How do I bring unpermitted work up to code?

Eric

Administrator
Staff member
Apr 16, 2023
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Occasionally someone purchases a home only to discover that permits weren't obtained for some of the home's past renovations. The homeowner may decide to fix the unpermitted work to meet code standards but may be uncertain how to engage permitting authorities on the issue. To understand how different jurisdictions handle this situation, and what the consequences might be for affected homeowners, I emailed the following question to 15 different building departments:
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"In cases where a homeowner has purchased a property with previously unpermitted renovations and has since updated it to current code standards, what are the typical procedures for obtaining retroactive permits or inspections? Additionally, what are the potential consequences or requirements a homeowner might face in such a situation?"

Here are some key takeaways based on the responses I received:
  • It's possible that the unpermitted work is actually exempt from needing a permit. Before inquiring with the building department, you might consider researching whether there's a code exemption that covers the unpermitted work.
  • Building departments will typically evaluate unpermitted improvements as if they're proposed work that hasn't been completed yet. As with a typical application, you may be required to enlist an architect or contractor to prepare existing and proposed plans that clearly show every detail of the work that was completed.
  • In some jurisdictions, you'll need to pay higher fees (e.g., double that standard application fee) as part of the after-the-fact permit process. Some jurisdictions don't charge any penalty fee (e.g., Henderson, NV).
  • The building code in effect at the time of the unpermitted work may differ from the code in effect today. Work that appears to require a permit might not actually need one, depending on when it was completed.
Responses by permit office:

Atlanta, GA - Office Of Buildings (1/4/24):

In cases where unpermitted work was done, the current homeowner(s) can still apply for a permit. Please note that the language of the permit assumes the work is yet to be done, i.e. existing plans showing the state of the property/structure prior to the unpermitted work and proposed plans showing the present day state plus any additional work you want to add to the permit.

Consequences would vary from situation to situation, but could include double permit fees or court appearances, should the unpermitted work be discovered.

Bend, OR - Community and Economic Development Department (1/4/24):
In the best scenario, there will be building/floor plans that we can retroactively create an application as if starting from the beginning, have it reviewed, and then ultimately inspected.

If that’s not possible, we can still have you initiate a new application, sketch out all the work that is/was known to have been done, and then if we can retroactively inspect it we will.

The risks to the homeowner can be life/safety issues for unpermitted work and the issue of selling their home down the road with unpermitted work.

Cedar Key, FL - Building and Planning Department (1/16/24):
What are the typical procedures for obtaining retroactive permits or inspections? All the same steps must be taken as if the work had not been done. Plans and a contractor are required. Permit application must be made. Permit fees paid and Application must be approved. All required inspections must pass.

Additionally, what are the potential consequences or requirements a homeowner might face in such a situation? Unknown. There are many variables. The Building department will not address the work unless it is currently in progress. Of course, unpermitted work can present dangerous situations. The homeowner will not be penalized for unpermitted work done by previous owners. The work must be uncovered for inspection.

Charleston, WV - Building Commission (1/8/24):
If no permits were obtained during the remodel, then there is no way to know if it is to current code. There would be no way to obtain and permit or inspections for past construction.

If a new homeowner has issues with the remodel/construction, It would become a civil matter between the new homeowner and the previous homeowner.

Henderson, NV - Development Services Center (1/8/24):
The customer would apply for the permit just as if they had not already done the work. They can write retroactive in the scope of work just to let us know, but we will look at the plans as if the work had not been done. The customer will need to let us know everything that was done with drawings of the before and after. If the scope of work is a remodel, then they will need to tell us the square footage of all the work done broken down by trade (i.e. architectural 50 sq ft, electrical 20 sq ft, etc.).

We do not add late fees or violation fees for those permits; they would just pay the typical permit fees. If the work that has already been completed is not up to code, the inspector will make them bring it up to code before signing off on the permit.

Islip, NY - Department of Planning & Development (1/9/24):
Every case is different, it all depends on what kind of work has been done and how long ago the work was been done for.

All new work (less than 4 years old) have to come in under a building permit application, and follow the requirements for whatever the scope of work is.

Any work 4 or more years old a compliance permit application can be use.

Inspections can be scheduled after permit has been issued.

Juneau, AK - Community Development Department (1/23/24):
Typically we act as if the unpermitted improvements have not been done yet, we perform a courtesy inspection of the unpermitted improvements and if they are acceptable we issue an “after the fact” permit, approve the work, and charge the appropriate fees. We don’t normally issue a fine if the homeowner comes to us. We do issue a fine if it’s an investigation situation.

Meridian, ID - Community Development Department (1/5/24):
If the homeowner wants it inspected, they will need to pull a permit. In order for certain things to be inspected, i.e. if a load bearing wall needs to be exposed, the present sheet rock may need to be removed. It all depends on how extensive the renovation is. Also if any trade, i.e. elec, etc., has been done, certain walls or portion of walls may need to be removed. The homeowner can consult with each of the supervisors to see if a wall will need to be removed.

In most cases, double fees are applied, due to work being done without a permit. Again, the homeowner will be consulting with inspectors, and if extenuating circumstances apply, they may not double the fee. It all depends on the circumstances.

Miami, FL - Building Services (1/4/24):
In the case of unpermitted renovations, you must have to find an Engineering or architect who sign a letter (as Built) and plans where he approves according of Constructions Code (Florida 2023, 8th Edition) the renovations, and find a Contractor, Fill it out the application online specifying that it will be a Legalization.

Morgantown, WV - Code Enforcement (1/8/24):
You will need to submit a building permits for renovations that was done or submit for any projects that needed to be completed
Visit
www.morgantownwv.gov
department
code enforcement
step by step process on line permits
let me know if you have any questions it would be best to call the office

Portland, ME - Permitting and Inspections (1/4/24):
You will need to apply for an "After the Fact" permit and you would apply just like a regular permit. In the description you will want to put "after the fact" and then a description of the work you had done and are applying for. Then once the permits have been issued reach out to schedule the inspections.

Sacramento, CA - Community Development Department (1/8/24):
I read your inquiry below. To permit preexisting work, the process is the same as permitting work that you would intend on doing. There are a couple aspects that may be difficult when the work is already completed but usually an architect or contractor could verify the work that was completed so you would detail it in the job description of the application.

If it requires plans to be reviewed, you will need to draft plans to cover the scope of work and submit those plans through the online portal. If there happens to be a housing case for this project from Code Enforcement or the Dangerous Housing and Building department, you will need to include the case in formation in the work description.

The case notes would also be a good indicator on the work that would need to be completed.

Lastly if you decide that permitting this project is too complicated or expensive and want to change it back, it would be a minor permit with the work description of changing it back to preexisting conditions.
The responding staff member also shared their "Planning Exemption Form - Express" form, which I've attached to this post. If unpermitted work meets one of the categories listed on the form, the homeowner can simply mark the exemption category and sign the form, thereby self-certifying that the work doesn't require a permit.

Tacoma, WA - Planning & Development Services (1/4/24):
You can apply for the correct permit type and include “retroactive permit” in the description. Please note that any work that is currently not up to code should not be remedied without getting the permit BEFORE completing the work. If the unpermitted work has created a violation record, there will be an additional fee assessed at the time of permit issuance.

Washoe County, NV - Planning, Building, and Engineering Division (1/8/24):
I am the Code Enforcement Officer that investigates the building and engineering complaints. The first question that would need to be answered is what the “renovations” entailed and the scope of the work that was done? When were the renovations completed, as this may change the building code that was applicable at the time the work was done? I have attached a handout of items that do NOT need a permit. Many times kitchen, bathroom, and basic “remodels” of flooring, drywall repair, and other interior cosmetic work would not need a permit unless there are changes to the structural members, plumbing, electrical or additions. To provide answers to your questions or give direction for compliance, I would need to know if the renovations needed permitting. If the renovations needed permitting, how extensive was the work? Will the permit requiring architectural plans, engineer certification, or other involvement from a design professional? Is it, or was it, a rental property? This would require a licensed contractor as the owner/builder would not be able to perform the work. There are so many variables it is difficult to provide you definitive answers for “consequences of requirements” for the homeowner. My contact information is listed below if you need further assistance.
Like Sacramento, the code enforcement officer who replied to my email also provided information on the County's building permits exemptions. I attached the document they provided to this post.

Worcester, MA - Inspectional Services Department (1/8/24):
They can reapply for a permit. I don’t know what the consequences would be truthfully unless they go to sell it and the new owner questions permits.
 
Location
United States

Attachments

  • CDD-0035_Planning-Exemption-Form-Express_04-20-20121 (Sacramento, CA).pdf
    162.8 KB · Views: 1
  • work exempt from permit (Phoenix, AZ).pdf
    210.9 KB · Views: 2
In my area, homeowners are given a grace period to bring their new home up to code without needing to pay for a retroactive permit. Of course, the tricky part is discovering the issue before the grace period runs out. That's why it's so important to have a rigorous home inspection.
 
In my area, homeowners are given a grace period to bring their new home up to code without needing to pay for a retroactive permit. Of course, the tricky part is discovering the issue before the grace period runs out. That's why it's so important to have a rigorous home inspection.

Thanks @Overtime. To your point, I thought it was interesting how Islip, NY mentioned having a four-year rule for determining when unpermitted work becomes a compliance issue. I wonder how many jurisdictions have formalized their grace period like Islip has.

Great point also about the role of the home inspector in all this. After closing on a house with known unpermitted work, the responsibility really does fall on the new homeowner to contact the building department and get the after-the-fact permit process rolling.
 
This is awesome, thanks for sharing! I did a little digging myself in regards to this question in Michigan, and it seems to be that a permit for the previous work is required, but under a retroactive permit. So it seems you can apply for a permit for said unpermitted work in Michigan as far as I can tell.
 
City of Medford Oregon has had the same policy in place for work without permits since 2002. Attached.
 

Attachments

  • WORK PERFORMED WITHOUT PERMITS.pdf
    679.7 KB · Views: 1
City of Medford Oregon has had the same policy in place for work without permits since 2002. Attached.

Thanks for sharing! The provision of your policy that's obviously most relevant to this thread is #3 ("Old Work Without Permits"). One part I noted - which makes perfect sense - is the requirement that existing construction be removed to the extent necessary to allow all required inspections. I'm guessing this kind of requirement is common across building departments but wasn't familiar to me. I'm sure you try to minimize the cost to homeowners whenever you require this sort of inspection-related disturbance, right? Are homeowners ever caught off-guard by this requirement?
 
There is not a clear-cut answer, depends on what type of work was completed without permits, conversion (garage, basement, attic, patio) or full addition. I always advise potential buyers check the local jurisdiction for the permit history. If the seller and/or agent is marketing the property with a garage conversion, new addition, ADU, etc., I think they should be able to supply you with copies of the permits. It is horrible for all involved to find out about non permitted work right before close of escrow. Even more horrible to purchase a home and have to assume the liability now that you own the property on items that you should have been aware of at time of purchase. We do not assess penalties; they would pay permits fees as if they were proposing to do the remodel/addition. Yes, homeowners are caught off guard all the time.
 
I love when you do these surveys, really gives you a wider view of what the rules are in various locations. It helps give us a better idea of what we can usually expect when it comes to filing for unpermitted work. I think most locations will give you a chance to file a permit on the work you started on or even completed. As long as you right the wrong, I think they would go easy on you in most cases.
 
I love when you do these surveys, really gives you a wider view of what the rules are in various locations. It helps give us a better idea of what we can usually expect when it comes to filing for unpermitted work. I think most locations will give you a chance to file a permit on the work you started on or even completed. As long as you right the wrong, I think they would go easy on you in most cases.

Thanks for the positive feedback on the survey posts! I'm going to try to do a new one every week or so, I think. As a regulator myself I've learned to appreciate all the variation on common themes there is throughout my organization in terms of how the rules get applied. I likewise find it interesting to see the same problems (e.g., remedying unpermitted work) get resolved in slightly different ways across the variety of permit offices and permit types out there. Especially for those of us in the public sector, I think understanding how the process gets administered under different regulations and people can provide helpful perspective.
 
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