Importance of Building Permits
Updated: Jul 28
What is a building permit?
A building permit is a permit required for new construction or reconstruction of existing buildings. Local authorities issue planning permission for work which, if carried out incorrectly, could affect the health or safety of the public.
How is a building permit obtained?
In order to obtain a building permit, certain information must be provided to the local building official. It may be necessary for their inspectors to carry out interim and final inspections to verify that the work has been carried out in accordance with the applicable building regulations.
A building permit can be obtained by the owner or a licensed contractor after filling out a few forms and paying a small fee. Plans and specifications prepared by an architect or professional engineer describing new work or changes are required for large projects where structural elements are involved or when major electrical, air conditioning or plumbing systems are changed. Minor changes may require a permit, but usually do not require plans and specifications.
These common alterations and improvements usually require planning permission:
installation of a new roof;
adding or blocking a door or window;
adding or relocating electrical outlets;
adding or relocating plumbing fixtures such as showers, sinks or toilets; and
converting a garage or storage space into air-conditioned living space or installing central air conditioning systems.
The burden of failure to obtain a permit passes to subsequent owners.
For example, if major improvements were made to the property without a permit and the property was later bought and sold several times, the building official can compel the current owner to obtain a permit and comply with all the requirements of the law. Previous owners are not responsible for permits not obtained and the current owner assumes sole responsibility for compliance.
The penalty for non-compliance is usually twice the permit fee. A current property owner or contractor can apply for a permit, but paying a fee often doesn't end the problem. If inspections and construction documents were required to meet the original permit, these items must now be obtained. All work must now also comply with the current code – not the code that was in place at the time the change was made.
The current property owner must then have a document from an architect or engineer (who often doesn't like to evaluate other people's designs) that all work is up to current code. The general contractor may be required to excavate, dismantle or otherwise expose any features that require inspection. This process can cost much more than it would cost to complete the project legally by obtaining permits. Penalties and liens for outstanding issues often make it cheaper and easier to remove an addition or renovation and start from scratch.
Small violations usually go undetected by the local building authority because they are very busy and don't actively push into people's homes or buildings. Building owners often add electrical outlets and light fixtures or convert a garage into an additional bedroom without a permit. Even if the building authority found a violation, the owner can easily remove the modification or change it to its original state. In most cases of minor violations found by the building authority, the result is only a small fine or warning.
Avoid permit issues by doing your research.
Before buying a commercial property, check to see if any additions or alterations have been made to the property since its original construction. If you do not check past and current construction activity with the building authority, you may be at risk.
When you hire LiteHouse Commercial to inspect the property prior to your purchase, we will try to determine if there is any evidence of work that may not have been properly permitted. If you employ a real estate attorney, they can help you look at the building department records, or you can call or go to the building department yourself and ask them to look up the permitting activity and inspection status for the address of the property you are interested in buying.
In short, before buying any commercial property, you should take seriously any evidence of major, undocumented building alterations.