Real Estate Matters: As a buyer, have your own inspector do a professional home inspection
Q: I’ve always been told that when buying a house, I should ask to see any building permits to make sure major changes made to the house were built to code. However, I am constantly being told by home sellers that they did work to the home themselves over time, so they didn’t need permits, even if I know this not to be true.
This is a particularly difficult situation in Chicago, where many small contractors try to avoid applying for building permits because the city makes it such a hassle. Homeowners are often complicit in these situations. The owners know that city inspectors come out to view the completed work and the owners run the risk that the inspector can cite the owner for any of many things in the home. That could put the owner at risk for upgrades that cost in the tens of thousands of dollars.
How do I go about making intelligent judgments on buying a home here?
A: Picking the right home is tough — and you don’t want to inadvertently walk into a deal where the home seems right except for the pile of projects without permits. So, let’s talk about how to determine if the construction of the home is up to par.
The most obvious way to tell whether a home has quality or construction issues is to use a qualified professional home inspector to inspect the property before you close.
The home inspector will go through the home carefully looking for construction issues, both visible and invisible, as well as any other problems that could give you a headache down the line. The tools for this inspection may include moisture meters, infrared cameras and other devices that can help uncover hidden defects. All of these will give you a better understanding of the condition of the home and help you decide whether to move forward with the purchase.
However, you bring up a great point. Most municipalities have records of improvements that homeowners make to their homes. And, as you rightly mentioned, many homeowners make these improvements without required governmental permits. So, you have to determine whether the work was done safely and correctly.
For your information, in many areas, you can pull a permit simply by paying a fee and the municipality might never come out to see if the work was done correctly. There’s no guarantee of workmanship associated with permitting, and that alone shouldn’t give you comfort.
Here’s how it might play out. Let’s say you buy a new home with substantial improvements. The seller might have pulled a building permit and the municipality may have performed the usual inspections. However, these inspections never guarantee that the home was built correctly or that the improvements were done well. It only means that the municipality inspected the home at certain stages and that the municipal inspector did not see any problems with the process. There’s a difference between the municipal inspector saying only that they didn’t see anything that violated the municipal code and ordinances vs. saying the construction was done correctly.
That’s why you have your own inspector do a professional home inspection, even on a brand-new house.