By Ian Thompson
SUISUN CITY - Suisun City Building Inspector Kevin Moirano wrapped up his inspection of the electrical system for a nearly finished patio covering, then pointed across the street at a similar addition in a neighbor's yard.
"They probably don't have a permit for that," said Moirano, adding the homeowner probably didn't know better.
It is a common problem that Moirano and other city building inspectors face. With a rising tide of people doing their own home improvements, many are not getting permits.
"If we see them while they are building, we send them a letter saying they should come down to City Hall with their plans," Moirano said.
More than half of the inspections Moirano does in Suisun City are home improvements, and half of those are improvements that the homeowners do without contractors.
"Homeowners are often not aware what they need permits for," said Suisun City Building Inspector Linda Young. "Unless the contractor lets them know, they don't realize they need a permit. A lot of times they are surprised."
The most-often overlooked improvements when it comes to permits include covered patios, lawn sprinkler systems and ponds (if they involve electrical work).
"Anything that involves cutting into your water lines, anything involving plumbing or electricity," Fairfield Building Inspector Wayne Weimer said of a good rule of thumb for what requires a city permit.
Fairfield requires that builders of new houses post a notice with a general listing of every possible home improvement from room additions to water softeners that requires a city permit.
"We ask that all the buildings post this in their garage," Weimer said.
The lack of a permit can come back to haunt the homeowner later.
"If you make an improvement without getting a permit and you damage your house, you are liable for it and the insurance companies won't pay out," Young said.
For example, if the water heater doesn't have a permit and it falls and the released gas damages your home, insurance companies could consider it the homeowner's fault and decline to cover the loss. Whether that will happen will depend on the insurance company.
Moirano remembers one house that burned to the ground after a grass fire swept in through the covered patio that was also used to store firewood.
"They (the homeowners) had a long fight with the insurance company," Moirano said. "Afterward, everything he did on his new house, he got a permit for."
Homeowners can also be harmed when they try to sell a house and the real estate agent selling the home finds out that some of the house's improvements don't have a permit, Young said.
"We want to make sure the improvements are safe," Weimer said.
A patio cover not built right can collapse. An incorrectly installed water heater can leak gas or get ruptured in an earthquake. Breaks in poorly installed plumbing can contaminate the home's water supply.
If you don't have records of any permits for your improvements, the seller will need to call the city to set up a special inspection, which may require the improvement be brought up to building codes that have changed since the improvement was first put in.
State law requires a building inspector to examine a completed project within 48 hours.
Fairfield's inspectors try to get to the project within 24 hours, Weimer said.
If a contractor does the work, he is required to get the permits and call for the inspections. But it's the homeowner who is ultimately responsible, Weimer said.
Fairfield or Suisun City could hit homeowners with double fines for people who decide to get a permit long after they made the improvement, but neither city does that.
"We work with the people," Moirano said of getting them to have their work inspected and permitted, stressing that the improvement should be done safely.
"We want make sure it's done right and done safely," Weimer said.
The best advice on whether an improvement needs a permit?
"Just call us. We can tell them," Weimer said. "Read up on the requirements. Check with the building department. When working with a contractor, get a receipt for the permit and it should be kept on site."
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Common home improvements that require permits:
- room additions
- covered patios
- heating and air conditioning
- swimming pools
- any and all electrical work
- any and all plumbing work
- retaining walls
- lawn sprinkler systems
- reroofs of buildings
- solar panels and spas
- water softeners
- masonry block fences
- decks more than 30 inches in height
- sewer replacements