Everyone told us this never happens ...
December 1, 2010 9:06 AM   Subscribe

Our unpermitted bathroom remodel, currently ongoing, has been reported to the city. Now what?

We're remodeling our bathroom: pulling out a stall shower, putting in a bathtub, replacing toilet and sink, new light fixtures, new tile.

We just got a letter from the city saying that there was a complaint of unpermitted work happening at our address, and that we have to schedule an inspection immediately. We are in California.

Our handyman is not a licensed contractor, but I have total confidence in his work. Our plumber and electrician are licensed, but obviously didn't pull permits. The work is not yet covered over, so everything is visible.

I have no idea what to expect here. Do you have any anecdotes? I don't even really know what happens during inspections like this. I imagine we are going to have to pay a fine and pay for permits; that's okay. But I'm worried that we're going to have to chuck our design ideas too. We're trying to put in a bathroom that looks like it belongs in our 1950s house. Are we going to be told that we have to buy a new bathtub and not use our vintage one? Are we going to have to hire a designer? (No walls are being moved, but we are going from shower to bathtub.)

We initially didn't pull permits because the city's website made me so leery: No information was available about what exact permits would be required, nothing about how much permits cost, just a kind of vague, "Call us for more information, but don't buy anything before you know whether it's on our list of approved parts," which seemed like giving the city too much open-ended power about what kind of sink I buy.

Please, no pile-on about why permits are important or why we should have pulled them. We know. We didn't. We're really, really sorry.

Main questions:
- How bad is this?
- Do I need to hire, like, a lawyer?
- How do we interact with the planning department in a way that convinces them that we're working in good faith? (okay, we are now).

Throwaway email: permittrouble@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Are you sure you need a permit for replacing existing items with new ones and the slight change from a shower to a bath? If your new bath has a shower head that is even less difference.
posted by meepmeow at 9:14 AM on December 1, 2010

I am from Chicago, so advice may be different, but I think you are not in much trouble. Since everything is open, it can be inspected and that's mostly what they care about. I am sure you can use your old tub. Ask your plumber and electrician for advice, if they usually get the permits or the homeowner does.
Tell the city that you are doing the work yourself, other than the plumbing and electric. don't mention your friend(the contractor) who is helping you.
You probably just have to get a regular remodeling permit, pay the fee and you will have no problems since you haven't done much yet.
And meepmeow may be right, they may tell you you don't need one.
posted by lee at 9:28 AM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Fine and cost of permits. They want to know about your fixtures to make sure you use a low flow toilet. They probably don't care about your tub or sink.
posted by fixedgear at 9:29 AM on December 1, 2010

This is going to vary a lot from municipality to municipality. I'd recommend getting advice from someone who has dealt with your city previously.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:34 AM on December 1, 2010

I have no personal experience with permit problems, but I do have experience with plumbing and electrical codes, as well as bathroom layout. Cities aren't typically concerned with what kind of fixtures you use (within limits), but there are some things they will be concerned with that might put a crimp in your style. In many areas these won't be an issue, so think of this as a worst case scenario.

- Minimum distance between fixtures. Typical codes have measurements for how close the toilet can be to other fixtures, clear room in front of the sink/toilet/shower etc.

- Electrical outlets, including number and location. All bathroom codes require GFCIs, most require a dedicated circuit. This might increase your electrical costs quite a bit depending on your current electrical status and your house layout.

- Clearance and swing of doors

It's all very region specific though; some cities have their own building codes, some enforce national or state codes, etc. There's also a wide variability in what counts as repair/replace and what is "new work", which can be a big deal. Depending on the amount you're changing, certain jurisdictions will require you to bring other things 'up to code'. You can typically change out fixtures, make minor electrical repairs, etc while still having code violations - but once you go over a magic threshold of work you may have to fix old problems too. The more you can find out about your local building codes (which should be available at the public library) the better.
posted by true at 9:34 AM on December 1, 2010

Yeah, it varies a lot by municipality. Are you in San Francisco? They are very serious about permitting everything. If you are in SF, posters above are incorrect that they "probably won't care" about various things. There are rules about everything. There are rules about recessed lighting. Particularly recently, they are upping inspections, supposedly to goose city revenue. I read an example (can't remember where, one of the housing blogs, maybe Curbed SF) about someone who was forced to tear out a marble counter and splash guard because it had some unpermitted wiring behind it.

So yes, they could definitely force you to undo your half-done work and make you change your design plans. I don't know if an attorney is required, but at least contact a licensed contractor.
posted by rkent at 9:41 AM on December 1, 2010

You could always make an anonymous call to the building department about your "planned" remodel to judge what permits you might need for what work. You should definitely talk to the electrician and plumber about the letter.

For what it's worth we're in the process of doing our second bathroom ourselves, and the only time we've bothered with permits was when subcontractors get involved. I had a plumber neighbor of mine check on our permits becuase he was mad we didn't have him do the work.
posted by Big_B at 9:46 AM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

First, relax. The city just wants to collect a few bucks and do an inspection. You are not a bad person.

We got caught in the middle of underpinning our basement without a permit and all the inspector did was give me all the numbers and stuff for applying. In Toronto, they give out sample schematics that you can use as a guide to draw up your own diagrams. If they see something they don't like, they'll ask you to change it.

Note: If you're not changing the location of any fixtures, you may not even need a permit. Probably some crank-ass on your street is pissed off by a pile of rubble on your property. The city is obligated to follow up on the complaint. How the hell does anyone really know if you need a permit for what you're doing? Just say you're re-drywalling and replacing the fixtures, "no, there's no new plumbing involved".
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:52 AM on December 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

This totally depends both on municipality and inspector, or at least has in my experience. I lived in a big housing co-op with nigh identical units (some were reversed), and inspectors came out for a couple of sink-to-vanity conversions that were exactly the same, in one case the inspector deemed it too minor to require a permit, in the other a permit was required (though that was appealed and eventually waived). Likewise, the installation of sump pumps sometimes required permits and sometimes didn't, even though it was the same work in nearly identical places, with only minor digging in the basements to seat the pumps.

Play it cool and don't get too nervous would be my advice, and do more asking around in the neighborhood you live in, since no one here can give you real accurate advice because we don't know where you are.
posted by klangklangston at 10:06 AM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Are you in San Francisco? They are very serious about permitting everything.
Can you please tell every single house on my block that? Every contractor we hire seems shocked that we want permits.

SF is serious about some things, not for others. If you're in SF, the bad is that they are normally more sticklers about code if you're busted than if you applied upfront. The good is that they want a low-flow toilet, want the money and you can get away with a lot if you're "historically restoring" (so if you're using a classic tub and the house had a tub when it was built but isn't now) and when you're replacing like-for-like.

Assuming your design is OK -- or will be OK -- the biggest issue is going to be using a handyman instead of a licensed contractor. That will likely be something that will have to change.

Be contrite and honest, prepare to pay, have any research on the historical layout or fixtures handy just in case and good luck!
posted by Gucky at 10:18 AM on December 1, 2010

This varies wildly depending on what city or town you're in.

I was in almost exactly your position, though. Halfway through adding a bathroom with a licensed plumber and electrician, but an unlicensed handyman the city found out. I was lucky in that because no engineering permit was required for the internal, non-structural framing that was going in (though it still had to be inspected. don't expect all of what they want/do to make sense) it didn't matter that my handyman wasn't licensed. Nothing was covered up and the variations from code were minor, so we just fixed what we needed to fix and continued on. All that really happened with the city was that the permit for the electrical was $80 instead of $40 because we'd already done most of it before they found out. Not a big deal, and the inspector didn't seem to really care beyond doing his job.

Unsolicited but relavent advice about code inspectors. They spend all day every day nitpicking details for frustrated homeowners that don't understand or care why he's making them fix what he's making them fix. Even knowing this and sort of understanding his situation it was very hard for me not to lose it when I had to schedule yet another inspection because the wire affixing the corner of an air vent to a joist was not anchored properly. When he left (they will have neither the time nor the inclination to wait for the inevitable 5-minute-fix) I drove a screw and wrapped the wire around it, and that's it (nrrrrrrghh). The point is that these people take more shit than you can imagine, so try to keep that in mind.
posted by cmoj at 10:53 AM on December 1, 2010

I am a contractor - and have dealt with this kind of issue several times.

If the work was done to code, then it will be a slap on the wrist (a fine)

If the work was not to code, and they think you were just ill-informed, then it will still be a slap on the wrist, but you will have to pay to correct the mistakes.

If the work was not to code, and they think you were trying to intentionally get around building safety codes, then you are in serious trouble.

If I were you, first thing I would do is hire a licensed contractor. A licensed contractor will be in the best position to correct everything and pull permits.

Unfortunately, building departments have been laying off inspectors over the past few years, as the building boom dies down. As a result, the remaining inspectors work hard to prove they are necessary - they have a tendency to turn a mole-hill into a mountain right now, just to make themselve look like the city should not lay them off.
posted by Flood at 10:53 AM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

OP, can you email a mod and ask them to update this question with your city? I agree with the other replies that we likely won't be able to give you specific advice, as it does vary by city, but on the off chance one of us lives in the same city you do we may be able to offer something useful.

Speaking generally, the city has reasons to want to inspect this project, as noted above: code compliance (which aims to maintain the safety of your neighbors and keep property values high) and, to some degree, generate revenue for the city itself (through permit fees). Some cities are notorious for their zeal in requiring permits for all manner of things, others are much more lax. There is also the matter of regulating who is doing the work -- unlicensed contractors are a scourge to licensed contractors and undermine their price structure, so some licensed contractors will report when they see unlicensed work being done. So it may not have been a neighbor who reported you -- it could have been another contractor, or a municipal employee who saw a worker's truck or a dumpster and concluded that work was being performed and needed inspection.

Be cool, and don't be afraid to ask questions when the inspector comes around. In most cases, code compliance is a good thing and has many long term benefits.
posted by mosk at 11:07 AM on December 1, 2010

Keep in mind that if they find anything really bad like asbestos or even lead paint, you're going to have to pay for the proper demo and removal which can get kind of expensive. Technically you could go after the contractor for not doing due diligence, but you'd be the one paying for it first as you're the owner.

So slap on the wrist is most likely to happen, but there could be some large underlying liabilities. I can't imagine a contractor worth his salt would work with asbestos without protection or warning you ... but times are tough.
posted by geoff. at 11:08 AM on December 1, 2010

I have represented people in SoCal with these kinds of issues. As a general overfiew, Flood already did a good job. Except experience will vary between cities, and also may depend on the economy.

If you are not doing anything structural then you don't necessarily need a licensed contractor. It is not likely a licensed electrician or plumber is going to do work that won't meet code requirements, but you should ask them before the inspection if the work will meet code requirements.

If there are no code violations, my experience is that many cities will simply give you a notice to obtain permits, and then you'll have to have another inspection after the work is complete. Sometimes, they will ask you to cure the violation in lieu of a fine. Most cities in my county (Orange) are not interested in fining residential property owners for minor violations unless the homeowner refuses to get with the program. The city makes enough on the permit costs.

It goes without saying that, during the inspection, you need to be polite. Don't volunteer any information though. There are some cities who are overly aggressive with these tickets, e.g., Long Beach. If you're cited and hit with more than a nominal fine, definitely consult with an attorney.
posted by Hylas at 11:45 AM on December 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

First, yes, you should have gotten this permitted, and your contractor should be licensed. That requirement is as much to protect you as it is some random requirement from the government.

I think Flood comes closest to being correct here - they'll probably take a look at the work and decide how willfully or maliciously negligent you were being in not getting permits, fine you appropriately, require you to obtain permits for any work that requires it, and have you tear out any new work performed that is not to code. You probably don't need to hire a lawyer or a designer of any sort. Changing out fixtures is a type of permit that might not even require plans in many jurisdictions.

If all you're doing is changing fixtures, this shouldn't be a big deal to resolve. If you're not altering any walls, you'll probably be able to keep the ones you've got because they're already there. They most likely will not care about what kind of tub you have. But some of the ramifications of doing what you're doing might not be readily apparent. If you alter plumbing work in your house in my area, you need to fill out a worksheet for them that lists all the water fixtures in your house to determine whether your meter is sized adequately for the supply you'll require. Your tub will thus have no impact on anything, but the fixture feeding it will - you're adding a load onto your water system. Also, some fixtures in CA will be required to be water-saving/low-flow.

Code also requires that bathrooms have fluorescent lighting (or possibly some other type of energy efficient fixture) as the primary illumination source, and ventilation either via an operable window of a certain size or an exhaust fan. Putting a CFL bulb in a regular fixture might not satisfy this requirement, because you could easily take it out and put in an incandescent bulb after inspection.
posted by LionIndex at 11:57 AM on December 1, 2010

There will be a fine, probably a percentage of the job's cost. If the job is already finished, you know how much you spent. If it's not complete, then it's likely that the inspector may estimate how much it'll end up costing. So you want to be very polite to the inspector.

When I got busted for unpermitted remodel in San Francisco, I called the inspector before she got a chance to call me. When she asked if I'd known that permits were required, I answered "Yes I did" in an embarrassed voice. She laughed; apparently most people lie and say no. I told her truthfully I'd been afraid to apply for permits because I didn't want to redo work done in the past that might not be up to current code. I was polite and respectful during her visit, and I asked advice here and there. She saw the extent of the project, and she saw the high-quality work that had been done on the first half of the job. When she filled out the forms, she estimated the whole job at $30,000 -- the final tally would actually be $100,000, and she had to know that.
posted by wryly at 12:05 PM on December 1, 2010

nthing that it would be helpful to know what city this is in. Here in L.A., my boyfriend occasionally works for a friend of his who is a contractor, and I think he's got a few stories about just this sort of thing (my sense, as others say above, is that the real issues that are likely to be of concern are what you're doing to the walls and the plumbing). But it's really going to vary by municipality.
posted by scody at 12:53 PM on December 1, 2010

I remembered one other code thing that might be an issue - your toilet is required to have certain clearances around it, and if you're relocating it or putting in new things that encroach into those clearances, you might have an issue. If you're leaving it where it was, even if you're replacing the actual fixture, this shouldn't impact the toilet itself. The problem will come up if your new tub gets too close.

You're required to have 2 feet clear in front of the toilet measured from the edge of the bowl, and I think in residential construction you can get away with 15 inches from the centerline of the toilet to anything on either side. There are also code requirements for shower stall dimensions, but since you're taking yours out you probably won't have a problem there.
posted by LionIndex at 1:14 PM on December 1, 2010

"No information was available about what exact permits would be required, nothing about how much permits cost, just a kind of vague, 'Call us for more information, but don't buy anything before you know whether it's on our list of approved parts,' which seemed like giving the city too much open-ended power about what kind of sink I buy."

They probably only care about your toilet (max gallons per flush) and your shower head (maximum flow). Some places require low flow areators on sinks but that's only a $2 part that can easily be exchanged after inspection.

rkent writes "I read an example (can't remember where, one of the housing blogs, maybe Curbed SF) about someone who was forced to tear out a marble counter and splash guard because it had some unpermitted wiring behind it."

Electrical is the worst thing; unpermitted work is often done in a dangerous even potentially life threatening manner. If your plumbing fails it probably won't kill you; if wiring fails there is a good possibility of injury from shock or fire.

cmoj writes " don't expect all of what they want/do to make sense) "

Anything that doesn't make sense you should ask the inspector about; I've generally found them quite knowledgeable about why a certain requirement is in place and even forthcoming on accommodating alternatives.

LionIndex writes "You're required to have 2 feet clear in front of the toilet measured from the edge of the bowl, and I think in residential construction you can get away with 15 inches from the centerline of the toilet to anything on either side."

The code is similiar in Canada and this minimum is a ridiculously tight space for a toilet. If you can give more space, especially side to side, you should.
posted by Mitheral at 6:39 PM on December 1, 2010

If the first inspector finds something wrong and requires it uo be corrected, don't be surprised if the second inspector who comes to check finds different things wrong!
posted by vespabelle at 10:15 PM on December 1, 2010

Mod note: This is a followup from the asker.
Thanks everyone for your answers. I know it's annoying to be coy about our city, but it's small, and I'm loathe to make this question more identifiable. We are in the Bay Area.

To be clear, we're not doing anything that's not up to plumbing or electrical code. Like the city inspector, I'm not really a fan of being electrocuted in the bath or setting my house on fire.

Yes, finding someone who had gone through this in our city would be better than asking strangers on the internet. Unfortunately, I have no idea how to find anyone. I literally don't know anyone who has gone through a remodel with all the permits (I think there's a weird thing in the culture out here), much less getting actually busted. I've talked to a few folks in the industry, and it's like an urban legend: Everyone knows someone this may have happened to, but it's never happened to any one of them personally.

That said, for a bunch of strangers on the internet, you guys did a great job of orienting us about what to expect. Thanks for all your answers. I feel much less panicky now.
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:06 AM on December 2, 2010

Mod note: From the OP:
Everything turned out fine, you guys.

The initial inspection (post-nasty letter from the city) was very low-key. The inspector was mainly concerned with verifying that we were not adding a bathroom where one didn't exist before. He was definitely not trying to bust our chops about anything. He even gave us some good tips about the best places to buy tile and etc.

The final inspection was also totally fine. The inspector walked through, looked around for about 5 minutes, and signed off. (She was very, very particular about making sure that all of our bedrooms had smoke detectors, even though we didn't do any remodeling in the bedrooms. But ... okay? I'm all for safety.)

We were, throughout, contrite and obviously naive. (Both are true.)

Turns out that the city (San Mateo, CA) really just wanted their $288 (which is what a bathroom permit costs.) If we'd known how little hassle the inspection process would be, I would have done it right away. Thanks again.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 5:08 PM on May 18, 2011

« Older Help me transfer some video, then muck with it.   |   You bastard! ... file. Or "second cut" file. Not... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.