“Statute of limitations” on unpermitted construction and other bad advice

We keep hearing from our clients of the bad advice that they were told when buying property.  The top piece of bad advice, by far, is that if unpermitted construction occurred a long time ago, it no longer needs to be a concern.  This is just not true.  There is no statute of limitations on unpermitted construction!  If anything was added to your property illegally, at any time in the past, you should be aware of the risks.  As we’ve mentioned before, unsafe construction methods by unlicensed workers can be a safety risk and could lead to fire or structural failure.  It can also lead to future costs and problems if you want to do other improvement projects.

One of our clients purchased a home with an unpermitted addition that encroached into the setback.  The real estate agent had told him “It’s been there for a long time, so it’s OK.”  As soon as we started the remodeling project we notified him that he would probably be required to tear down that unpermitted area and he couldn’t believe it.  Sometimes unpermitted work can be legalized; if you have the patience, money and professional help.  Sometimes there is no remedy other than to remove it.  So, be aware that the advice you receive should be verified with the Building Department, or at least a licensed architect, before you purchase the property.

The second most common piece of bad advice we hear about is when people are told that they can “just take out a wall” to create an open floor plan.  I don’t know why anyone believes that they can pose as a Structural Engineer to make that statement, but it happens all the time.  Walls typically provide structural support for the roof, or second story, or building systems (HVAC, electrical, plumbing), and cannot be easily removed without reconsidering the entire structure.  Sometimes a wall can be replaced by installing a large beam or structural steel to span the gap.  Engineering calculations must be performed, the beam must be special-ordered, foundations added, temporary supports must be installed, and the new beam lifted in place with special equipment.  It can be a very expensive option.  It is possible that a wall is not load-bearing, but that is uncommon in homes.  Some commercial buildings have non-load-bearing walls, called demising walls, for separations between offices, or dressing rooms, for example.  But even then, a wall removal can be tricky.  Do not be fooled into thinking you can “just take out a wall”.  That’s bad advice unless it is coming from your licensed architect or structural engineer.

The third most common piece of bad advice given to property owners is “none of the neighbors had to do it”.  This is closely related to “If they got away with it, so can I.”  It includes everything from building decks, sheds, backyard cottages, and other residential additions to business owners who do tenant improvements without permits, to businesses that don’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act for accessibility improvements, and lots of other examples.  Sure, everyone has seen a home or building that doesn’t comply with local ordinances or the state Building Code.  But just because someone else is outside the law doesn’t mean you will get away with it.  It’s like that old game of musical chairs.  The last one standing when the music stops is “It”.  Your home or business gets red-tagged, and pointing at someone else’s property to say, “What about them?” isn’t going to solve your problem.

We hate hearing those stories when people have already gotten burned.  Don’t rely on bad advice.  Verify that you can do what you want to do with your property with a licensed professional.  It will be worth your time (and save you money and aggravation).  Thanks for reading and as always, we are Designing for Your Reality.

By Lorianna Kastrop, Vice President, The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects

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