What I tell my Home, Cottage, and Commercial, Inspection Clients in Gravenhurst, Bracebridge, and Muskoka about Building Permits

 Building Permits, the necessary evil

Since the mid to late 60’s depending on the area you live in home renovations and additions that involved any structural changes to the home have required building permits. As well, electrical permits and later plumbing permits were added to the paperwork list involved before beginning a project. Now in many areas like ours ie, Orillia, Gravenhurst and throughout Muskoka Ontario, permits are being required even for a garden shed. For just as many years as there have been permits there have been people building and renovating without them. There are many reasons I have heard as to why: I can’t afford it, I hate paying taxes and it is just a tax, the builders buy off the inspectors with a case of beer anyway so why should I go through the trouble when they don’t?. Frankly, in my forty years of construction and renovation in Gravenhurst, Bracebridge, and Muskoka I have heard those among many, over and over.

 It may seem like a tax grab when the building inspector simply drives by and waves as they delivered the final inspection all filled out prior to getting there, and I have seen that happen. On occasion builders and inspectors were known to have shared a beer or two and that made the day go easier for everyone, that too happened more often than you would like to believe.  I will often hear people in Gravenhurst ,like those in the rest of Muskoka, still say the permit process is too expensive and they can’t afford it on top of the renovation.  During my home, cottage, and commercial inspections I run into buildings of all types that I believe have had work done in the past without permits.  While it is not up to a home inspector to determine if there were permits and inspections done (Most municipal offices will give that information out only to an owner or a party with an accepted offer of purchase due to the privacy act. My clients are always advised to check for permits for any additions or renovations and to ask for copies of the final inspection as well.)  a good home inspector will look carefully for evidence of poor work and then for failure to follow good building practices as clues.

As a home cottage and commercial inspector the question is how do I tell if there was a permit, did it get inspected properly, and what goes in the report. As a home inspector rather than a building code inspector my report is far more general on many more systems and parts of the home than is a building code inspectors report. For instance a municipal home building code report whether from Gravenhurst, Bracebridge, or anywhere else in Ontario is very specific on footings, foundations, framing, insulation, it will now include plumbing rough in and it includes the roofing as well. Each segment is a step in the inspection process and each must meet minimum standards for the step. Heating and air conditioning systems are installed buy licensed trades who are responsible to the licensing commission not the local building department. Electrical systems are inspected at rough in and at final by trained electrical permit inspectors. The local building code inspectors final inspection is a walk through to confirm finishes are in place and the home is complete with heating and water and ready  for occupation.  Knowing this gives me the key to understanding whether or not, in most cases, there was a permit for the changes or additions I come across.

If I see a stairway that is too steep or narrow on a home built after 1970 or so, I get suspicious. If I see a  vaulted ceiling that doesn’t match the homes original style but I see no collar ties or ceiling joists I get suspicious. If I see a 3 in plumbing pipe that has been reduced to a 2 in flowing downstream I get suspicious. If I see an addition with any sign the foundation is not right I get suspicious. If I see electrical work that seems sloppy or in any way outside the norm I get suspicious. If I see, well you get the idea, I get suspicious for many reasons and then I get extra careful in looking for more signs of what I consider amateurish or hasty work. It is true that many contractors do hasty work and some even bad work, but, for the most part I find they may do it poorly but it is usually done in the correct steps just not well. A contractor may install a dormer and frame it up correctly but then do a sloppy insulation and drywalling job. When I look at the outside of the home I see the roof covering has no humps, the window has the proper trim, flashings are installed correctly, everything’s right about the basic structure. When I get inside I may see window trim that does not seal properly and I may feel a draft and know the insulation is poorly installed. I may also see uneven joints, nail pops, or seams that show through in the drywall. It could have been a framing contractor that built the home and for fill in work they finished it. It may also have been a shell package erected by a contractor for a homeowner to finish out. The structure may be sound and although the finish work may not be very good, the components are there and functioning. It is likely that a permit and local building inspection took place.

While I have met some building inspectors in the past who were at best generally knowledgeable and at worst outright slackers for the most part now though, the changes in legislation and laws that allow holding local building inspectors personally liable for damages and injury claims has improved building inspections considerably. Yes many inspectors have no building experience and they stick to the written code like glue. In fact due to the general lack of real building experience by code officials, nowadays most  local building departments require stamped drawings for all projects. Either an engineer's stamp or an architect's stamp will do but without one of those you will not receive a permit and building approval. There is simply no one in most municipal building staff offices who is capable or willing to read and approve drawings as they used to. Permits, tax grab and all, are a necessary evil for both homeowners and builders alike to ensure the basics of safety and structure are followed.

 In what I determine is likely an unpermitted addition or renovation I will often find something missing or so badly wrong that some part or component of the home will fail long before it should.  I can’t count how many times I have seen a wall removed to open up a home or add an addition, in order to give it that open concept, where there has been a beam put in to carry the overhead load out to the other walls and an added support from the beam to the floor below the beam in the walls. It is all finished and looks great until I go downstairs and see no point load support. The support under the beam goes to the bottom wall plate which sits on a ¾ subfloor.  There is no support underneath from the subfloor down to the sill plate on the foundation if it is an exterior wall, and there may be no post to carry the extra load to a new footing in the floor if it is an interior wall. Given time and snow loading the beam will drive the support through the 2x bottom plate and ¾ sub floor and the roof will deflect or even fail. I know, I have seen it happen. I also know only the very worst of contractors would miss something like that and so I, yes you guessed it, get suspicious.

I have seen everything from additions to a building literally strapped  together with plumbers strapping meant to hold up 1/2 in copper water pipe, to the complete removal of all the ceiling joists and collar ties that used to hold the walls in place and the rafters together in order to get a vaulted ceiling look. I have seen many, many thousands of feet of deck and balcony railings two and three stories off the ground with horizontal bars. You have seen them too they look just like a kids jungle gym made for climbing and falling off of. In my inspections throughout Gravenhurst, Bracebridge and Muskoka I have seen patched, cut, notched, split, warped, undersized and overspanned  beams and joists by the hundreds in homes and in cottages. In almost all cases of gross building defects as opposed to failure defects like roof and rafter rot because of failed shingles or water damage to floors because of leaks at windows etc. there were no permits or inspections on the job.  In many of the home cottage and commercial inspections I perform I find gross building  defects and they are photographed, noted and written up within my inspection reports. In addition I include the statement regarding the likely hood of there being having been no building permits or inspections for the renovation. I will point out that these defects are just the ones I can see and deduce from visual evidence and there is a very real risk that items and structure covered by drywall or other coverings that should have been inspected but were not, are defective as well.  Not only will the client need a permit to do any repairs but most insurance companies will refuse claims on damage resulting from unpermited and uninspected work.

No matter where you live in Ontario, Gravenhurst, Bracebridge, Muskoka, or anywhere else,  building and renovation permits may feel like just an extra tax and they can be difficult to deal with when trying to fit a renovation into a limited timeframe but they are a necessary  part of the building process. In my home cottage and commercial inspections I check for evidence of any work indicating additions or renovations were undertaken without proper permits and when I find it I advise clients that for personal safety, structural integrity, and peace of mind if investing in this property ask for copies of any permits and a copy of the final inspection report.  My goal is for my clients to have all the information they need to make a smart purchase decision and  proper signed off permits for work done is just one more bit of information they need.  I also tell them that if they do buy and get repairs or renovations done to get permits, because if I come back for the next buyer you can bet I may be suspicious, and in any case my new clients will be asking for copies of the permits.