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Question DetailsAsked on 4/3/2018

Am I liable for any unpermitted work the previous home owner has done on the main house, if I'm adding an ADU?

The house is build from 1920s, and it may not be up to current code. The previous owner did some remodeling. They may not have pulled permits for some of the work, basement, etc. The electrical of the house was reworked as well,
We have a detached garage, to which we are planning to add a second story.

I am applying for a city permit, and I need to know if the inspectors will have any issues with the current house. The house was inspected at the time of sale and everything was cleared to sell. But I have no knowledge of how and what type of work the previous owner has done.

For example, the house has no earth ground, the basement was remodeled, there was an extra bathroom added. Probably most of it was done without permits.

The new construction should not be touching the house in any way. But if the inspectors find that something is wrong with the current house, it may cost us thousands of dollars.
I need to know if we would be liable for any work that the previous owner did

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1 Answer


Of course for a definitive legal answer you would need to talk with a local attorney familiar with building permit regulations - probably one who specializes in developer dealings with local government agencies.

Unless for some reason (VERY rare if ever unless its certificate of cocupancy had been pulled) the city did a pre-sale inspection, the pre-sale inspection (by a Home Inspector working for the buyer) would carry no weight with the city/county building department, and the city would not know of it's results either - unless it was specifically done by a certified private building inspector or engineer to approve some of the remodel work by the previous owner.

Generally - it first comes down to four cases noted below.

Note that generally - with a few very specific life safety exceptions like (commonly) legal egress windows from bedrooms, fire/smoke/CO alarms, stair handrails, deck railings, bathroom/kitchen/wet area GFCI protection, and self-locking pool fencing - a house does NOT have to brought up to the ever-changing current building codes until a major remodel/replacement of the house or a specific system is dome. Commonly, unless over half of the house is being redone/gutted and major structural remodeled (in which case generally ALL systems have to be brought up to code), or over half of a particular system is being upgraded/replaced (in which case that system only has to be brought up to code), you do not have to upgrade a house to current code EVER. (This is not necessarily true of commercial properties - usually only with respect to life safety issues like egress/access and life3 safety - some building code provisions, in some cities, are applied to commercial structures with an X year window (commonly 3-7 year) to get them upgraded after the code comes into effect).

1) If the building permit is ONLY for the detached garage work, the inspector would only have cause to enter the main house for a very limited number of reasons - like to count the bedrooms to determine if the septic system is adequaste (though would normally just go by the records they have and the new plans for that)

2) as above, but to inspect electrical or plumbing or other utility connections between the two buildings where they connect to the house

3) if the modifications were done by the homeowner himself (rather than by contractors), in most areas unless the work expanded the house foundation (or overhang, not generally including balconies/decks) footprint or raised it enough to exceed local zoning restrictions, the work does not have to be inspected. Though in some areas a building permit is required (though may not mean inspection is required), especially in jurisdictions where the building permit fee is based on value of the improvement rather than a flat fee for the type of work being done. So - assuming those rules were not violated, DIY work would not be generally subject to inspection except in (generally) larger cities which require permits for ANY work over a very small amount.

4) Generally, interior architectural remodeling is not (except where permit fees are based on worth value) required - for work which does not involve structural modifications or electrical/plumbing (and sometimes HVAC) like painting, siding, cabinmets, flooring, window treatments, window/door replacements, etc.

Certainly if you have an architect doing plans for the garage remodel, he/she can give you guidance on the import of these favctors for your area - but with proper attention in the plans and avoiding drawing the inspector's attention to possible out-of-code work in the main house, I do not see it likely being an issue. And if there is rewally blatant issues, or life safety issues which would have to be done before any resale anyway, might be a good idea to just include them in this job's plans and permit and be done with them. Architect can advise on that - in most areas not a big issue, in some nasty areas where they are overcharging for inspections and permits and such (mostly large cities, especially the older, deteriorating east of the Mississippi ones) beter to keep them out of the main house by any means possible - including possibly getting the ADU (Additional or Accessory Dwelling Unit) designation and zoning permit BEFORE the building permit, so then the permit applies onlyo to that structure and they have no basis to ask to see the main house (which would be a separate dwelling unit at that time).

It might also pay to see/get a copy of the existing permit info in the property's file - generally it is real minimal if there is no permit active, and is commonly purged after typically 5-10 years, so it may be they will have no basis to say what was done with or without permits unless obviously new work. Even if not fully purged, commonly only has a copy of the permit with final signoffs in it - not any plans or specs or such showing what was previouslky done, because that takes up too much storage space for them to handle without continuing income to pay for the storage needed to keep bulky building plans.

Answered 2 years ago by LCD

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