New-home buyers usually don't concern themselves with footings, framing, wiring, ventilation and the various and sundry mundane structural items that go into a house. Those things are the province of the home's builder.
But when you're turning your carport into a garage, extending your kitchen another five feet or adding a second story to your 15-year-old rambler, you are the builder. And as such, you have to pay close attention to your local building codes.
Building codes are a set of minimum design and construction requirements set forth to protect the public health, safety and welfare, and they're rooted in ancient history. Back in the 18th century B.C., for example, the Code of Hammurabi mandated death to the son of a builder whose building collapses and kills the son of the owner.
Today's codes don't carry such weighty penalties, but they are somewhat more encompassing. Generally, they cover structural design, foundations, exits, fire protection, sanitation and roofing, plus the electrical, plumbing and mechanical systems. Some even cover energy conservation.
Only 30 states have mandatory statewide codes, 19 of which allow local jurisdictions to make them tougher. The other 20 states rely on the jurisdictions within their borders to enact their own construction regulations.
The bottom line? If you're modifying the structure in any way, chances are, you'll need a permit. Perhaps even several. Worse, securing permits is often a time-consuming process, and an expensive one.
For one thing, you'll probably have to provide detailed construction drawings, maybe even multiple sets, and they might have to be drawn by a licensed architect. For another, all permits are assessed a fee based on the value of the improvements you are making.
Because of the extra time and money involved, some contractors will suggest that you secure the permit instead of them. Others will exhort you to skip the permit process entirely and get right to work. Neither is a very good idea.
While no jurisdiction will refuse to grant a permit to an owner-occupant who can prove he owns the house and lives in it, it normally doesn't cost any more if the contractor applies, and he can usually get in and out of the local building department a lot faster than you can.
Just as important, if you apply and say you are doing the work yourself, all you have to do is show your local building officials a tax bill or deed. But if the contractor applies, your local building officials will probably check to make sure his license is up to date and his liability insurance is in place.
Applying for a permit is also your assurance that your project will be done right, or at least up to minimum standards. Besides going over the plans before work begins and suggesting ways the job might be done better -- or perhaps even cheaper -- the local authorities will make periodic inspections to make sure the contractor is following the rules.
Some contractors argue that none of this is necessary, that they've forgotten more about construction than anyone on the government dole will ever know, that they don't want to hassle with fees and inspections, that dealing with local building officials is a bureaucratic nightmare.
"If you can't trust me," is a familiar refrain, "then you'd better hire someone else."
To a certain degree, the contractor-client relationship is built on trust. And while the head of the building department in some locales is also the guy who gives out dog licenses, it's best not to allow non-permitted work done to your house, especially if you know little or nothing about construction.
Besides the off-chance that non-permitted -- and, therefore, illegal -- work could fall down around you, there's also the possibility that if the local authorities get wind of what's been done, you could be required to rip everything out and start over.
What's more likely, though, is that you may not be able to sell a house on which structural work was done without a permit. Most states today require you to disclose such a material fact. If you ignore that law, you're still liable to be caught if your buyer is savvy enough to hire an independent home inspector to give the place a once-over.
Even if your buyer wants to proceed -- and assuming he can get a loan on a place that's not up to code, which is problematic in and of itself -- he's sure to demand a major price concession. And if an unsuspecting buyer doesn't find out until later that work was done without a permit, he can demand that the sale be rescinded and sue for damages.
NEXT WEEK: Special exceptions.