By Troy Trudgeon, RHI
A common issue I run into as a home inspector is do-it yourself work that was completed without permits. I find this situation particularly in older homes (40 years or greater) and in basement development in homes of any age. There’s nothing wrong with a homeowner doing their own construction or renovation work, however the City requires a permit in almost all cases to ensure occupant safety including: construction of any kind indoors, decks, running new plumbing or electrical, installing a new bathroom or addition and many more cases. Generally, the only time a permit is not required is if you replace an existing fixture, receptacle, sink, toilet, etc. (with the exception of replacing a furnace, hot water tank, or other gas-fired appliance; then a permit is required).
A permit typically involves the submission of a floor plan for construction which outlines, in particular, any plumbing or electrical wiring and indicates where walls will be installed. Numerous permits are required for most development. For example, in developing a basement with a bathroom, one would be required to obtain at the least the following permits: building, electrical, plumbing. Depending on what is being installed, additional permits may also be required.
Why are permits required, and what is the “code”?
Each licensed trade in the province of Alberta has a detailed set of rules (codes) that is implemented by the Alberta Safety Codes Council. These rules define how any work must be completed to pass an inspection and be sanctioned as safe. Many of the codes that are implemented come about due to a severe injury or death. In other words, safety is the purpose and function of the code requirements.
As part of the permit, a time frame is specified in which work must begin and when it must be completed. Before walls can be covered and finished, the permits stipulate that a code inspector for the relevant trade comes in and passes/fails the work and/or provides additional requirements to be completed before the inspection passes.
When are permits required?
From the Alberta Safety Codes Council website:
The Safety Codes Act requires that all contractors and homeowners in Alberta obtain permits prior to commencing work on buildings covered by the Alberta Building Code or work governed by the Canadian Electrical Code, the Alberta Gas Code or the Alberta Plumbing Code.
The major benefits of obtaining a permit are knowing that the installation will conform to the safety standards that have been adopted under the Safety Codes Act, and that inspection(s) will be provided by certified safety codes officers.
How does this affect home sales and purchases?
In general, as a home inspector I look for indications that construction/installation does not meet codes — this is often an indicator that a permit was not obtained. My license requires me to be familiar with codes in a general application, but I am not a specific code expert. I look for indications of problems and then recommend the specific trade and/or code expert come in and make that determination (for example, a licensed electrician). I’m more of a generalist and the specific trades (and related trade code inspector) are the specialists.
I always recommend that proof of permits and passing of required trade inspections be provided for the purchase property on any additional construction or renovation that has been completed in the house. It’s part of my job to find indicators that this type of work has been done.
It is the responsibility of the purchaser to obtain this information before purchasing the home. Once a buyer owns the home, they inherit the responsibility and repercussions of any work that was completed without permits. If the purchaser doesn't verify and rectify the situation before purchase, they are now responsible for that work. This could affect the client’s safety and it could cost them money and other headaches in future if the City inquires about permits. This is where a home inspection can really provide relief.
What if the homeowner doesn’t have permits?
I recommend to potential purchasers that they insist on the seller obtaining required permits. The City allows homeowners to obtain permits after the fact. Unfortunately, this will affect timing as code inspectors will need to come in and verify that the work is safe.
I’ve noted a couple of different issues surrounding permits in home sales here in Edmonton. It can be very tricky as an inspector when dealing with really old homes. Numerous people may have completed work in different years and the current homeowner may have no clue regarding previous work or permits by previous owners.
Note that when completing renovations, if part of the renovation modifies any of the trade areas (electrical, gas, plumbing, construction, etc.), then those areas must be brought up to the code of the current year. I often run into modern renovations that implement dangerous techniques that were acceptable 50 or more years ago, but are unacceptable and unsafe now — again, had the homeowner at the time obtained the proper permits, all code requirements would have been met and inspected and certified as safe.
The most common phrase I hear from homeowners when I query as to who completed development work is: "I had it done professionally by XYZ Company -- here's the receipt."
Contractors and licensed trades people are required to obtain permits as well and their work must be inspected by a code inspector. This is something that’s often misunderstood. I have run into cases where contractors did not obtain permits for their development work. It’s important to verify that permits were obtained, even if a contractor (or Company XYZ) was hired to do the work.
It’s important to understand that when requesting permits, you are asking for a set of paperwork that was generated by the City, and it should have an indication that the related trade inspectors passed the work and that the City then approved completion (finishing of the walls, etc.). This is completely separate from a receipt of work completed.
How can I find out if permits were obtained?
The current homeowner can request that the City do a search of records to find out. The City office informed me that the homeowner can give permission for another person, such as a realtor, to do the search.
I recommend that all purchases/sales involve mention and discussion of permits at the outset, based on the above information, to help ensure your client is safe and happy with their purchase. If you request that the homeowner provide any permits early in the sales process and build obtaining permits into the conditions as necessary, it should help alleviate time constraints.
Here are a couple of examples that I’ve run across that give obvious indication that permits were not obtained and that a code inspector likely did not certify the work:
A basement floor drain in the middle of a carpeted hallway – a City Engineer likely did not approve this floor plan.
Over-cutting of a foundation window shows that larger windows were installed at a later time in the life of the house – again, did a City Structural Engineer approve cutting large holes in the foundation? Did a licensed tradesperson do the work?
And then there was the do-it-yourselfer who installed electrical wiring and cable lines inside the chimney of a wood-burning fireplace...
Edmonton City Permits
Alberta Safety Codes: http://www.safetycodes.ab.ca/Public/Pages/CodesPermits.aspx
Video clip overview about different types of inspectors:
A Buyer’s Choice Home Inspections
Troy Trudgeon, Registered Home Inspector
Alberta license: 335892