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  • Lorianna Kastrop

The Dangerous Impacts of Illegal Construction

We just got a call from a potential client who wants to get her home “legalized”. Legalization is a process whereby an architect works with the owner and the permitting City or County agency to identify construction defects and have them repaired or replaced to conform to the current building code. This process can be expensive and often includes adding foundation footing, shear walls, and even fire sprinklers.

She recently bought the home from a bank “as is”, probably in a foreclosure sale. It is in a lovely rural town on the Pacific coast. The problem is that the home was remodeled without permits. This is considered a defect and probably should have been disclosed to her in advance of the sale, but the bank claims that they had no advance knowledge of the situation. She is concerned, rightly so, about safety and resale value.

This situation is not uncommon. In an “as is” sale, the seller must accept that the home may have defects that are unknown at the time of the sale. The defects can be major and expensive to fix. The seller or the seller’s agent may claim that they have no prior knowledge of the defects, and no obligation to disclose them. Sometimes the owner does know, but fails to disclose anyway, even though it is against the law to do so.

To protect yourself when buying a home, it is worth your time to do some investigative work. Make sure that the description of the home in the City or County records exactly matches the house as it is presented to you. If the number of bedrooms, square footage, or features (deck, balcony, etc.) in the home do not match the official record, then it is likely that illegal construction has occurred and more research should be done to uncover other possible faults in construction. Sometimes you can even look at Google Maps (overhead view and street view) to see if any major changes have occurred recently by noting anything that is there now that wasn’t there when the Google camera took views of the property.

Whether the illegal construction occurs because someone did the work themselves and bypassed the permitting process, or they hired an unlicensed contractor to do the work “under the table”, there are considerable risks. One is that the building is simply unsafe, due to improper or missing structural supports, unsafe electrical wiring, and foundation problems. Another problem is that it definitely lowers the home’s value. For this reason, neighbors should always check that construction in their neighborhood is being done with permits by calling to check with their City/County Building Department. If not, then when that home is sold it will go for less than the current market rate per square foot and all of the homes in that neighborhood will be impacted by the lower “comparable” value to their homes.

Lastly, and this is perhaps the least known reason, insurance companies have been known to fight claims on property losses that can be attributed to illegal construction. For example, a collapse or a fire that begins in the part of the house that was built without permits may not be eligible for insurance reimbursement.

So, be very careful when you purchase a home and verify that the entire home was constructed with building permits and the work was done by licensed contractors. If you want to purchase the home in spite of the illegal construction, make sure that you have adequate funds to remediate the problems before you and your loved ones or tenants are put at risk.

Lorianna Kastrop Vice President The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects

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