. What’s happening to you happens to hundreds, even thousands, of people every year.

© 2019 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.