The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector
Dear Barry: Now that I’m selling my home, I’m concerned about improvements that were done without building permits. In some of your articles, you stressed the importance of disclosing non-permitted work to buyers. But will this disclosure really protect me from liability? JoAnna
Dear JoAnna: We live in a sue-happy world, with no absolute protection from legal liability. Regardless of what we do, we can be sued for doing something wrong, and we can be sued for doing nothing wrong. Fortunately, we can take steps to reduce our levels of liability, but we can never eliminate that liability completely.
When selling a home, full disclosure of non-permitted work reduces your liability, but the way that you frame those disclosures can make a critical difference. A common mistake that many seller make is to state or imply that all work was done correctly or “according to code”, even though it was done without permits. Such statements can get sellers into deep trouble.
Unless sellers are professional building inspectors, they have no idea whether improvements were done according to code. Building codes are voluminous and exhaustively complicated, and only the most informed experts are totally familiar with their intricacies. When disclosing that work was done without permits, you should state that “no guaranty is made regarding compliance with building codes.” You should also recommend that buyers hire a qualified home inspector to evaluate the condition of the improvements, as well as the rest of the property. With that kind of disclosure, you should be reasonably safe from complaints after the close of escrow.