Reuben Saltzman

Building Permits: value add or necessary evil?

Reuben begins the show talking about how Structure Tech has started a TikTok account, and nearly puts Bill to sleep. At the time, we hadn’t yet made a TikTok, but we’ve made one since. Click the animation below to see our intro TikTok (is that what you call it?).

Intro TikTok GIF.gif

The conversation quickly turns to the main topic of the show, and the gang spends the rest of the show discussing all things related to building permits. Are they worth it? Do we all pull permits at our own houses? Does pulling permits add to the value of a home? What about work that hasn’t been permitted: do home inspectors freak out about that stuff? Should they freak out about that stuff? Can the city shut you down for having unpermitted work at your own home?

It’s a good discussion, but there will definitely be a follow-up podcast that will involve a building official who will surely set the record straight for us. Enjoy!

TRANSCRIPTION

The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.

Bill Oelrich: So permits.

Reuben Saltzman: Building permits.

BO: Dirty word.

Tessa Murry: Yeah.

BO: Homeowners don’t like them.

RS: Yeah, home buyers do.

BO: Why?

RS: Well, how many times have you done a home inspection and you get the buyers saying, “Well, they did a kitchen remodeling. They didn’t pull permits.” Is there a house that exists today except for the very newest, where all the work was done with permits?

[music]

BO: Welcome everybody. You’re listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Tessa Murry and Reuben Saltzman as always. Reuben is currently waving at you.

RS: Hi.

[chuckle]

BO: So he’s saying hi.

RS: It’s good pod.

BO: Yeah. Yeah. What else can you do that nobody else will see? [laughter] Alright, that’s fantastic.

RS: I’ll do TikToks.

BO: Oh, TikTok.

RS: You know about TikToks?

BO: No.

RS: Well, it’s ’cause you don’t have a [laughter] teenager or tweens.

BO: Well, I have a teenager, not a tweener or whatever you call them.

RS: And they’re not into TikToks or you’re not into what they’re into. Which one is it Bill?

BO: My daughter does more snapping than TikTok.

TM: Yeah, there’s a lot of snapping.

RS: Sorry.

TM: Reuben, have you made a TikTok?

RS: No. But we set up a Structure Tech TikTok account. What do you think about…

TM: No, we didn’t.

RS: Oh, yeah we did.

BO: Cutting edge.

RS: Oh, yes we did.

TM: Who’s making the videos for that?

RS: My son Cy will be making the videos.

[laughter]

TM: Oh yes.

[laughter]

RS: He’s not really gonna make any videos. All he’s gonna do is take the videos that we already have on our YouTube channel, and he’s gonna turn them into TikToks. You know, five years ago for a YouTube channel, we are not intentional with our videos, it was just stupid little 15 second clips that are perfect for TikToks ’cause I think that’s all the TikTok is, it’s stupid little 15 second clips.

TM: It is, yeah.

RS: And so, I’m gonna have my son like take all these and dump them into this platform, one a day. I’m gonna put you on the payroll, son. It will be great.

[laughter]

BO: So I’m currently trying to herd these chickens back into the barn. Let’s talk to everybody about what we’re gonna talk about today…

RS: TikTok.

BO: On today’s episode.

RS: This is a TikTok episode.

BO: No, it’s not a TikTok episode.

RS: Alright.

BO: We had discussed it, it was gonna be about permits.

RS: Oh, yeah, yeah. Of course.

BO: I think TikTok might be more interesting but we gotta get back on track there.

TM: We just lost some listeners now. [laughter]

BO: So, yeah, permits.

RS: Building permits.

BO: Dirty word.

TM: Yeah.

BO: Homeowners don’t like them.

RS: Yeah, home buyers do.

BO: Why?

RS: Well, how many times have you done a home inspection and you get the buyers saying… Well, you start the inspection, “Hey, Mr. Buyer, what are your concerns about the house?” “Well, they did a kitchen remodeling. They didn’t pull permits.” And I’m doing wide eyes for everybody listening to the podcast today. I’m clutching my pearls at the moment, and I’m not feeling good about this at all. That’s everybody’s huge concern is any type of work where they find out the seller did it without permits. And I’ll tell you, is there a house that exists today except for the very newest, where all the work was done with permits? All the work that should have been done with a permit was? No way! Any house that’s a hundred years old, there’s gonna be a million things that were done at this home without permits. But as soon as somebody finds out that it happened, that’s where they freak out. So it’s a big piece of contention for people buying houses.

BO: Are you an advocate of permits, like everything that should have a permit pulled for it, are you saying go get that permit?

RS: Well, it’s a tough one. I’d say in a perfect world, yes. It protects you, you’re doing things legally. When you go to sell your home in Minnesota, there’s that form that people need to fill out that talks about what they know about the house.

BO: Disclosure statement?

RS: The disclosure statement, yep, and it’s not required, right Bill? It’s just what everybody ends up doing anyway.

BO: The disclosure statement?

RS: Yeah.

BO: I wouldn’t… Well, there’s gonna have to be something, either they fill out the disclosure statement or they fill out some alternative document that…

RS: Exactly, there could be an alternative document or I know we’ve even been hired to do home inspections on houses where they didn’t wanna fill out a disclosure. It’s an estate and they don’t have any of the information, so they have us do a home inspection in lieu of that. So it’s not necessarily required, but you gotta do something, and one of the line items on there says “For any permits that… ” Or “For any work that required a permit, did you obtain a permit?” And then people need to circle yes or no.

BO: Who circles no.

RS: Oh, people circle no all the time, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Those are the people who freak out. The buyers will freak out as, ’cause the sellers circled no. I’ve done that, I’ll be honest. Last time I replaced a water heater in my last house, I did not pull a permit for it. I just didn’t wanna go through the hassle and I told the home buyers about it, and it was a non-issue.

TM: I’d say it’s even more common though that maybe the buyer knows there was something done recently to update the house and it’s not necessarily in the disclosure that they didn’t pull permits, it’s just there are no permits provided and they see the updates. [chuckle]

RS: Yes, yes exactly.

BO: Yeah, and that’s their first question. Did…

TM: Did they pull permits?

BO: Yeah.

RS: Yeah.

TM: Yeah.

RS: Although, you know what, just to address that line item on that disclosure, it says, “Were appropriate permits obtained?” It doesn’t say anything about inspected or approved.

TM: Inspected or approved.

RS: Yes. Thank you.

BO: Finaled or whatever they do to permit.

RS: Finaled, closed out, yeah. So I think it’s a really stupid question to have on that form, ’cause anybody can just go to the city and apply for a permit and they’ll give you a permit. The permit is just permission to do the work, it doesn’t mean that anybody looked at it. A much better question, were all permits obtained, inspected and approved?

BO: In a perfect world, all permits would be obtained, inspected and approved.

RS: Exactly. Well, we would ask that on that disclosure form. Yeah.

BO: So do you think doing all of that helps support value? If there’s a complete kitchen remodel and they’re all signed off, does that make that kitchen more valuable than if the permits were not pulled?

RS: I don’t know.

TM: Yeah, I don’t know either. I think it’s mainly just peace of mind for whoever’s buying the house, they like to know that whoever did these updates did them “correctly.” But as inspectors, I think we see houses every day that have been updated and improved and changes made to them where permits haven’t been pulled, and it doesn’t mean that the work was done wrong by any means.

RS: Yes, yes, that’s an excellent point, Tessa.

BO: It’s not judgment, it’s just a lack of a procedural box being checked.

TM: Yeah, if someone’s concerned about that, we say, “Okay, well, let us do the inspection and we’ll see if we find anything that’s concerning.” But most of the time, it’s not a huge concern. Things are okay even without a permit.

RS: And it doesn’t even mean that the person doing the work was unprofessional.

TM: Right, yeah.

RS: The last time I had my furnace replaced at my old house, the heating contractor asked me, “Do you want me to pull a permit?” And he was just asking me that ’cause he knows that I know him and he’s gonna do it right whether he pulls a permit or not, and it would save me whatever the permit fee was, I don’t know, a 100 bucks or something like that, it just saved me a little hassle with having to schedule with the city. And I said, “Yeah, go ahead, just do it.” But he just asked me about it. So technically you’re supposed to, but it’s one of those things… Technically, you’re supposed to drive 55 on the highway, too.

[laughter]

TM: Are you saying you speed?

RS: Tessa, I’m looking at you, Tessa.

TM: Shhh.

RS: Yeah.

BO: I didn’t even know 55 was a thing.

[laughter]

BO: I thought 65 was the slowest you’re supposed to drive at any point in time.

RS: Okay, that’s me point.

TM: Yeah, yeah.

BO: So we’ve got this cool little tool that we give everybody at Structure Tech when they order a home inspection with us, it’s called a BuildFax report.

RS: Yes.

BO: And one of the great things about the BuildFax Report is it delivers in a very short document the known permit history that’s been filed with the city, and that BuildFax report communicates once a year with the city. They do a data dump and then they aggregate all this stuff, but it’s really cool for buyers, they can look at the history of the permits and it even says who the contractors are and what they were supposed to have done, and they can compare that against walking through the house and if the kitchen has been completely remodeled and there’s no history of a permit, one of two things has happened, either it was just done and that information didn’t catch up with BuildFax or they are playing it sly.

RS: Yeah.

TM: Mm-hmm.

BO: So it’s kind of a fun little game of cat and mouse where like, “I know all this about you now,” and we provide that as part of our home inspection process.

RS: Yeah, just like on the last episode, we talked about HomeBinder a little bit. About… It’s one of these services that we pay for, it’s the exact same thing on BuildFax, we need to order these, we need to pay for them, but we do get a discount because we buy them in bulk, we buy thousands of these every year, so we’ve got a little price arranged with them, but our clients love them, and it’s something that we send to our client before they even get their home inspection. So if you really wanted to get us, you could schedule your home inspection, we’ll send you the BuildFax and you could cancel and we’re out that money, but… [laughter] But you know what, it’s not serious enough where we’re really sweating it, it’s…

TM: Yeah. And there’s not BuildFax reports for every city, is that correct?

BO: It just depends. Jurisdiction has to communicate, play nice with BuildFax, otherwise we can’t get it, so…

TM: Okay.

RS: Yeah. And I would need to talk to one of our client care coordinators, they did have a good handle on how…

TM: Which cities can buy them?

RS: Well, yeah, and how often we have houses that don’t have it. I think it’s maybe 95% of our inspections have BuildFax’s.

TM: Yeah. I was gonna say, I think like St. Paul and Minneapolis, there’s always a BuildFax report for.

BO: Yeah, there’s always a BuildFax, whether or not everything is on it is another question, but that’s… Again, that’s a data dump thing, and that happens once a year. I found that out just contacting them, be like, “Well, I know there’s permitted work here, it’s at the county.” And they’re like, “Well, the last time we contacted was after that permit was pulled.” So there are some gaps.

TM: So here’s a question, does that permit history impact your property taxes at all? Do you know?

BO: Well, it’s the reason the guy who has done some work on my house was opposed to grabbing permits, I’m like, “Why don’t we just get the permit.” And he’s like, “Well, those… And your taxes are gonna go up.” We’ve changed contractors since then, [laughter] and we’ve… But in theory, I think it could affect your values because it’s gonna alert the assessor that there was new work done in the house, and you’re probably gonna get some adjustments up, but whatever, I’m not worried about it. So is there a permit that you would want to see, Reuben? There are some things that you kinda go, “Eh, water heater.” If somebody’s putting in a gas fireplace, do you wanna see a mechanical permit that says that the gas was actually run in accordance with…

RS: It sure seems like a good idea when you’re doing larger appliances, furnace, air conditioner, feels like it’d be nice to have it done on those. Having said that, on my first house, I had a guy… I still remember his name, Dazzy, this was like 20 years ago.

TM: Uh-oh, do we need to beep that out?

RS: No, I don’t think so.

[laughter]

RS: I’m not dropping his last name. And he came over and added central air to my home that never had it. He did it on a Sunday. And he just threw it in and I think I gave him a 12 pack of beer or something. And we were good to go.

BO: What did you have on him? Why would somebody do that amount of work for a 12 pack of beer?

RS: It was the weird… He was just the nicest guy in the world. I had never even met the guy, and he was good friends with my sister-in-law, and my sister-in-law said, “Hey, I know somebody… “

BO: I got a guy.

RS: “He’s in this business, yeah, I got a guy. And he’ll take care of you.” And I don’t remember the details, but the guy would not take any money, he just spent his whole day at some stranger’s house and put in the system for me, it was quite the blessing. I paid for the unit itself and that was it. But yeah, we didn’t pull permit for that, it worked fine as long as I lived there, but it probably would have been a good idea to pull a permit.

TM: Yeah, along those lines… As an inspector, if you know that they have replaced all of the plumbing in the house, or they replaced a bunch of electrical, like knob-and-tube and they put in a new panel or something like it’s nice to see a permit.

RS: Oh, a panel replacement. Yeah.

TM: Yeah, it is.

RS: My senses really tingle when I’m looking at an electrical panel replaced without a permit. But I mean, on that topic, I know there’s home inspectors, and I’ve gotten these calls from a lot of inspectors in the Twin cities who say, “Do you write up a panel that doesn’t have an inspection sticker?” ’cause once the electrical inspector comes through, they put their sticker on that door and they say, “It was inspected and blah, blah, blah.” and I… My question is always, what do you mean write up? Write up what? What would I write up? Well, you see that it wasn’t approved in, it needs to be inspected. Well, my question back is, “What are you doing? What are you doing at the house?”

TM: You’re just as qualified as the Building Official to inspect that panel too and see if it’s…

RS: Maybe, I mean…

TM: Hopefully.

RS: I won’t say who’s more qualified but you’re looking at a lot of stuff, you look at panels every day, you should be able to take the cover off and look for a lot of this basic stuff, and if it all looks good, what are you calling for? So no, no, I don’t write that up when I see a lack of an inspection sticker.

BO: Is that why some people don’t always like home inspectors? ’cause they kinda have some weird thought processes about life, like what’s right and wrong, and what we need to discuss?

RS: Absolutely. Absolutely, I mean, I’ve heard of a lot of home inspectors writing up spliced electrical connections inside of an electrical panel, which is perfectly acceptable, but I don’t know where it happened, a bunch of home inspectors get the idea you can’t have splices in a panel, and that just gives us a bad name.

BO: Alright, good. I’m glad that you’re not perpetuating such bad names out there.

RS: Try not to.

BO: Good. Excellent.

RS: Try not to. Try to have a level-head.

BO: Alright, so tell me what you know, Reuben, about permits in terms of… List off the things that absolutely should be permitted in your opinion, then tell me, is there anything you can do in your house that doesn’t require a permit?

RS: Let me just answer the second question.

BO: Okay, perfect.

RS: That’s a lot easier ’cause my opinion stinks.

[laughter]

RS: I’m so lax. You know this Bill, I am not a conformist.

BO: This is true. I have documented proof of this.

RS: Yes, you’ve seen my behavioral assessment but I’m…

TM: Yeah, yeah, yup.

RS: And Tessa, you’re not either, I know that about you.

TM: Yup. We’ve done a lot of improvements at our house without permits.

[laughter]

RS: And I’m just talking about your behavioral assessment. Now, you’re letting on more now.

TM: Yes.

BO: Cutting open a vein here. I’m sure we’ll get some stitches out real quick.

RS: Yeah, we’re the same. Well, let’s talk about what does and doesn’t need a permit.

BO: Okay.

RS: Basically, if you’re replacing any type of floor covering, it needs to have a wall covering, if you’re replacing countertops, cabinets, you’re doing a deck that’s less than 30 inches from the ground, it’s not attached to the home, any of these things, you don’t need a permit.

TM: Cosmetics, yeah.

RS: Cosmetics, paint. You build a small shed in your backyard. I think the square foot is just 200. I think it’s less than 200 square feet. At one time it was 120, now I think they upped it. The small shed, you don’t need a permit for. If you’re replacing a broken or defective switch or outlet, you don’t need a permit for that.

TM: Okay.

RS: I will repeat that. A broken or defective switch or outlet, you don’t need a permit. Now, let’s say you wanna upgrade to a white receptacle, you got beige and you want white, that is not replacing a broken or defective switch, technically, you would need a permit to do that.

BO: Okay, it’s very specific.

RS: So that’s what you don’t need an electrical permit for. Name something else electrical, really minor Bill.

BO: I’m gonna change the light.

RS: Yup, you need a permit.

TM: Oh man, what about adding a light somewhere?

RS: Yup, yup, you need a permit.

BO: I wanna put a motion detector in.

RS: Yup. Any of this stuff, just about anything electrical that you could think of, you need a permit for by the letter of the law. And there’s so many of these things that homeowners just wouldn’t even consider, so I don’t know how you’re supposed to accurately answer that disclosure form, there’s so many things. And plumbing, the plumbing code is really similar. I mean, just about anything you can think of plumbing technically requires a permit. You’re gonna replace a faucet? Yep. Your hose bib on the outside of the house goes bad and you need to replace it, yep, you need a plumbing permit. HVAC, just about anything that you can think of. There’s a lot of stuff that technically needs permits and a lot of people just don’t know about it.

TM: Yeah.

RS: Siding your roof.

RS: Oh yeah, oh yeah, absolutely.

BO: Why? Why for a roof?

RS: Why, for anything?

BO: I mean, the contractor comes out, rips it off in one day, puts it back down, staples over everything, and it’s done. I mean, is the inspector gonna come out and say, “That doesn’t look good. I want you to re-do it.”

RS: They could, they have the authority, but to back up a step, Bill, why do we have a permits at all? What’s the purpose of a building permit. The whole reason we have building permits is that there’s an assumption that all of these homes are transient, you’re not gonna have just one family living in it. You’re gonna have one family living there for seven, 10, 20 years, and someone else is gonna take occupancy of that at some point in the future, and you can’t be messing them up. The city needs to be inspecting the work to make sure that it’s safe, it’s durable, it’s habitable, it’s for all these reasons.

BO: How does the city of several hundred thousand people with hundreds of thousands of homes actually inspect all these permits? Their building department isn’t that big, their inspections department isn’t that big.

RS: Well, it is, it has to be. And when somebody pulls a building permit, the cost of that permit is what covers the cost of the administration, it covers the cost of the inspection, the plan review, the whole building inspections department, and it’s a funny thing, the building inspection department is the only department at the city that is revenue positive. All of the other departments suck taxpayer revenue. Building inspections supports itself and from what I know about it, the vast majority of them operate on a surplus budget, and so they’re always trying to figure out ways to spend their budget by the end of the year, otherwise you’re not allocated as large of a budget. This is something that…

BO: How did you get behind the curtain of the county to understand all this about your…

RS: I took a course when I was going to North Hennepin Community College titled Legal Aspects of Building Administration.

BO: Gotcha.

RS: And there was a lot of building officials in that class who worked at cities and I… Yeah, we discussed this a lot. So it was pretty interesting. There was some good insight into how all this works.

BO: Okay, so what haven’t we covered on permits that you absolutely want people to know.

RS: Well, the important thing to know is that it’s not bad to get a building official in your home. A lot of people are scared to pull permits ’cause they’re like, “Well, I also didn’t pull a permit for this and this, and now they’re gonna come into my house and they’re gonna make me fix all this stuff.” That’s not what a permit is for. If a building official were to come into your home and they start looking everywhere and they’re telling you fix this, fix that, people just simply wouldn’t pull permits, it would perpetuate that idea. The idea is, the Building Official is supposed to come in, look at the work that you’re hiring them to look at, and then if it meets code, they approve it, that’s it. They can’t hold you hostage based on other work that was or wasn’t done correctly.

RS: So the building official is supposed to basically have blinders on when they’re coming into your home. If they see something that’s really a life safety hazard, a lot of them are gonna do you a favor. Some of them might even, maybe arguably, overstep their bounds and tell you you have to fix this, but I would really say that’s the exception, it’s not normally what’s going to happen.

TM: You’re thinking like smoke alarms and CO-detectors and stuff like that.

RS: Those are things that are actually required in the building code. When a building official comes into your home to inspect just about any permit, that triggers the requirement for smoke and CO alarms, and that’s no big deal, that’s all battery-operated stuff. But I’ve heard people say, “Well, I replaced my electrical panel, so there’s no way I’m pulling a permit for a water heater ’cause they’re gonna walk past it and see that I didn’t do this, and then they’re gonna make me blah, blah, blah,” that’s not how it works.

BO: It’s not even the same inspector.

RS: But a lot of people don’t understand that. They just say, it’s the City, they’re gonna come in and they’re gonna shut me down. I’ve heard people say this, they get so worried about this stuff.

BO: I was in that camp, ’cause we did have a guy who worked on our house early in our ownership career who wasn’t fond of pulling permits, and we did a major remodel in our house, and then I was like, Oh, I did freak out like that, I was the really goofy person who… We ended up tearing all the plumbing out of our house to upgrade, ’cause it was galvanized. It was a decision to move forward into the future and not be caught up with bad flow later on in life. Anyway, but when we were tearing this all out, I actually had a building official walk into my house uninvited, unannounced, and came up to our second floor where we were demoing the bathroom, and I was working with the plumber to demo it, I did the nasty job, and then they were kind of getting stuff laid out. Turns out there was some history between this company in that inspector and they mechanically weren’t supposed to be working there. They had plumbing licenses to be working there, but they didn’t have mechanical licenses to be like… And he thought he was gonna catch them. And I was like, “This is really interesting.” I didn’t say anything to anybody, I just thought it was a pretty good drama.

RS: I don’t think the building official had the right to do that.

BO: Probably not.

TM: Just came into your house huh?

BO: Whatever, I didn’t care, not that big of a deal, but maybe I would have felt differently if they were mean to us, but they treated us fairly and everything was good. Alright, well, again, nobody really cares to hear about my life experiences.

RS: I care. I care, Bill.

BO: All right. But I’ve diligently been pulling permits for many, many, many years now.

RS: And it’s gonna pay off someday.

BO: Awesome.

TM: Yeah, good job, Bill.

BO: I will move out of this house eventually, into a casket.

[laughter]

BO: That’s my next major move. Anyway, you’ve been listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, with Reuben Saltzman and Tessa Murray, and we were excited to have you with us for the last 25 minutes and thank you for listening. We will catch you next time.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

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