Ask the Architect

Renovations, permits and taxes


Q. There’s a lot of renovation going on around us, and I don’t see one permit sign or window sign. One neighbor told me he didn’t want his taxes to go up, so he’ll get a permit if he gets caught or when he sells. Isn’t that taking a chance? Will taxes definitely go up, and what are my chances of getting caught for adding a roof over my front door and changing out my windows?

A. Whenever a carton of milk is tipped over on a table, there are those who immediately start mopping up the spill, while others quickly grab the carton to stop the spill at its source. Some try to solve the problem, while others try to fix the mess it creates. Taxes are the biggest worry, it seems, when it comes to renovation, and the No. 1 question I get. Since I’ve never seen taxes go down, even the latest round of federal taxes, it’s safe to say that you could do nothing and your taxes would go up.

I’ve been advocating, for years, to have a two-tier property tax system in which houses are taxed separately from property taxes. Many municipalities, from Philadelphia and Boston to cities and towns across Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts, have explored and adopted this system, in which improvements are taxed about one fifth of what they would be in your county. All that savings encourages permits and improvements, and where penalties for working without a permit are much higher, the people doing the work — not just the property owner — have a financial stake, and the local economy gets stronger from sales taxes instead of penalizing people, forever, because they wanted a family room, etc.

Sadly, what happens in your county is that the system actually promotes unsafe practices, code violations, work needing to be redone once the owner gets caught, such as redoing piping, kitchen removals and zoning hearings, that could have been avoided if there were planning and permits. I regularly get questions about whether something “meets code” when people completely misunderstand that building codes are the bare minimum, and do not fully cover the tolerances or behavior of materials, specific life safety issues or special cases requiring more stringent engineering, from resisting freezing or melting, weak soils, explosion or the spread of flames, to name a few. This is done, generally, in order to work without a permit, trying to build to code in case they’re caught.

This is common, because of this tax-and-permit system, and almost seems to be encouraged by allowing people to file to “maintain” work built illegally — in essence, mopping up the spill instead of helping people avoid it in the first place. Building departments accommodate hidden work by simply asking owners to have a licensed professional accept responsibility, stating in letters and in plans that the work is code-compliant, as if professionals have a special super power to see through walls. But no use crying over spilled milk, right?

© 2018 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.