Home Buying in Seattle>Question Details

Rick P, Home Buyer in Seattle, WA

What's the best way to broach the subject of non-permitted renovations to a seller?

Asked by Rick P, Seattle, WA Mon Mar 19, 2012

My wife and I have been looking for homes for a few weeks now. Mostly 1960's or earlier, so it's common that the home had a little work done in its past. Unfortunately we've seen some homes that we like, but have clearly been remodeled to the point of needing a permit, and the local building department has no records of this work on its internet permit search. I am concerned that we would be taking on a financial risk by purchasing the home, only to find out when we go to get a building permit of our own, that the local inspector will identify the non-permitted work and make us tear it out. I'm talking about things like a new deck, installing drywall, bathroom work, or wiring upgrades, all of which requires a permit. Any advice on how to bring these up to the seller, and possibly make it a negotiating point for a lower price would be greatly appreciated. Further, I'm curious if my concerns will just end up killing a deal, and having the owner wait for a less informed buyer?

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Hello Rick,

Your concerns are very valid, and - yes, some building departments will have all brought up to code (not necesserily torn down), in FL. There are serious fines and liens that go with it. Yet, most homes here have problems you described...The work could have been done by the previous, not current, owners also. But, the current owner is the one responsible for all work done and will pay fines/bring the building to code.

Questions by building department usually come up when the new owner goes to the building department to apply for a new job permit. The inspector comes out and finds "problems". Depending on the building department, and if they even have their paperwork (they often loose or misplace it), some "problems" are grandfathered in.

It's also possible that work was done "to code", so you might just pay some minor "fine" to formalize the remodel done on the property. Or, the building inspector might require an engineer or an architect prepare the plan etc...which you'll find reasonable.

What you can do is have a building department "courtesy" inspection done, along with your inspection, to see if all is done to code. If not, it's up to your risk tolerance and seller motivation to sell...Yes, some sellers will prefer the buyer not asking questions, but some are very motivated to sell.
My buyer recentlly purchased a condo with a huge discount because of the work there not having any permits. We also found out, during the courtesy inspection, that there was no file on the condo in the building department...

Hope this helps,

Irina Karan
Beachfront Realty, Inc.
1 vote Thank Flag Link Wed Apr 25, 2012
"Further, I'm curious if my concerns will just end up killing a deal, and having the owner wait for a less informed buyer?"

I don't think "less informed buyer" is the correct term for what you are proposing. The remedy for no permits is not "lower price", and looks more like an excuse to renegotiate the original agreed upon price.

If you asked how you might be able to get permits, after the fact, and have the owner-seller cover that cost, then your question would make more sense. Merely trying to use the issue as a bargaining chip? Not usually appropriate.

As example, you say "new deck" but if there was a previously permitted deck of the same configuration, the repair or replacement of wood in whole or in part, may not require a permit. Even if you don't see a permit for the original deck that was 95% improved (using same footings) that old deck may have been approved as part of the original build out.

You can easily raise the issue of "where are the permits?" so the seller might explain why those improvements did not need a permit. But to raise it as a money issue looks disingenuous as to the concern of "no permits" vs using it merely as an excuse to re-open price negotiations.

If you were truly concerned about lack of permits, you would be figuring out how to get permits...not how to get money. Perhaps you didn't know that there is a process for getting permits for work after the fact. There usually is, and asking for permits prior to closing would be more appropriate than using the issue "as a bargaining chip", unless the Home Inspector has indicated that the work was substandard vs merely "un-permitted".
1 vote Thank Flag Link Mon Mar 19, 2012

Although you may not be able to find a permit on line it may still exist. The on line records only go back a few years and so to really find out if a permit was obtained, first ask the seller. Then if they do not know (often the case) go to the building department directly and ask for old permit records. Often these are on microfich.

Failing those steps you should prepare a list of real concerns and determine if it is a house you would want to own is one you would want to repair/replace/update to your requirements. Then it is a matter of negotiation. Hope you have a good agent that doesn't lead you down a rabit hole of failed negotiations.

If permits are a major hot point for you you may be better off buying a new house with all permits and inspections, however even that doesn't guarantee that everything was done correct. I once sold a new construction house that went through county and a detailed private inspection and a year later the foundation became an issue that needed addressing.

Always remember; no property is perfect, so you have a choice of older homes that are tried and true or new home with a short warranty. Best of luck.
1 vote Thank Flag Link Mon Mar 19, 2012
Hi, Rick,

The first place to start would be to make sure you receive a copy of the "Sellers' Disclosure Statement", which have questions of the seller. You do not have to have an offer written to request this form, if it isn't voluntarily furnished. The law requires the seller to fill it out accurately, and if it
has "gaps", be sure to ask your agent to have the seller correct or complete it.

You may be able to decide if you want to proceed with the property or not, without even wasting any time or money on it.

These other agents also have good advice,

Jean Bradford, SFR, CRS, CRB,ABR, GRI
Managing Broker Associate
John L. Scott RE
Silverdale, WA
1 vote Thank Flag Link Mon Mar 19, 2012
Hi Rick;

I have been buying and selling homes for over 20 years, and many of these homes have never even seen a permit. This would include just about every old home, and the rare permitted home would be an exception. This has never been an issue of any significance in my career. Not once. Never.
Earlier this year I put one of my homes on the market, and this was a 1920's home with many upgrades and a few items that to many of today's buyers (and an entire bureacratic industry at city hall) would call for a permit. This home was priced competitively and there was a fair bit of interest. One homebuying wag was extremely interested, until he went to city hall and found a lack of permits. This lead to a sense of vulnerability the buyer (and his rookie agent) felt was a bargaining chip. Or so he thought.
I sold this home to a different and very happy young couple who didn't care one iota that some changes made in the 1970's escaped the permit process. Needless to say, the much chagrinned first buyer felt cheated...after all he had paid for an inspection and although this home was very well built and maintained he and his agent thought they could push the proverbial envelope a bit due to this lack of permits. This was a bad move on their part.
Of course I will relay this story in a professional sense to any buyers I represent, and of course I will tell them that in today's world of lawyers and city hall and county paper pushers that if they are concerned then they might want to consider a home that has every permit the home might ever need.
1 vote Thank Flag Link Mon Mar 19, 2012
you've got to be kidding me. blaming "city hall" for not properly permitting is ridiculous. i'm sure you didn't follow up with the "happy young couple" to make sure they didn't have any costs associated with your lack of permits and to suggest that the first buyer lives in regret is frankly, arrogant. i'm sure he went on to buy a lovely home where the "flipper" actually cared about the quality of the work and that it went through the proper inspections/permitting process.
Flag Sun May 1, 2016
This is an excellent comment.
Flag Wed Apr 18, 2012
The listing agent should have pulled a permit package, ask for it, if you want to pursue the unpermitted work angle. Permits are a complex issue, it may be better to stick with dollars, and cents from the inspection report.
0 votes Thank Flag Link Wed Apr 18, 2012
After nearly a thousand homes sold I have only run into this question once and it was december of 2011. It was a real concern for the buyer ...in fact he requested the city come out and inspect the home before going through with the purchase. I learned that technically you need a permit to change a lightbulb....so.....unless you have specific plans or specific concerns on a particular home that is clearly a code violation I would not focus on permits if it were me. With that being said you need to follow through until you are comfortable and making the most informed decision possible. If you are too picky though you are correct ... the seller will just go on to the next buyer that will not be so picky.
0 votes Thank Flag Link Mon Mar 19, 2012
This is a lot of downplaying of a legit concern (i.e. changing a light bulb needs a permit.) If there's damage in the home in an area that was built without permit, the insurance company will fight the new owner on any payout. Not only do you have to deal with that scenario, but if this home is under a HOA - the HOA finding out will most likely require the buyer to pay for the cost of removing all the additions or take on penalties and liens. What if the work is shotty and causes a fire killing someone? I mean, you've basically downplayed this to obscurity and it's a real issue...
Flag Sun May 1, 2016
The concern that the local building department will force you to remove any renovation done without a permit, puzzles me.
If the renovation performed results in a dangerous condition, I could see it. To force removal simply because a permit was not issued, is something I have never heard of.
Has anyone heard of this ever happening?
I have never considered this to be a risk.
Homes that have been remodelled without all the necessary permits would probably be the majority of old homes in Seattle.
A good building inspector would be able to identify dangerous conditions.
0 votes Thank Flag Link Mon Mar 19, 2012
Mr. Akers said it best. Your concerns should be about life & safety issues & not whether permits were pulled or not. Have a licensed inspector inspect the house for those life & safety issues. If the non-permitted work is well done, then you have nothing to worry about. If the non-permitted work is in poor repair and dangerous, you can either walk away or ask for repairs/credits. Best of luck.
0 votes Thank Flag Link Mon Mar 19, 2012
Simply have your agent contact the listing agent and ask whether there has been any unpermitted work done while they owned the home, or to their knowledge before they bought it (perhaps disclosed to them at the time of sale by the previous owner), and request a form 17. Specifically ask about anything you think may have been done without permits. "You said you knocked down a wall to make two bedrooms into a large master -- were permits pulled and inspections done?" Check the city/county records if they no longer have copies of the permits.
0 votes Thank Flag Link Mon Mar 19, 2012
Believe it or not, this is an issue common with many homes. Due to age, many older homes would be considered out of compliance with today's building codes. In some instances, a home may have been updated or remodeled several times, and for some of the work,a building permit was not required at the time, which is required now. Sometimes a homeowner will have performed work themselves, not realizing that even the smallest project may require a permit. To protect yourself, have a full-house inspection by a licensed home inspector. Go over the inspection report carefully, focusing on issues that are safety-related. Safety issues are a legitimate topic for negotiations. Unattractive or dated remodeling is more a matter of taste. Plus, if you present the seller with a laundry list of items, with a request to off-set the price for each item, you'll find the seller will not take your offer seriously and you'll lose the home. So, focus on those items that are most important, and realize that no house is perfect. You will find issues in every home, from an non-grounded electrical outlet to a non-permitted deck. In this example, the deck is the big worry. Your agent can work with you to devise a strategy for addressing the important safety issues during negotiations. Good luck.
0 votes Thank Flag Link Mon Mar 19, 2012
Hello Rick,
I suggest that you or your agent approach the seller's agent regarding the non-permitted work stating that you checked the local building department for a permit and certificate of occupancy and none exists. The seller may be willing to go through the process of having the work properly permitted as this issue would probably come up with other potential buyers.
If the seller is unwilling to do this then you can always request a credit from the seller so that you can pay for the proper permits and any possible penalties involved.
I also suggest that you check with the actual building department and not rely on the internet as the site may not be entirely updated.

Good luck to you!

Laura Feghali
Prudential Connecticut Realty
0 votes Thank Flag Link Mon Mar 19, 2012
Just be honest with the seller and try and sit down face to face to work something out with all parties being present.
0 votes Thank Flag Link Mon Mar 19, 2012
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