by James Stefanile, ABR, GRI, SRES, QSC, REALTOR/Associate, Prudential NJ Properties
You may remember my post about removing an underground oil tank. A few years ago I overheard one side of a telephone conversation that went like this: “I can recommend a good friend of mine who can have your oil tank out of the ground in one night and no one will be the wiser!” You can’t make this stuff up. You need a township permit and a fire inspection for, even, a non-leaking tank removal. The kind of “dead of night” chicanery I heard on the phone may seem the stuff of “wiseguy” movies but it’s happening as we speak, done by, otherwise, law abiding citizens who should know better.
In fact, homeowners who wouldn’t think of breaking any laws seem to have a much different attitude when it comes to home improvement. They don’t see the need for permits from the town when doing important “subcode” work (construction, plumbing, electric, fire prevention). I’ve seen entire kitchens and bathrooms installed without so much as a single permit, let alone the 3 or 4 necessary. In fact, I had a listing in Glen Ridge a few years ago where my very young and innocent sellers had purchased their home from people who had renovated the entire interior (2 floors) without so much as 1 permit being applied for. It was a beautiful job and the house looked great – however – despite my warnings, when it came time for the municipal inspection before closing my sellers were stunned by the township’s demands that the entire home be re-certified, all pertinent permits be applied for by licensed contractors and all sub-code final inspections be made by multiple inspectors. Without seeming to brag, if it weren’t for my experience in this regard, these novice sellers would have been in big trouble. All pertinent contractors and permits were brought to bear, the home was smoke tested for plumbing leaks, all electrical circuits were traced and evaluated and all inspectors were brought in and the new permits were finally closed (guess who made multiple trips to the town hall to arrange all that) and the transaction was, eventually, completed. It cost my sellers over $2,000 in permits but the alternative was no sale.
Different towns have different inspection requirements before a real estate transaction can be closed. Montclair, West Orange and Verona only requires a fire inspection to ensure that all detectors and fire extinguishers are in place, Bloomfield requires a Certificate of Continued Occupancy inspection which incorporates all the above but also checks for zoning violations (too many units in a supposedly single family home, for example), and for improvements executed without township sanction. The Bloomfield inspector actually pulls the property card for the home in question which has the permit history noted. If he sees a new bathroom and there’s no permit noted on the card, you’ve got trouble. Maplewood has a two step process where the seller applies for the Certificate of Occupancy inspection and the buyer applies for the separate fire inspection. Nutley has a similar process to Bloomfield with an inspector assigned from the Building Department. Glen Ridge has a very tough Zoning Compliance inspection. So you see, there are a variety of municipal requirements depending on where you live. You can’t close without these municipal inspections and certificates.
My first advice to sellers is to check with their respective Building Departments to see if there are any “open” permits (permits that were applied for but never had a final inspection). Some folks get a permit but never do the work. Sometimes contractors don’t get final inspections for a permit and the homeowner is clueless and the permit is still open. Townships take this stuff very seriously. They regard it as the ultimate safety mechanism to ensure that all construction, plumbing and electrical work is done professionally by licensed contractors and done correctly. Your brother-in-law may be an electrician but if he doesn’t have a license he shouldn’t be working on your home. Even if he is licensed, he shouldn’t be working under the radar by not pulling a permit and getting an inspection.
I’m not sure what the resistance is to this process among homeowners. Maybe it’s the Libertarian in all of us coming to the surface and not wanting any government interference in our lives. Maybe it’s just a misplaced sense of entitlement. Perhaps we think that the work will be more expensive if we play by the rules. In my experience, badly executed or amateur work always, ultimately, costs more because it most often fails and has to be re-done along with any ancillary damage it causes being corrected. The fact is, these township standards and requirements have a solid purpose and you are exposing yourself to much grief if you try to circumvent them. Homebuyers will routinely search for your open permits as part of their due diligence. If they find any they will want those permits closed, won’t close with an open permit and, often, will alert the township. Permits expire and, if not closed with a final inspection, will need to be re-applied for with the fee paid all over again. And let’s not forget the worst case scenario of an improvement being done incorrectly and, when discovered, being rejected by the township with a demand that the work be re-done according to standard. Sellers’ Disclosure Statements ask if you have accomplished all improvements with the proper permits and these Disclosure Statements are required by my company and protect all parties in the transaction. Attorney review letters from the buyers’ attorney will ask the same question. “Fibbing” on these matters may expose you to even more legal grief.
In towns that have only a fire inspection, the temptation is always there to circumvent the Building Department because “they’ll never know”. Oh, yeah? Here’s another tale from my ever increasing bag of war stories: One of my sellers needed to do a small job in the basement (I won’t get into the details) and he was a handy guy so he decided to do it himself (despite my reservations) with the help of a contractor. Of course, no permit was applied for. No one thought it was necessary. It may not have been necessary, but that’s not the point. His nosy neighbor saw the work in progress and called the township who slapped a “stop work” order on his front door. Towns will do this even before they determine if a permit is necessary for the work involved. Oh no, they can’t? Oh, yes they can. Until the issue is resolved some towns can levy fines in the thousands of dollars on the “violator”. My handy seller, finally, applied for a permit, got the town’s approval for the proposed work, had a final inspection and was thankful that he was not fined out of existence by the town. Also, when only a fire inspection is required, the Fire Department will alert the Code Enforcement or Zoning Department if it sees some egregious code or zoning violation during its fire inspection.
Let’s look at this from another point of view. Would you let a talented amateur perform surgery on you or your family? Of course not. You’d want a real doctor with a real license and a real good reputation. Your safety and that of your family is constantly on the line in your home. One spark, one cracked beam, one leak, one fume caused by shoddy workmanship can have disastrous consequences. You may fool the town but there’s no fooling when it comes to your family’s well being.
Like it or not, we live “on the grid” and, in a state like New Jersey, we also live closely packed together so our safety may well impact the safety of our neighbors. If there’s a fire in a typical home in a New Jersey suburb, the entire neighborhood can be affected.
If you think I’m overstating these issues, drop me an email and I’ll tell you a lot more horror stories about real estate transactions that couldn’t close or a family who had to live elsewhere for 18 months while their house was rebuilt from the ground up. Whenever I approach a new listing one of my priorities is to protect my sellers from whatever can haunt them later. A typical seller may have only been involved with one or two real estate transactions or, at most, a handful. Since I’ve been involved in, literally, hundreds, I’ve seen what can happen when least expected. The legal, financial and, most importantly, safety consequences of cutting corners far outweigh any short term benefits.