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Building Without a Permit

I am always surprised about the things people build without a permit.  Recently in court I had a defendant who had built an addition without any permits.  He couldn’t even claim ignorance because he was in the building trade.  He then complained when the inspector saw that his deck had been built without a permit.  The defendant’s excuse for that one was that he bought the house that way.  In another case, the homeowners only hired subcontractors who wouldn’t apply for permits.  One of the potential subcontractors asked too many questions, didn’t get hired and turned the owners in to the municipality.  In my book, The Building Process Simplified, I discussed the trouble people can get into when they cut corners and don’t do their due diligence before they buy property.  I only wish more people would read that chapter in the book before they begin construction.  Given the current economic circumstances I’m suspect that more and more people are failing to get permits in order to save money.  Inevitably this is going to lead to some tragic consequences.

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  1. travelinoncoffee
    June 6th, 2009 at 07:34 | #1

    Came across this article in a google search. I’m having similar issues with a municipality and am looking for case law relating to selective enforcement and prejudice issues. I own all the realestate around the town hall, and have been prevented from openning a business for 10 years, and near bankruptcy. I had permitted all work on the premises and all had been approved, yet they will not issue a change use nor occupancy permit. The entire community is flabbergasted by all this and I am at my witts end. can anyone help direct me to a resolution?

  2. JamesD
    June 11th, 2009 at 05:54 | #2

    Thanks for the useful info. It’s so interesting

  3. Jeff
    July 3rd, 2009 at 19:18 | #3

    Thanks for this. Renovating our garage, trying to see if permit is required or not.

  4. July 14th, 2009 at 15:49 | #4

    I built a functional sculpture, composed of pallets to cover my car and motorcycle and to act as a base to the rest of the sculpture which is not complete, There is no electricity or water services to the sculpture, there is no floor or permanent foundation. The tow code enforcer sent a summons to me for erecting a building without obtaining permits. Did I mention the entire sculpture is built out of pallets and other found materials, there could be no plans submitted, the sculpture is primitive but has stood through two heavy winters, I live on a dead end facing a lake with only one neighbor who is proud to have a creative person next door. There is no danger to another person or property besides my own. The building code is written so that anything with a roof is considered a building, and can not be created on any property with out plans and permits, apparently we live in a strict police state and even though we live with the ideal of pursuit of happiness, that includes nailing a few pieces of wood together, you are just out of luck. I go to the local court this Thursday to defend my art. Is there anything I can take with me aid in my cause to keep this sculpture?

    • Linda Pieczynski
      July 14th, 2009 at 19:03 | #5

      It’s often very difficult for people to defend themselves without the benefit of legal advice. I always urge people who think they have a defense to seek the assistance of an attorney in the area who is familiar with defense litigation. He or she could advise you if you have a First Amendment defense.

  5. j-ose
    March 31st, 2010 at 00:30 | #6

    sonoma county building permit have screwed me completely. doing it the legal way (obtaining a permit) is a joke and a depravation of property rights. permit department said i could build on my property, so i purchased a metal building 1500sqft for 20k engineering another 8k. i got started on the process of obtaining building a permit to errect this building. to my surprise i was signed off 4 departments before i got to the 5th department i was hulted. i was told i could NOT errect anything on my property after spending close to 30k i was told to throw away the building i purchased. i was furious !!!! i was told that sonoma county RR Rural Residential District Section 26-18-010 (f) prohibited me from errecting any building over 120sqft. now i have a building that cant be arrected and spent 30k down the drain! anyone please provide any help!!

  6. Linda Pieczynski
    March 31st, 2010 at 07:33 | #7

    I cover this topic in my book, the Building Process Simplified, about how important it is for people to research not only the building requirements but also the zoning requirements for a parcel of property. If they don’t do this, they end up having the type of problem you ran into, spending lots of money with no results.

  7. David shearer
    August 7th, 2010 at 16:14 | #8

    The heart of the matter here is how much authority SHOULD the government have when a property owner wishes to build on his land. People who build without permits often do so out of a Libertarian conviction that what they do with the land they own, to the extent that it does not infringe on the welfare of their neighbors, is their own business and should not come under the review of a government agency. An example of such owner primacy would be building a residential structure to house one’s self and family, and the requisite structures to support family activities, such as a barn. Obviously any lender would have the option to decline to fund any such project should they feel their capital would be at risk. And it would be imprudent to extend this right to build to any endeavor where “public” safety would be an issue, such as a commercial structure or residences built for the express purpose of being resold.

  8. January 10th, 2011 at 22:59 | #9

    thanks for providing valuable info about the topic. I am a fan within your website. Keep up the great job.

  9. Rebecca
    February 24th, 2011 at 12:04 | #10

    my ex husbnd built and addtion on to my home 9 years ago he did not pull any permits, now that I am divorced and paid him out to keep my home I found this out what can the building dept do to me. The addtion was added to my mobil home I cant remove it because we knocked down wall on the mobile home to make it one big home he built it well and I think to code. I live out in the county, should I inform the tax appairser and the building deptment, I don’t know what to do

  10. February 25th, 2011 at 06:59 | #11

    @Rebecca
    I’m sorry but I can’t provide legal advice on a specific topic.

  11. Dennis
    March 10th, 2011 at 01:22 | #12

    Is there any state or county in any state where you don’t need a permit?

  12. Dennis
    March 10th, 2011 at 01:24 | #13

    Is there any state or county in any state where you don’t need a permit? I wonder what the buildings would look like… Creativity gone wild without limits

  13. Josh
    May 26th, 2011 at 15:19 | #14

    @Dennis
    Dennis, There is something close. The county and state have permits, but Michael Reynolds has fought hard to make some pretty big changes. Check out Earthships.com. Amazingly creative self sustainable buildings built with recycled materials. They are stronger than your typical home and way more efficient.

  14. Tex2034
    May 30th, 2011 at 21:43 | #15

    Their are many counties in many states that do not require a permit. Most being from lower populated states and counties. The county i live in has no codes or permits. But the city i live in does. But does not enforce it really hard unless your doing something crazy. Its common here to add an additon to a room or a deck , a barn or garage and never have to worry about inspection. Unless your builing a new house. There are many benifits of living in the so called country or the south. It is also common practic here to build your own new house and get contractors to sign off on it. That is acceptable in alot of places. Ass long as you do it right and it is inspected by a licensed contractor its fine. Save thousands on electrical and plumbing. Ill be damed if i will live in a place that tells me how big or how tall or what type of house i have to build. Whatever happend to poeple standing up to what they believe in? Its your government. You want to build something on your property and they say no. VOTE THEM OUT! And make it clear why you did . Rules limiting builind on your property should be reserved for private communities only. You know the ones with a gate. One way in one way out. Otherwise its my land leave me the hell alone. I do however think you should show coutesy to your neighbors. Talk to them and try to make sure you wont affect their quality of life by building. Its all about money for most places. Elect officials with your best interest. If they abuse their power replace them. Be heard. I read about the contracter that got mad he didnt get the job and turned the people in. LOL . In small towns that would never happen. Sure go tell on me. But your gonna get your ass whiped and nobody else in the town is gonna hire you after they hear what you did. If you and your community cant stand up together to stop unfair codes. Then maybe you should just move.lol.

  15. GA42DAY
    June 18th, 2011 at 16:53 | #16

    My son who was only 25 years old at the time , was asked to tear down 2 , 12×12 decks and then the homeowner asked him if he could build he a small set of steps going to the front door and a similar set out back. She also noticed he messed up one of the steps and asked him to add a 6 x6 deck beside it. From my understanding these designs alone would fail inspection. He did not know to obtain a building permit and I am think he might have been intentionally set up . He says he did what the homeowner asked him to do and they paid him . Who’s is liable for this construction ?

  16. June 18th, 2011 at 21:19 | #17

    @GA42DAY
    While I can’t give legal advice for specific cases, most building codes hold both the builder and the homeowner liable for violations of the building code such a performing work without a permit. Even when there is a contract between the parties specifying who should get the permit, both remain responsible for making sure a permit is obtained.

  17. GA42DAY
    June 18th, 2011 at 21:25 | #18

    @Linda Pieczynski
    thanks , he has what look like a bill of reciept . It states the hours he worked and the duties he preformed. I would have him argue that he was her employer because she knew he did not have workmans comp , business liscense and other requirements needed . I just feel he might have been taken advantage of. I told him not to do it again. I also heard that in some states its illegal so sue for more than what a job is worth. He told her if the steps he built were in a new residental house on the market the inspector would not like it, but she said they would live with it .

  18. GA42DAY
    June 18th, 2011 at 21:31 | #19

    If the worst is expected to happen. I may talk to a lawyer to see if he can file a law suit against the county under the new ” PLAIN WRITING ACT “signed by Obama administration this year . I went through the web page that stated requirement of what type of structures need a building permit. It does not state clearly in Plain writing that a deck needs to be inspected! To me all of the information was jeberish. It really makes you think and wonder what is being said. So if a dog house is considered a structure do I need to have the inspectors approval before I let me dog sleep in it at night ? What about a doll house ? Do I need to have the countys permission so barbie and ken can move in it ? Its a structure . Am I right or wrong .

  19. GA42DAY
    June 18th, 2011 at 21:38 | #20

    my sons an idiot ! I can see a problem about not inspecting a 2 story deck or something like that with a roof over it . But damn I got to loose sleep at night over a 6×6 deck . It was not even the size of a kitchen table, and a couple of steps like 4ft off the ground …

  20. June 18th, 2011 at 21:43 | #21

    Building permit requirements are very specific as to what kinds of structures require permits. There are a number of exclusions for structures based on size and use. Consult your local building code for the exceptions

  21. tatyana
    July 29th, 2011 at 14:55 | #22

    Height variance.

    I am an owner of the 120 years old Victorian house. Sometime ago (and I don’t have a record of it) hight pitch roof was burned down and was replaced with flat roof. We have purchased this property already in such condition. I have reserached the library records and found pictures of original roof, house is on Historic register. We wnat to restor the roof, but city makes me to go for a height variance since it is a view sensitive area. Of course there are peope who object.

    do I have any grounds?

    Thank you

  22. Linda Pieczynski
    July 29th, 2011 at 19:03 | #23

    @tatyana
    I can’t give individual’s legal advice but I suggest you contact your county’s bar association and ask for a referral for a lawyer who does land use planning. Perhaps the local historical society might be of assistance as well since there may be special rules that overide the local jurisdiction’s authority. It’s worth looking into.

  23. Diana Trevino
    September 29th, 2011 at 10:16 | #24

    My husband decided to add to our utility room and attached it to our home and also added a second floor to it. I know you all must get this a lot that he did not think to get a permit due to the fact that he was attaching it to our home it had light and a bathroom already. Unfortunately the city came and denied him a variance. We have invested around $18,000.00 and need to know if there is anything else legally that we can do to keep our addition. We are willing to pay a penalty for lack of permit if needed.Our neighbors were upset because the city stop us.our home is situated in a colonia and in reality I am not harming anyone at all. the zoning commmitte all agreed okay but then one over turn everyone decision and they all followed but even they felt that it was okay with the exception of one. Please advice although a little to late but anything that might help me salvage these expenses.

  24. Guch
    September 30th, 2011 at 23:08 | #25

    There is an article on LovelandPolitics.com about this happening in Loveland, Colorado. The developer decided togoahead without permits and was prosecuted.

    What town?

  25. October 1st, 2011 at 07:46 | #26

    @Diana Trevino
    Unfortunately for you, the town has every right to demand the removal of the illegal structure. In my book, the Building Process Simplified, I write about the unforeseen consequences of violating the building code law by not submitting plans and getting permits. It can be an incredibly expensive mistake, costing a person not only the money he spent on building the illegal structure but also in legal fees and fines. It’s never wise to try and save money on permit fees when this is the natural consequence of such a decision.

  26. Mary
    October 7th, 2011 at 09:49 | #27

    Hello,
    I recently purchased a foreclosure – single family home – and of course there was a truth in housing report given to me prior to putting in an offer. There were multiple bidders and I was the…*lucky* winner. We closed on the home in July of this year and have been busy restoring it. The building inspector came in to look at the roughed in bathrooms and had a serious chip on her shoulder because, apparently, the previous owner pulled permits to do work on the home and never allowed them back to check on and approve his work (neighbors tell me he died in an accident, which is probably why). The building inspector didn’t just look at the work we were doing, but also every single room in the house, pointing out problems, angrily. She said that the back porch cannot be repaired at all because she *assumes* the previous owner built it without a permit (she has no proof, she is just assuming because the other additions were built in 2006 and this porch is not listed on there. I would never guess the porch is that new, it looks original to the home, which was built in 1912 and is in need of repairs). She said we have the option of A) tearing it down B) leaving it as-is (leaky roof and all!) or C) obtaining variances and drawing up plans, etc, hoping the city will give us the go-ahead. While I’m fine with and plan on making the structure more sound as well as aesthetically pleasing, I am flabbergasted that I’m being told I need a variance on an existing structure – merely because the inspector *assumes* that it was built without a permit. Any advice here is greatly appreciated, I have been nothing but compliant with the city inspectors with regards to obtaining permits and allowing them in to inspect and have done everything to the letter, but this is going into the 6 figures area due to government interference and I am so frustrated and overwhelmed. Thank you!

  27. Mary
    October 7th, 2011 at 09:50 | #28

    I also meant to add that the truth in housing report said absolutely NOTHING about the porch, it needing repairs, a variance, or anything. We did have an inspection and of course the inspector has no idea if something was built with a permit or if a structure requires a variance. I would think this would be on the truth in housing report?

  28. david
    December 18th, 2013 at 12:32 | #29

    Hello,
    I bought my house two years ago and specifically asked if garage conversion and laundry room had permits. I was told yes and given a permit number. Now county has to approve solar plans and are telling me that garage and laundry room don’t have permits. The permit numbers given to me were pulled but not paid for. The county says they think this was done to sell me the house. Now my solar project has been put on hold and I have to expose all electrical, insulation and footing for laundry. They said I also have to hire an engineer. I looked on my paperwork that I got when I bought the house, called the county with permit number and now they’re saying that the number I have was a qualification permit. Can a realtor or bank sell a house that has work done with no permits and do I have any other options? Thank you so much for any information.

    • December 18th, 2013 at 15:56 | #30

      You should consult a lawyer and possibly report the realtor if he or she knew the changes were not legal. If you asked about it, they have to disclose it.

  29. david
    December 19th, 2013 at 14:03 | #31

    Thank you very much for your quick response. Waiting on a call from a lawyer this week. I hate to have to get a lawyer but it’s sad what people will do for a sale. Thanks again.

  30. sant pallan
    March 17th, 2014 at 01:53 | #32

    Hi Linda. I have a problem with two homes in Santa Barbara County, CA. I am an electrical engineer and a very experienced owner/builder. I get permits for everything I build. This is easy for me as I do the blueprints myself and hire a licenced structural engineer if civil engineering calculations are required. On the first property I added a 2000 sq ft addition to the residence and also built a combined 750 sq ft work shop and office. I got all sign-off in 2003. In 2006 the property was raided by inspectors and police alleging code violations. My zoning permit was for an addition of 5 bedrooms. Inspectors claimed only 2 were legal. For an appraisal to refinance construction loans, the loan broker and appraiser suggest I change the name of 3 legal bedrooms to den, library and study. The inspectors summarily evicted three tenants occupying these rooms and ordered me to pay restitution benefits.
    The inspectors continued to pick up minor things left over from construction such as guard rail and hand rails. I was asked to do a multiple page blueprint submission on autocad and get a permit for the minor items and told to remove the closets in the bedrooms labelled den, library, and study. My cost was about $1500 to make the corrections (I did not remove the closets. My construction costs were about one half million. The permit fee requested for the minor changes was $11,000 which I refused to pay. The person at the building dept propagating this enforcement left Santa Barbara three years later and the fee was dropped to $1000 and everything signed off. However, in the intervening three years the county of santa barbara posted $120,000 in liens on each property. I have been unsuccessful in negotiating these down. I have been able to hang on to one of the two homes in question. May loose the second. These are very large valuable properties which I have worked on over the past thirty years. Any help from you and your readers would be appreciated. This is a political problem involving the zoning/building depts, County Counsel and the Board of Supervisors.

    • March 17th, 2014 at 12:03 | #33

      Perhaps you have done this already but when you find yourself in a situation like this, it really is vital to retain an attorney who understands these kinds of issues. It’s nearly impossible for non-lawyer to handle this type of situation successfully by himself.

  31. mike
    May 29th, 2014 at 11:44 | #34

    I have constructed a tree house height, play structure in my back yard. It is supported partially by the flat roof of my garage. A neighbor has called it a deck and has sicced the building inspector on me. I want to provide the playstructure to my children and did not realize a tree/club house would even be an issue for a municipality. In fact I can find no ordinances pertinent to the structures intent at all within the municiple code. How do I convince the construction board to properly interpret what i am building?

    • May 29th, 2014 at 19:38 | #35

      Building codes are meant to make structures safe, even a playstructure. What you intend is not as important as what the building code says requires a permit. I always recommend seeking a lawyer who is experienced in property law to assist you in any appeal of the building official’s order.

  32. Brenda Vermaas
    June 16th, 2014 at 18:27 | #36

    I just found out my house never was given a permit to build. The man owned both lots lived next door and woke up one day in 1972. and said I want to build a house next to me.(of which is right over a canal) We pay State,property tax etc. Since there was no permit issued where does that leave us? My neighbor will never be able to claim our property or will they?

  33. Mike Linski
    June 19th, 2014 at 23:05 | #37

    I found this site while researching where the local government received it’s power to waltz onto your property and tell you that you can not build a shed or a small workshop without getting a permit first.

    It was the ability of all homeowners in the state of Florida to submit plans drawn up by hand or computer and be approved by the municipality in order for you to proceed legally.
    I find no problem with that.

    Now, it is my attention that you can no longer do that and they have to be sealed plans drawn up by a licensed architect.

    Simple wooden building now have an extra $2,000 price tag attached along with permit fees.
    We have rights and when you look at the history even our own Presidents built their own homes and I doubt they needed permission to do so.

    The city, most likely Insurance company mandated, has now put so much restriction on homeowners that legally you can’t even change your own water heater or bath tub.

    So please forgive me if I build my shed without going through the proper channels.

  34. cathy
    August 5th, 2014 at 14:51 | #38

    My father couldn’t pay his house anymore so he let it go and has been living with me for 7months but he had built a shed in the back yard of his house and now got a citation telling him to file for permits for the shed can he just have it knocked down the shed and that’s it he doesn’t live there anymore the house has been foreclosed on

    • August 5th, 2014 at 20:14 | #39

      Many people think that if their home is in foreclosure, they have no responsibility for the property. That’s not true until after the sheriff’s sale when title is transferred to the new buyer. Until that time, the homeowner is responsible for any code problems on the property. When an unlawful structure has been erected, there are 2 ways to comply. The owner could obtain a permit for the structure and make it lawful. Or, the unlawful structure could be removed. However, the homeowner should always check to see if a demolition permit is required for the removal of the structure. You don’t want to compound the problem.

  35. george
    August 21st, 2014 at 20:09 | #40

    I am a contractor that completed a project for a customer earlier this year. this customer stated at the beginning of the project ” we don’t have to worry about the permit, I know people”. when she was later sited she for not having a permit she told the code enforcement officer that I had told her she didn’t need one. the code enforcement agent then call me and told me I was legally responsible and would be prosecuted if I did not come back on my dime and tear apart any walls needed for the inspection. Is this true? or is the homeowner ultimately responsible in this case?

    • August 22nd, 2014 at 08:31 | #41

      Unfortunately homeowners and contractors cannot count on each other to fulfill the responsibilities of the code. Anyone who builds without a permit is responsible, either because of doing the work or causing the work to be done. I often have both parties charged and let them argue in court who is going to accept the fine and correct the work. But, who has control over the work once the job is done? Certainly the homeowner has control but the contractor only has the right to go on the property if the homeowner allows it. That’s a dilemma for code officials because they need to have the person with control over the property come into compliance. I like to see contracts between parties that sets forth who is responsible for getting the permit. It won’t prevent an action by the municipality against both parties but at least it won’t turn into each blaming the other when things go bad.

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