Am I responsibile for unpermitted decks built by previous owners?
April 3, 2006 11:00 AM   Subscribe

I bought my house in the Los Angeles hills about two years ago. A week ago, I was approached, out of nowhere, by a City Inspector regarding two decks off the back of my house. The decks were built by the previous owners and were very likely unpermitted - which is not uncommon in the hills where I live. The larger of the two decks did have a permit applied for by the previous owner, but they seemingly didn't follow through on the permit and built the deck anyhow. The deck was very professionally done - complete with casons and concrete poured - but may not be up to code. My question is: as the current owner, am I responsible for a deck built by the previous owner that may be unpermitted? Can this inspector, who didn't come on my property but merely espied it from the street below, demand that we allow them to inspect the decks - built a few years ago? I have heard conflicting opinions from people - some who've said it's my responsibility now, some who've said I should tell the inspector I don't know anything about the permits but the decks "came with the house".
posted by bocksheesh to Home & Garden (15 answers total)
Someone from your area -- probably your county -- is going to have to determine the property laws since I have no clue on that part. I do know that most construction within cities must be approved before construction and, in some areas, inspected when complete. This is for both building code issues (stability, violation of safety protocols) and for assessment purposes. In rural areas there's less regulation and no real motivation to report building since you'll have to pay increased taxes.

Some guy who lives a couple miles from my parents built a large garage just over the cusp of a hill and the assessors didn't notice it for two years -- he saved a lot of money on property taxes. In the LA area I would imagine they could do anything from fine you to force you to tear it down if it doesn't pass code -- I'd have it inspected.
posted by mikeh at 11:22 AM on April 3, 2006

I don't know the specific laws in your area, but I would guess that you are almost certainly responsible. It was your obligation when buying the property to ensure that the structure was sound and up to code, and that there were no environmental problems, etc. This is usually more applicable to commerical property, but it does apply to residential as well. Unless the non-complying structure has been grandfathered, or there's some kind of amnesty on the books in your area, I would say you're on the hook for it. If you want to go after the previous owner, you'd have to prove that you had no idea that the structure was illegal, and that he purposely withheld that information from you. You might also have a chance going after your lawyer, or the home inspector your hired to check out the property if they did not alert you to the problem (assuming you got the property checked out).
posted by loquax at 11:29 AM on April 3, 2006

My opinion is that it is your responsibility; it should have been handled during YOUR inspection of the property before you bought it. You did have an inspector check the house out right? Normally you would tell the seller to get the decks up to code as a condition of sale. My guess is you'll be responsible to get it inspected and permits issued (or work done to comply with code)..
posted by jockc at 11:29 AM on April 3, 2006

mikeh is right about the local laws ... but generally, you as the current owner, are responsible for bringing the property up to code, up to and including tearing down any unauthorized structures. Work with the city about bringing them up to code. Pleading ignorance will not help your situation, and will not absolve you of your responsibility as the current property owner.

If there is significant cost associated with bringing them up to code, you may have a recourse with the title insurance you most likely bought when you bought the house. Look in your closing documents for that info.
posted by lester at 11:34 AM on April 3, 2006

You're basically on the hook with the Building Department for the decks, but they'll probably have a way for you to get them permitted retroactively (the other option would be to tear them down). Bascially, you'll have to document the layout and construction of the structures to the satisfaction of the building inspector. If your decks are faulty in any way, either structurally or they violate zoning ordinances like setbacks and such, you'll have to modify or tear down the existing structures. The only place you'll really have trouble proving the structural integrity of the decks is with the foundations, since you can't readily look inside the concrete to see what kind of reinforcement was used. It will greatly help your cause if you can find the original builder of the structures in question.

I'd also talk to a lawyer about nailing the previous owner for any costs incurred. Disclosure, and all that.
posted by LionIndex at 11:41 AM on April 3, 2006

Title insurance wouldn't generally help with code violations, only problems with title, such as encroachment, easements, misidentification, vague ownership, etc.
posted by loquax at 11:41 AM on April 3, 2006

loquax covered the legal stuff much more thoroughly than I did. You may have a decent shot at hitting the previous owner with any fines (if the Building Dept. gets involved, there will be fines, even if you do end up getting the structures permitted) or remedial construction work.
posted by LionIndex at 11:45 AM on April 3, 2006

Having worked with Northern California permit offices on a routine basis for a few years, I can say that most of them are very helpful; they want to get you legal with the minimum hassle possible. However, there are the occasional exceptions; the Tiburon permit department was incredibly difficult to work with.

If a permit was pulled for the first deck, but was never inspected, it's likely that just a simple inspection will complete the process, and everything will be fine. Probably there won't even be a penalty. If the second deck didn't have a permit at all, you could be in some trouble.

I'd suggest physically going to the local permit office and explaining, honestly and directly, exactly what happened. Be very clear that you want to make it right. As long as you're not being all irritated, they'll usually fall over themselves to help you get it right, especially when you weren't the person who did it wrong in the first place.

Whatever you do, DON'T come off like a jerk, they can make your life really miserable if they want to. In particular, don't piss off the inspectors... some of them are powertrippy. The main guy in Tiburon was an unbelievable asshole.
posted by Malor at 12:11 PM on April 3, 2006

In a nutshell, yes. There are sometimes grandfather clauses or amnesty periods for permit issues of varying flavors, but overall if a bit of work called for a permit you have got to have one.

Depending on how well heeled you are and your capacity for bureaucratic pain you could likely hire a general contractor to insure the work is up to code and permitted. They're familiar with the process of pulling permits and most will have dealt with a situation where prior work wasn't permitted. They also usually have a personal relationship with the local permit office and may have better luck getting cooperation than you would yourself.
posted by phearlez at 12:20 PM on April 3, 2006

The answers here seem to mesh with my personal experience over the past couple years, buying and rennovating an old house (in Oregon, not California). We were made very aware that we were responsible for all of the not-to-code changes made to our old house, whether we made them or not. (The previous owner had converted the garage to a bonus room, but had not followed code nor applied for a permit, so we were not allowed to officially count the room in the house's square footage.) The house we purchased is very old, and for fifty years an old man had made all sorts of illegal changes. We bought it knowing this.

Last year we remodelled the bathroom. The inspector was firm, but friendly and polite, as he made us change after change, many of which had nothing to do with out project. Basically, the law here seems to be "if an inspector can see the problem, he can make it an issue".

Things may be different where you are, of course.
posted by jdroth at 12:23 PM on April 3, 2006

Of course, if an accredited inspector did not bring the fact that these were not up to code to your attention, he/she (or his/her insurance or bond) may be responsible.
posted by luriete at 12:45 PM on April 3, 2006

as the current owner, am I responsible for a deck built by the previous owner that may be unpermitted?

Yes. Now it's your house, so now it's your problem.

Can this inspector, who didn't come on my property but merely espied it from the street below, demand that we allow them to inspect the decks - built a few years ago?

Very likely, yes. Most North American jurisidctions have similar regulations allowing inspectors to come check for changes to a property and/or code violations even without your permission. Imagine, if all a property owner had to do was refuse entrance to inspectors, then slumlords could do whatever they want without recourse w/r/t health & safety. Generally, municipalities are pretty reasonable about it, but they do have the power to do an inspection if they have reason to believe it's warranted. The specifics of what notice they have to give you etc. will vary from place to place.

If you contact the office the inspector is from (Township or whatever) they should be able to point you to the statues and/or regulations that govern their activites. Chances are they'll be happy to help you understand your rights & responsibilities. My experience working a municipal government office (the past 2 years) tells me that any formal letters they send are likely to be very impersonal and scary sounding, but if you call or visit the office, the people there can make it all a lot more understandable, and less adversarial.

At the end of the day, they're just doing their job trying to enforce rules that may seem arcane in the details but that really are intended to promote the safety and happiness of everyone in the town.
posted by raedyn at 1:18 PM on April 3, 2006

I have to say that structural engineering code is probably one of the least oppressive bureaucratic regimes. A hillside deck is something you want to be able to pass muster. Imagine what would happen in a landslide if your deck is insufficiently anchored to the hillside below but is too well anchored to structure of yoru house. (Answer: your deck could pull your house down the hill with it.)

If you approach the inspectors with a cooperative, safety-first attitude, you're more likely to get a positive result. And you probably do have a good legal claim for any losses from reconstruction -- maybe against your inspector, maybe against your seller, maybe even against your seller's contractors who built the decks in the first place.
posted by MattD at 2:40 PM on April 3, 2006

I have to say that structural engineering code is probably one of the least oppressive bureaucratic regimes.

True, the structural guys are usually pretty accommodating, but there's actually (in all likelihood) two codes that the decks will have to meet: structural and municipal/zoning. The decks could be built to a safety factor of 10, but if they're improperly encroaching into a setback or they violate a height restriction, they'll have to come down.
posted by LionIndex at 2:56 PM on April 3, 2006

Bock, you might be off the hook. There should be something in your orginal purchase agreement regarding Full Disclosure.

I've been through that a couple of times when both buying and selling property in CA. From what I understand anything that detracts from the property value at the time of purchase-murder scene, non-permit change or addition to structure etc, must be disclosed prior to the time of puchase.

Check your original docs. You may well have to do the foot work, but you shouldn't have to pony up the cash.

Also, this situ doesn't come up very often unless the property is changing hands or there is a safety issue in which other property or life could be endangered.

I'm a novice property guy, but my little brother is a guru. Let me know if you need further asist. (see profile)
posted by snsranch at 6:48 PM on April 3, 2006

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