Homeowners beware. When work is done on a home, a large or small job, it is up to the homeowner to make sure that the building permit is closed.
Falmouth Building Department issues building permits, but it is up to homeowner to make sure the final inspection is completed and the building permit is closed. But some permits remain open 10 years or more from the time the work was done. And that can cause problems.
“At the end of the sale, things can get held up for weeks or a month. It’s a pain and causes some angst and heartache,” said James E. Fox, a realtor at Kinlin Grover in Falmouth. “Everything should not be left until the very end of the closing because of a permit from 10 years ago,” he said.
“Recently we came across a 14-year-old open permit. The prior owner had passed away and had sold the property with permits still open,” he said. “The new owner was left holding the bag.” The situation, he said, has taken weeks to solve. They have hired new contractors, permit consultants, and have spent hundreds of dollars “because the town does not have a mechanism in place to check on open permits,” Mr. Fox said.
Priscilla C. Geraghty, a realtor for Real Estate Associates, said that some clients have permits open since the 1990s. She said that 70 percent of her clients looking to sell a home have open permits that they are unaware of.
In most cases, she said, the builder has neglected to close the permit, usually the final inspection for the work. Usually all it takes is a call to the building department for a final inspection, she said. “They are very accommodating at the building department.”
Douglas C. Brown, a Falmouth builder, agreed it is common for builders to leave open permits. He recalled a situation where he built a garage for a client and neglected to complete the final inspection. He had received the necessary permits and had gone through all the other necessary inspections, just not the final inspection. When the homeowner put the house on the market later, Mr. Brown was notified of the open permit. “It forced me to have to close it out,” he said. He said the permit was closed by contacting the building department for an inspection, which was done without issue.
Usually builders are notified at the time of sale about open permits, Mr. Brown said. Occasionally, the building department will notify contractors if they have several open permits. They do not usually check on unfinished permits because it is not a priority for them, he said. “It is the kind of thing where they get to it when they need to,” he said.
Eladio R. Gore, Falmouth’s building commissioner, said that he has seen a rise in the number of lenders, attorneys and potential buyers asking for the history on homes they hope to buy. He said that the building department will assist five people on average a week with such an inquiry. “More and more, as lenders are getting more involved in these legal matters, they are doing more upfront research,” he said.
The onus is on the contractor and the homeowner to complete open permits, Mr. Gore said. “We can’t regulate how soon they do the work.” It is up to them to go through the necessary process to close the permits, he said. “We issue thousands of permits a year, and we can’t keep track of that. The onus is on them,” he said.
Mr. Fox said that sometimes the open permits can lead to bigger problems when work was done incorrectly. Building inspectors will bring out a ruler for a final inspection for stairs, for example. If the steps don’t rise perfectly, they make a builder take out the stairs and build them again, he said. The onus would be on the new owner to do the work if they had already bought the home.
Mr. Fox said that there is an easy solution to the problem. The town could either force contractors at the end of a year to close out permits, something he does not believe will happen. Or a homeowner could withhold a percentage of the project cost from the contractor until the project is finished and all permits are closed.
Mr. Brown suggested that the building department remind homeowners and contractors of the permits they need to complete. He said that he went to the department office a month ago and asked for a list of open permits that he had. “Some were ongoing projects, but I had a couple that were easy to take care of,” he said. “That’s all it would take.”