Not permitted: Avoiding the perils of contract work that doesn't meet code

Contractors failing to pull permits to meet residential code requirements could lead to violations, which happened to this homeowner after an electrical rewiring job. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Ron L. of Houston)

Contractors failing to pull permits to meet residential code requirements could lead to violations, which happened to this homeowner after an electrical rewiring job. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Ron L. of Houston)

Reading the writing on the wall of his garage, John Digrado opted to replace two outlets — one charred — and update his electrical system after a near miss last summer at his La Crescenta, California, home.

“It was a little scary,” he says of the incident in which wires heated up, shorted out and caused a small electrical fire in a junction box, burning a sprinkler timer and an appliance cord as well. “The plug itself caught on fire,” Digrado says, thankful it didn’t cause a larger electrical fire. “We had an entire section of the house without power. The whole circuit went out.”

The problem? Unbeknownst to Digrado at the time, some of the wiring didn’t meet code, he says. He hired highly rated Anavar Electric of La Cañada Flintridge, California, to remedy that, making the system safer and improving function, for $300.

Homeowners encounter all kinds of hazards and expensive hassles when DIYers or contractors perform work that a building inspector should vet, without a permit, and when the inner workings of homes no longer meet current code. Experts say outdated or poorly installed electrical systems risk fire; poorly installed baths and showers not properly permitted and inspected can leak, causing costly water damage; and other problems may occur when work doesn’t code.

Related: Home work: Do I need a permit for that?

Fortunately, with due diligence, highly rated service providers say homeowners can protect themselves by fixing problems that exist, bringing a home back to code, or in some cases, preventing headaches from unpermitted work in the first place.

Contract work: Do your due diligence

“A lot of people blow it off,” says Craig Lester, who owns highly rated Lester Inspection Services in Topeka, Kansas, but he advises homeowners to insist on proper permitting and follow-up inspections for work done on the home.

“Most contractors will get one if they know they need one. If they’re going to change the structure of the house, they’ll know that needs to be done,” says Lester, such as adding a sunroom. But more minor jobs involving electrical, plumbing and mechanical changes to a home — and oftentimes work behind walls that’s invisible to the casual observer — requires a permit. “It depends on the area of the country you live in, how strict the code enforcement is,” Lester says.

Not sure if that job you’re DIYing requires a permit, or want to double-check for a contracted job? “Call the city. They will tell you,” Lester says. Namely, your city — or county, if you live outside city limits — department of code enforcement. Or go online. “Most cities have a website that you can go to that lists everything that’s required.”

Standard rules of hiring apply, too. Make sure to get multiple bids and closely evaluate any service provider before you hire, including ensuring contractors have insurance coverage and proper training. Check out previous work as well.

Related: Buying a home? Keep unpermitted past renovations from costing you

“Unless you’re installing to code, you’re out of compliance and you’re potentially putting that homeowner or structure at risk,” says Thayer Long, chief executive officer for Independent Electrical Contractors, a national trade association. “Electrical can hurt people ... knowing the code is absolutely critical.” For electricians, that means keeping abreast of changes to the National Electrical Code, which Long and others describe as the Bible for electrical code. Every three years, the National Fire Protection Association updates the NEC.

“Electrical that’s not junctioned right, that’s not installed properly, that’s probably our biggest issue,” says Lon Libsack, owner of highly rated Shower & Bath Connection in Tempe, Arizona. Remodels turn up surprise pre-existing issues that may affect the health of an abode — and could affect homeowner health and safety as well. But that’s not the only kind of previous work Libsack’s company discovers doing renovation work for homeowners, that doesn’t meet building code, and quality and safety standards.

“We come across a lot of jobs [in houses] that have been flipped,” Libsack says, such as improperly installed showers. “They have puddles in the shower that don’t drain right ... leaking outside the shower and they can’t find out where it’s leaking from.” In such cases, renovation work will include sometimes-costly revisions to first correct pre-existing issues, such as ripping out a shower or updating outdated electrical. “The correction of existing issues can be a hard way to start off a remodeling project,” he adds, noting that those most often involve electrical, mechanical or plumbing.

New home: Inspect closely before moving

If you’re buying or building a home, insist on a thorough inspection before finalizing the purchase or moving in, and secure paperwork on previous renovations.

“The seller must provide full disclosure when selling a home. This should include all documents related to any home improvements that require a permit,” Lester says. “Always ask what remodeling has been done, what contractor did the work, and what permits were pulled.”

Related: Common problems with unpermitted work

Proper permitting, accompanied by an inspection at the time a contractor or homeowner completes work, provides third-party proof that it’s done correctly, says Effram Perry, president of highly rated Dream Home Remodeling in Woodland Hills, California. In the Los Angeles area, he says a permit may cost between $300 and $400 for a $5,000 residential remodel, but fees vary based on many factors, such as the size of the job. Though cost may incentivize some to duck required permits, Perry says the added quality assurance makes it worthwhile. On the other end of the transaction, he thinks it behooves sellers to have work permits in order, too.

“As a homeowner, you want to make sure whatever work was done in your house was done properly,” he says. Without proper permits, when a homeowner goes to sell, Perry says, he or she may end up on the hook for an illegal addition or other contract work not up to snuff. “In a way, he’s liable. It becomes the homeowner’s responsibility,” he says. Whenever having work done, he reiterates: “I think they should pull the permit.”


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Buying a home? How to keep past renovations done without a permit from costing you

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A thorough home inspection provides assurance that what you see is what you get. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Armen S. of Columbia, S.C.)
A thorough home inspection provides assurance that what you see is what you get. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Armen S. of Columbia, S.C.)

Peel back the walls on your dream home, and don't get left on the hook for prior remodels that don't meet residential code permitting requirements.

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