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SHREWSBURY, Massachusetts – Time and time again I run into the issue of homes where any number of different projects have been done without pulling permits from the Shrewsbury building inspector, only to have those decisions haunt them down the road either when they go to sell the property, or worse, when disaster strikes.
Certainly the most common case we run into is with basements which have been finished by the homeowner, or even by a so-called contractor that they hired, without permits being pulled and inspections being done. They are usually easy to spot just by looking for a few quick checkpoints that an experienced person would have picked up on, such as looking for pressure treated lumber touching the floor, or the electrical wires being properly stapled to the wall. If those two things are missing, you can be almost 100% sure that there were no permits, because those are required under the code and wouldn’t have passed inspection. Surprisingly, it’s not something you can tell by looking at the quality of the work itself. I remember a while ago looking at a home I wanted to buy over near Dean Park. It was just a stunning property, with a partial stone front, two 2 car garages, and one of the most gorgeous finished basements I’ve ever seen, completed with a full bar, granite counters and more. The trouble is, of course, that as meticulous as the work was that was done, there were no permits for all that gorgeous space – either when the original owner finished half of it, or later on when the next homeowner continued finishing the rest of the basement – this despite the sellers disclosure form that specifically said that “not work was done that required permits.” The Sellers, their real estate agent, and the tax assessor all knew it, but of course nobody ever bothered telling potential home buyers about it. In fact, I doubt the folks that ultimate bought the place even know. I ran into the same thing with a couple of other homes that are on the market, even as we speak. That’s why it’s always up to the Buyers to do the research and ask the right folks the right questions. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t purchase something without it being fully permitted, but just that you should ask the question, and know just what you’re dealing with.
Basements have become much more of an issue lately due to a change in the state building code that required two means of egress, such as the door to the first floor and a separate bulkhead opening or walk-out slider. I know my home wasn’t built with those, so I’m glad that I permitted the basement long ago under the original code, because doing it now would be almost impossible. I have seen a couple of folks retrofitting giant basement windows with hatches for escape, but those have been very, very rare.
The good news – yes there is some good news out there – is that at least here in Shrewsbury the local inspectors are really great at not being punitive, but rather helping people bring un-permitted areas into compliance retroactively. A quick visit to the building inspector and electrical department at town hall will have you encouraged that there are great folks who care enough to help, and will walk you through the process step by step.
Of course, basements aren’t the only things which require permitting. Even something as simple as getting a new gas dryer installed requires a gas permit. That brand new roof you just had installed, the swimming pool…even many times the new shed you purchase and had delivered (depending on it’s size) require a permit from the town. Then there are those grey areas. If you’re changing out a light fixture, and putting in a new one, you should be fine – but if you’re running new wiring, adding outlets, installing a wood stove, adding circuit breakers or even just changing windows, you need the proper permits in hand before work starts. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that you can’t do the work yourself – but just that someone needs to inspect it. I know when my basement was finished I did all my own electric wiring, but had the electrical inspector look at the rough wiring when it first was done, and then come back for a final inspection and signoff later. One of the only thing homeowners are prohibited from doing is their own plumbing work, because of the danger of contaminating the water of surrounding properties.
I may sound obsessed with the permitting issue, and I’m really not. I just think it’s important to always be aware of what issues may be out there. Aside from personal safety, one of the key reasons for all this is related to insurance. We all can surmise that even though they view it as a “cost of doing business,” the last thing insurance companies want to do is to pay out claims. Imagine for a moment that your home caught fire…even due to a simple cooking issue in the kitchen. If the insurance company can prove that electrical wiring was done without a permit, they may have reason to deny the claim, even though it had absolutely nothing to do with the cause of the fire itself – and that’s the last thing you need to deal with at times of stress.
There are many questions people have, and that’s understandable because it can be incredibly confusing, but when in doubt, just stop by the building department and ask. They are among the nicest folks at town hall, and always seem to go out of there way to help people out.