Home & Garden Columns

About the House: On Getting Caught

By Matt Cantor
Thursday June 05, 2008 - 10:17:00 AM

There’s an old aphorism that says that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Bad phrasing, I’d say. What this old saw attempts to convey is that you are more likely to get what you want when you go ahead and do something and face have to ask for forgiveness than if you were to ask for permission in advance, facing the possibility that your desire may be withheld. 

Construction projects are fraught with this schism of logic and nowhere more so than when dealing with the giver of permits and conductor of inspections, your local building authority. 

I was at a house the other day and discovered to my moderate surprise (I’m pretty hard to shock) that an entire two-car garage had been built without any permit whatsoever. From my perspective this is SUCH a bad idea. Not that I was particularly worried about the construction or those things that the city inspector might have observed to improve the final product. The thing that made me smack my already rosy face was that, in the absence of any city approval, the finished product could end up being torn down by edict of the municipality if they can show that this structure would not, for some reason, have been allowed in the first place. 

I, for one, would want to know such a thing in advance of putting hundreds of hours into a project. Now, don’t get me wrong. I do not consider the permit process concomitant with fine construction. One reason is that municipal inspectors miss plenty, not because they’re inattentive, but simply because the circumstances of city inspections are so tightly constrained. Also, good construction is not a function of following the codes. The codes are useful but they do not even begin to guarantee high quality construction. 

Notwithstanding, taking on a large project without a permit is simply foolhardy because you may end up having to redo or remove some or all of your efforts. That said, I see a great deal of work where this never happens. 

I know that many, if not most of the kitchen and bath remodels I see were done without permits. Some are not much more than a change of cabinetry along with a few fixtures in the same locations as their predecessors. These don’t make me blanche, although I am often curious as to what may have ended up hidden behind cabinet or drywall. Knowing that these recesses had been viewed, if only briefly, by a trained eye will give me a little more confidence in the workmanship, although I know that, by the law of similars, I can make a damned good guess as to what’s hidden.  

That law, you all know, even if you don’t know that you know it (got that) is that people tend to do what they tend to do most of the time. If I find loose tile, a miswired outlet, a poorly secured cabinet and linoleum flopping up along the edge of the wall, there’s a good bet that there will more of these misfeasances hidden behind the wall.  

Conversely, when each T is crossed and each I is dotted, it’s pretty unlikely that I’m going to find hidden errors. I can’t tell you that this works 100 percent of the time but it’s surprisingly reliable in my experience. 

But I digress. If you get caught having remodeled a kitchen or bath without a permit, it is not likely that you will be forced to tear all of it out. You will likely be forced to pay a double permit fee (a common practice in building departments) which is not a huge sum and you may be asked to remove enough finish material (drywall, etc.) for the inspector to see if you’ve done things right most of the time (they use THE LAW too). But this is not the serious scenario. Building a building, pouring a foundation or adding an apartment can result in a very bad day for you when the neighbor calls (it’s always a neighbor) and the city inspector ambles in the door as you put the finishing touches on the garage conversion. 

I could stand on ceremony and hawk some bilious philosophy of rectitude about how you should always follow the rules but I won’t waste your time (or mine). People do a lot of work without permits and much of the time, I couldn’t care less, but a large job and particularly one that the city would not be fairly certain to approve is such a bad idea that I cannot account for the mentality that produces it.  

A client called me the other day about her fear that when getting a permit for an upcoming job (a seismic retrofit in her case) that the city official would stray from the inspection of this particular job and take note of several other upgrades that she had overseen in her long tenure at this property. While I could not tell her precisely what would happen, I told her the following. 

Building inspectors do not have the time in the course of their work to do a lot of extra-mandatory investigation. I’m not saying that it does not happen, but it’s far less than you might think. City inspectors are so tightly booked that most have little beyond five to ten minutes at a site, which also accounts for the many items that they never get a chance to catch, even when those items specifically apply to your project. This means that they simply do not have the luxury to explore your property in search of past sins. 

These inspectors are often on the lookout for signs of additional living spaces (apartments) that are not in the city record and they’re also looking for a few things that have to do with basic safety. Two of the things they are often looking for are the presence of smoke detectors in all the necessary places (mainly bedrooms and hallways). Inside keyed locks (aka double cylinder locks) that require a key to escape are also dangerous enough to take a muni inspector off their path. These should be replaced by single cylinder locks if identified since they can prevent escape during a fire. 

There are times when the obtaining of a permit seems a nuisance and it’s hard to tell that the city will bring much to the party for all the trouble. Small repairs are typically done without permits and a range of small exterior improvements have always been allowed without permits (e.g. decks below 30 inches, fences of 6 feet or less). It’s the big project that becomes a serious problem. Regardless of the quality of construction, a large project should never be done without a permit. Even if you do it safely and conscientiously, you could end up having to tear it down and nobody want to try to console you while you sob over a garage. Lost love, yes but not a garage.