Ask the Architect

‘Can we limit what the inspector looks at?’

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Q. We have a permit to open up our kitchen to our family room and add a breakfast room. We’re told that our finished basement and attic aren’t legal, but we don’t want to get permits for them, at least not now. We thought they were acceptable, because they were finished before we bought the house, but our architect told us there was no record of them. Can we avoid having the building inspector going upstairs or downstairs, since all we want them to look at are the first-floor things? Our contractor says he knows the inspector and can keep it simple, just to have the inspector look at the first floor. Can we limit what the inspector looks at? Are they really going to walk all over our house?

A. You have to keep in mind why you’re getting an inspection. It’s clear that you want to avoid all the issues involved with an altered, expanded home, like increased taxes and more expensive code compliance. Sadly, people generally feel they’re being penalized for doing the right thing by submitting to plans and permits because higher taxes are the “reward” for making improvements.

On one hand, building codes, which are laws, are there to keep you safe and healthy, and complying protects you and the emergency rescue workers who may have to extract you in a disaster, yet you, like many others, are more concerned with cost. You should be rewarded for making the improvements and being truthful. Instead, just like the health insurance system, which mainly funds treatment instead of prevention in the form of healthy lifestyles, you feel targeted and fearful.

Even though many inspections miss the other areas of a home, dwellings still need to be safe. Finished basements and attics aren’t “grandfathered” in, and at any time are retroactively required to meet life safety codes. This means that even if you bought the house with a finished basement or attic, unless it already has a permit to be finished, it’s required to be on record. You can find that you’re already being taxed for their finished status, so you may want to check by going to www.MyNassauProperty.com.

Ceilings will limit the time you have to escape smoke buildup, missing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors leave you vulnerable, and flammable finishes next to heating units are obviously dangerous, yet I see easily ignited materials next to boilers all the time. Finishes that are too close to fireplaces and stoves are dangerous, and there are rules about their distance to flammable finishes. An absence of stair rails is also a common problem. Small windows that prevent escape or rescue have been a big issue for firefighters who have to waste time cutting through walls to get to trapped fire victims. The list of unsafe conditions is long. You really can’t stop an inspector from keeping you safe and compliant, so at least try to do safe things, even if the inspector misses something. Good luck!

© 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.