Research Permit History
Originally appeared in Hills Publications, September 29, 2000 and ANG Newspapers, October 1, 2000
A home that looks good, even if almost new, could still have serious problems. In addition to inspections, there is a simple thing buyers can do to avoid nasty surprises — check its permit history at the city or county. Although it is a good idea for a buyer to do so soon after his offer is accepted, this common sense action is rarely taken. The investment of an hour or two in research can yield invaluable information about the desirability of a particular property.
A new house with problems
Recently, I represented a buyer in the purchase of an expensive home in a million dollar neighborhood. A high price, however, is no guarantee that you are buying a trouble-free house.
The home is only three years old. The original structure had been destroyed in the 1991 Oakland hills fire. Shortly after the contract was ratified, but before our general home inspection, I accompanied the buyer to the City of Oakland to review permits.
We were given a computer printout of all permits for this address. Everything had received final approval except the sewer line. When I questioned city staff about this, I was told this was common. They explained that sewer permits often do not get finaled.
I saw this as a red flag. Was the sewer line done correctly and to code or were some relevant steps skipped because the city had not come back to verify? I suggested that the buyer invest in a sewer line inspection, including running a video camera down the pipes.
To my amazement, the inspector was unable to camera the line because there was no cleanout. In other words, if the line backed up, there would be no simple way to clear it. The sewer inspector showed me how the home next door, built about the same time, had two cleanouts in the front.
Equally troubling was the discovery that the sewer pipe under the house was only two inches in diameter. Four inches would have been preferable, but three inches is the smallest acceptable size in new construction.
This was of special concern because all sewage for three and one-half bathrooms was pumped up from underneath the house, way down on the street below. To compound matters, the pump was inadequate and leaking.
As is often the case, the seller had no idea there was any problem with the sewer system in her lovely, upscale home. Regardless, one day, when her shower or toilet backed up, the buyer would have found she had an expensive problem. This did not prevent the escrow from closing. Just the same, the buyer was glad to know about it from the beginning.
Our house was moved from where?
Several years ago, I was the selling (buyer’s) agent in the sale of a charming, 1920s home. My buyers and I received an interesting surprise when reading the city records. More than thirty years earlier, this house had been relocated to its present location from somewhere else in the city.
The sellers, who had lived there six years, had no idea this was the case. Their listing agent had also sold them the home, but the permits had not been perused. Fortunately, the fact it had been moved was actually good news.
It meant this older house had a 1960s foundation meeting the higher standards from that era, rather than its original foundation with its potential problems. I shared this vital finding with the home inspector, and he found it quite helpful. Needless to say, the buyers were pleased we made the extra effort.
Sellers are not required to assemble a history of permits on their property for prospective buyers. They are obligated, nevertheless, to notify buyers in writing of any work done, especially if it was without permits or not to code. Sellers normally know only about what has happened since they have been owners, and whatever the previous owner has told them.
Think of the permit history as clues in a mystery, where questions still need to be answered. Despite the fact that city/county records are usually incomplete, they still fill in gaps in the saga of a house. A personal visit to the city could mean the difference between a happy or unhappy ending to your home buying story.
Condition is Critical
Are Permits Important?