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Once Cited, Illegal Guest House's Days Are Numbered


Question: The home I may be buying has an unpermitted guest house, formerly a garage. The seller and previous owner have both been cited by the city for this unapproved use, and the building inspector has ordered that the garage be restored. Both owners ignored these citations. Does this problem sound like a deal breaker?

Answer: In many cases, unpermitted guest houses can be used indefinitely without any problem. But there are no guarantees, and the building department has the power to fully enforce code and zoning requirements.

In this case, existing citations should be regarded as a serious red flag, and I would advise caution.

If you buy this property, it should be with the understanding that you will probably have to reconvert the guest house at some future date. The property should be appraised as though the guest house is still a garage and as though no rents are being derived from that occupancy. You should also consider the costs associated with reconversion to a garage, in the event that this is finally mandated.

Remodeling Work Requires Permits

Question: I'm buying an older home advertised as fully remodeled. The seller disclosed in writing that all work had been done with permits. But when my home inspector found no firewall between the house and garage, he recommended that I call the city to verify permits. That turned out to be wise advice, because the building department had no record of any remodeling work.

Now the seller says the home was "redecorated," not remodeled, and that this does not require a permit. The work, however, included new wiring, new water piping, complete reconstruction of the kitchen and bathrooms, and much more.

These revelations have completely undermined my confidence in everything that the seller said. I'd like to buy the home but am afraid to proceed with the sale. Do you have any advice?

A: Honest and unfiltered disclosure is the core and essence of all equitable business transactions. In today's litigious business environment, it is surprising that any seller would undertake the risky position of false or incomplete disclosure.

According to Chapter 1 of the Uniform Building Code, permits are required for buildings that are altered, repaired or improved. Even for work that is exempted by the code, separate permits are required for plumbing, electrical and mechanical work. Therefore, the alterations at the home you are buying are subject to permit requirements.

If you proceed with the sale and accept the remodeling work without permits, you will have to disclose this noncomplying circumstance to future buyers of the property, and that could affect the value and salability of the property.

The best solution, at this stage, would be to apply to the city for an "as-built" permit.

Dangerous Fireplace Cancels Sale of Home

Q: My home fell out of escrow because of a fireplace problem that was found by the home inspector: The insulation plate has a small crack, and the estimated repair cost is nearly $10,000 because a whole new chimney is needed.

The inspector says this is a common problem with some precast fireplaces. Have you heard of this problem and is it really that expensive to fix?

A: Precast fireplaces are made of a single pour of concrete. They are factory-made and delivered to a construction site in one piece. The insulation plate is the Achilles' heal of this type of fixture because it is only 2 inches thick, and any cracks can allow the passage of heat and smoke into the wall area, causing a potential fire hazard. Even when there are no signs of other damage to the fireplace, the insulation plate may have failed.

Unfortunately, the repair cost is high because the fixture cannot be repaired but must be replaced.

One possible solution that would be far less costly would be to install a fireplace insert with a metal flue liner. To learn if this solution is feasible, check with a vendor who sells fireplace inserts. The specifications with each insert will indicate whether that product is compatible with your fireplace.

Roots May Be Problem With Sewage Pipes

Q: We are presently selling our home, and the buyer's home inspector expressed concern about the large tree in our frontyard. According to the inspector, roots from the tree could be damaging the main sewer pipe below ground. He urged us to find out whether the roots are affecting the pipe, and if so, to take corrective steps before the damage becomes worse. How do you check out something like this? And is there a way to do it economically?

A: Root problems are common with buried sewer lines, especially those with older piping. The fittings in old underground lines are often poorly sealed and have some degree of slow leakage. This can attract roots, which by their nature are always on the prowl for moisture and nutrients.

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