This is the Saturday Morning Home Repair Blog where the Dailykos community gets together to talk about all things construction and repair. Our genial and expert staff stand ready to aid you on your every problem.
I have idly wondered about getting a general contractor's license, even though my experience in construction is pretty thin. When I mentioned that in a comment a while back, I got schooled about the downside of being a contractor. You might wonder why I even thought of such a thing -- considering that I'm semi-retired and never worked in the business before I started buying houses to convert into rentals a few years ago.
Well, the answer is permits. Permits have been a pain in my backside. I'm not so naive to think that the permitting process would be smooth sailing if I had a license. It would still be a pain. But at least I would be able to deal with the city directly rather than having to push someone else who doesn't want to deal with permits to do it.
There were a lot of permits involved in my 2013 renovation of a brick bungalow in Metro Detroit:
2. Electrical work
3. Structural (taking out a wall and putting in a beam to support the load)
4. Plumbing (two inspections, rough and finished)
6. Rental permit
This is the beam we installed to support the second story after we took out a load-bearing wall -- before we brought it inside.
I didn't need a permit to replace the concrete driveway, but in a way, it would have been better if there had been a permit. More on that later.
The roof went smoothly. The electrical permit was a problem because they didn't seem to actually check anything during the inspection. The structural permit brought work to a halt on my project for nearly a week -- and it wasn't because we had done anything wrong. The plumbing inspections demonstrated why permits are needed. The mechanical inspection was my first clue that I'd made a disastrous mistake choosing my HVAC contractor. The rental permit, the only one I could deal with personally, cost me nearly two months rent.
The story of the HVAC guy deserves it's own diary, so I'm going to save that one. But the rest of them demonstrate both the up and down sides to the permitting process.
Permits are supposed to protect the homeowner from incompetent and dishonest contractors -- or so Mike Holmes tells us week after week on DIY channel. Sometimes they do that. Sometimes, like a lot of the time, they muck things up.
Starting with the electrical permit, there were two inspections: one for the rough work, before we closed in the walls. The second after the job was done. Neither presented scheduling problems because I use a service company for electrical work and they have an office staff that handles all permits. They know what they're doing and they know the people at the city building department, so permits seldom present any problems with them. However, after the house was finished, I had to call the electrician back twice because of things he missed while doing the job.
In one case, it wasn't his fault, because the HVAC guy cut some of the wires when he was running the wire for the thermostat -- after the electricians had finished. That left several circuits dead. The other case was a couple of grounded outlets that didn't have the ground wires connected. There were a lot of outlets in the house, so I wasn't particularly outraged that two outlets didn't get finished properly. What did bother me was that the finish inspector who supposedly checked their work missed both the dead circuits and the incomplete outlets. I'm not sure what he actually checked. We found the bad outlets and dead circuits in the rental inspection two months later.
We took out the wall between the kitchen and the living room.
The structural permit was a big problem. Supposedly, the contractor does all the communication with the building department with this type of permit. In my city, at least, they don't want to talk to the homeowner. The problem, however, was that the crew that did the wall removal and installing the beam only had one member who was fluent in English -- the foreman. And the foreman only stopped by once or twice a day to check on things. So, when it was time to call for the structural inspection, there wasn't anyone on the crew who could make the call. So I stepped in. It was Monday morning and the beam was going to be finished by early afternoon. I called and talked to one of the clerks in the building inspector's office and was assured that the inspector would come by before the end of the day. They didn't challenge me for not being the contractor, but I suspect they thought I was his office staff.
The beam is in place and ready to be inspected.
Meanwhile, my drywall crew ("M" and his minions) were ready to cover up the exposed beam so they could get on to painting the next day.
I waited until 5:30 and no inspector. I called again Tuesday morning. I waited until 5:30 (the city offices shut down at 4:30) and no inspector. I repeated this every day until Friday. On Friday morning, I'd had enough and let go some of my frustration on the clerk. M had to move his crew to another job because they hadn't been able to finish the living room drywall, because the beam couldn't be closed in until the inspector had signed off on it.
The inspector, when he finally showed up on Friday afternoon, said nobody had told him we needed an inspection. I'm not sure I entirely buy that, but it is what it is. The following Monday we finished the dry wall and Tuesday began painting.
The plumbing inspection was the one that proved that permits can protect the homeowner -- even if it doesn't happen that way every time. I had been working with the same plumber for about five years at that point. Unfortunately, he was having significant health problems when this project was in progress. So his attendance on the job was sporadic and there were issues.
That hole in the wall is the plumbing access for the bathroom lavatory. It might have held us up like the beam did, but the plumbing inspector had already signed off on it before the beam problem came up.
When it came time for the finished plumbing inspection there was a laundry list of issues. Things like not tightening the drain on the bathtub so when you ran water it drained into the basement. The plumbing inspector, unlike the electrical inspector, did a thorough job and we managed to get all the issues cleaned up before the tenant moved in.
The last inspection was for the rental permit. It's equivalent to a certificate of occupancy. Without it, I'm not supposed to let a tenant move in. This is the one and only inspection I'm expected to handle myself. And it's the one inspection that brought everything to a halt for almost two months.
When I finished the major work on this house in late October, I had spent a lot more money that I had planned to. (No surprise there. Renovations always cost more than you plan.) I was anxious to get a paying tenant in place as quickly as possible. I'm pretty good at marketing my houses and I seldom have one empty for more than a few weeks -- unless I'm working on it.
But when I went to the building department to schedule the final inspection, the earliest date they could give me was at the end of December. I had to have my house sitting empty for nearly two months before I could advertise it and rent it out.
The problem was that the city had laid off most of its inspectors in mid-autumn. They were using freelancers that they shared with the surrounding cities.
The driveway -- I think it would have been better if a permit had been required. Three years earlier, I replaced the driveway on a house I was renovating. At that time, a permit was required. But sometime between then and 2013 they dropped the requirement.
Not that I have any issues with the cement work, mind you. M did it and it turned out just fine.
Here's why we replaced the driveway:
This was taken before I bought the house. It was even deeper than it looks here.
It was the kind of hole that damages vehicles if you hit it going too fast.
I knew when I saw the hole on my first visit to the house that I would have to replace the driveway. It had been replaced earlier from the house back to the garage. But from the house to the street, it was badly broken up.
Mysteriously, right after I bought the house someone came when I wasn't around and patched the hole in the picture -- very badly. Basically, they dumped some cement into the hole and didn't smooth it out, or even put enough in to fill it. The patch actually made things worse, since it didn't fill the hole and wasn't properly bonded to the cement underneath. It was a tripping hazard and more. It wasn't done by anyone who worked for me. I've never figured out who did it.
I got a violation from the city code enforcer about a week later. He was calling it a hazard and warned me that I would be fined if I didn't fix it right away. I called the number on the violation notice and got an answering machine. I left a message saying I intended to replace the whole driveway from the house to the street, but we needed to wait until most of the rest of the work was done because we needed the driveway for parking and bringing large materials close to the house.
We repeated this four times over the next six weeks. He would send me a violation and I would leave a message on his answering machine explaining that we would do it when we didn't have any more big deliveries coming.
Finally, I got the court summons, that said I would be fined for ignoring the violations. At that point, I got lucky and actually got the code enforcer on the phone. I explained the problem again. He said, "Oh! If I'd known you were renovating the place I never would have violated it."
I'd like to point out that the front window of the house was plastered with building permits. If he could see the hole and the bad patch, he could certainly see that the house was under renovation. And if he had bothered to play his phone messages, he would have heard me say so four times.
At any rate, he dropped the enforcement action and I didn't have to pay a fine.
So, what's happening in your world this morning?