The problem with non-permitted additions in real estate

Non-permitted additions can cause huge problems. Last week I wrote about how I valued a garage conversion without permits, and I wanted to follow up with some expanded thoughts. As I mentioned, in this situation I gave value to a conversion because I was able to show the market was willing to pay for it. Yet it’s not always that easy, so let’s dig deeper. By the way, props to Cynthia, Gary, and Bryan for stellar blog comments that prodded me to follow-up. Any thoughts?

54025005 - demolishing the old kitchen - exposing the studs, existing plumbing and electrical work

Issues when dealing with a lack of permits:

1) Lenders & Appraisers: Here’s the bottom line. Some lenders don’t want to lend on properties with non-permitted additions. In short, a non-permitted area might have legitimate value in the market, but some lenders will tell appraisers NOT to give the space any value. At the same time other lenders are okay with value being given, but they want appraisers to show a few comps with similar non-permitted areas to prove the market is willing to pay for the space (that’s tricky to find).

2) Illegal: Does the addition conform with what zoning allows? This is a key question. For instance, if zoning only allows one unit and the seller has a non-permitted second unit that hands-down would never be allowed, it’s an enormous liability for an appraiser to be giving value to something like that. Likewise, imagine if an addition was built within the setbacks on a site, which would make it illegal and maybe even a safety issue.

3) Building Department Reaction: Is it likely the non-permitted area can become permitted? What is it going to cost? This is where it’s worth giving the building department a call. I don’t recommend mentioning a specific address at first so you don’t raise red flags, but call and maybe ask about a hypothetical situation to see what the cost and feasibility might be for getting permits. Remember, not all markets are the same either. For instance, since 1976 the City of Davis has had a program where building inspectors visit all properties before they close escrow to ensure there are no code violations. In short, you can’t get away with non-permitted additions in Davis if you plan to sell (but you can elsewhere).

4) The Struggle of Different Opinions: A friend gave me a call to talk through a situation with a garage that was converted into a second unit without permits. The appraiser gave little weight to the addition because of zoning issues, but the seller thought it should have carried more weight. There was a solid back-up offer on the table, but regardless of whether this addition was worth more or not, the thing I told my friend was there was no guarantee a future appraiser or lender was going to see the situation any differently. Owners in scenarios like this tend to say, “The lack of permits wasn’t a problem when we first bought the house”, but guidelines and what appraisers report might have changed over time. Moreover, not every appraiser or lender is going to see things the same way.

Advice about non-permitted areas:

1) Minimal value: Expect there is generally going to be less value for something not permitted than something fully permitted (thanks Captain Obvious).

2) Bigger is Bigger: Buyers seem to ignore smaller-ticket items that weren’t permitted, but the bigger something is, the more likely it is going to be a bigger deal that it wasn’t permitted. For example, there is a huge difference between a non-permitted covered patio and a 400 sq ft addition that was not permitted.

3) Glorified Storage: Keep in mind an appraiser might be instructed by a lender to count a non-permitted area as storage instead of living space. So that second story attic conversion might be really sweet, but an appraiser might end up treating it like storage instead of extra square footage.

4) The Easy Answer: Getting permits can help avoid future loan problems. Be sure to keep a copy of the permit too so any appraiser or buyer can see everything has been signed off.

NOTE ON GIVING VALUE TO SOLAR: This is off-topic, but there was a recent class on solar and it was apparently mentioned I do not give value to solar systems. That’s not accurate. However, I have said a LEASED solar system does not get value because it’s personal property. Just wanted to clarify. You can read this post and another for some thoughts on solar.


Questions: How have you seen a lack of permits impact a transaction or appraisal? Would you buy a home if it had an addition that was not permitted? Did I miss something? I’d love to hear your take.

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Why doesn’t the addition count as square footage?

Additions come in all shapes and sizes, don’t they? I sure have come across some interesting ones in the Sacramento area. Here are a few common reasons why an addition is NOT considered living area.

  1. Illegally built (no permits).
  2. Shoddy workmanship.
  3. No heat source.
  4. Permits were never finaled.
  5. Does not conform with the rest of the house (like the photo).
  6. Does not meet zoning requirements (ie.. code allows 1 unit, but there are 2 units)
  7. There is an obvious code issue such as 4 ft ceilings throughout.
  8. It’s not really an addition of living area, but an enclosed patio, a glorified shed or partition in the garage…

Keep in mind that Tax Records may indicate your house has a large living area (or building area) that even includes the addition, but that does not necessarily mean the area is legitimate living space. It only means the Assessor is taxing you based on the information in their files. The definitive word on the legality of an addition should come from the local building and/or planning department.

What would you add to the list?

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Does FHA require permits on an addition?

Permit or no permit? That is the question. Does FHA require permits for an addition? I have local real estate agents ask me this question quite a bit. The answer in short is “no”, but there is really more to understand about this issue other than just a simple “no”.

Straight from FHA/HUD:

HUD feels that any addition or modification should comply with applicable building codes of the local jurisdiction; however we do not require proof. Pursuant to HUD Handbook 4150.2, the Department has neither the authority nor responsibility for enforcing laws of the municipality; therefore, permits are not required. The property must however be in compliance with local land use regulations (zoning) of the subject site, i.e. a legal use.

The appraiser is not expected to have the expertise or knowledge to determine if an addition or modification is properly designed and constructed, however, the appraiser should; describe the addition/modification, indicate differences, if any, in the actual gross living area compared to public records, and note if the addition/ modification appears to be completed in a workmanlike manner.

The appraiser should value the addition/modification appropriately according to its contributory value in the market. It is not acceptable to exclude the addition or modification from value solely for the lack of permits issued by the local jurisdiction.

Basically, if there is an addition, it must be built in a professional workmanlike manner as well as serve a use. This addition, whether permitted or not, can contribute to market value according to HUD (if it does legitimately contribute to market value). However, keep in mind that the lender doing the FHA loan may have a big problem with a lack of permits. Some lenders require permits and will not fund a loan with an illegal addition. Moreover, if there is an illegal addition, how does the city or county view such an add-on?

Let me know if you have any questions. Call 916.595.3735, email me, or contact me through my website.

NOTE on 04/02/2013: I cannot find the original document where I quoted HUD in this post. I believe it was from an email from HUD. Please read this post and the comment thread for more information. It is important to realize that appraisers have to rely on the HUD Handbook as well as information provided by HUD for issues that are not readily addressed in the Handbook. Call 800-CALL-FHA to get in touch with FHA, who can then put you in touch with your local HUD Home Ownership Center if need be.