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Small Claims Court

Can I Sue the Previous Owner for Unpermitted Work?

Updated August 26th 2022

7 min read

Lots of people go the Do-It-Yourself route for certain home improvements. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when it comes to work requiring permits, that’s another story. Whether buying a house or selling a house, it’s crucial to ensure that there is no unpermitted work on the property. The fact is that...

Can I Sue the Previous Owner for Unpermitted Work?

Can I Sue the Previous Owner for Unpermitted Work?


Kaylin Lo


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Lots of people go the Do-It-Yourself route for certain home improvements. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when it comes to work requiring permits, that’s another story.

Whether buying a house or selling a house, it’s crucial to ensure that there is no unpermitted work on the property. The fact is that unpermitted work is relatively common, whether done deliberately or not, knowing permits were necessary.

If the previous owner did not disclose that unpermitted work was done on the home, you might have grounds for filing a lawsuit against them.

What is unpermitted work?

Municipalities require permits for construction and remodeling to ensure the work is done correctly and meets all safety standards. While it’s cheaper for a homeowner to DIY or hire an unlicensed contractor, it is not a wise decision in the long term.

Unpermitted work is any work performed on a dwelling that by law requires permitting. Such work ranges from minor to major.

For instance, some homeowners may decide to add another room to the house without first obtaining permits. Doing so may violate many laws, including zoning and setback requirements. Some homeowners may legitimately not realize that some minor work requires permitting. Work requiring a permit in one town or state may not be needed in another. Of course, ignorance of the law is never an excuse.

The issue may not be severe if the repairs are simple. It doesn’t take long to disassemble an illegal deck. If the previous owner added a room – or even an entire story – that’s harder to resolve.

Why does work have to be permitted?

Permitted work must meet applicable safety standards. Permits ensure that the work meets local building codes and zoning laws.

While permitting requirements vary on city, county, and state levels, certain types of work virtually always entail getting a permit. These include:

  • Adding a room
  • Removing a load-bearing wall
  • Existing plumbing system replacement
  • Water heater replacement
  • New electrical system installation

Other types of work rarely require permits. Such work includes:

  • Painting –exterior and interior
  • Floor installation
  • Roof repairs –not new roof installation
  • Changing our faucets
  • Storm window installation

Many homeowners decide to take on relatively minor DIY projects without realizing that permits are needed. For example, they may put up fencing that isn’t allowed in municipal zoning ordinances or install fencing above local height restrictions.

How would you know if work is unpermitted?

Most of the time, unpermitted work is evident. Exposed wiring, drywall fracture, or bathroom vents that don’t line up should raise questions. However, some types of unpermitted work may be challenging to detect. Permits are needed for adding windows or doors, but if the DIY is done well, you may not notice.

If the house is similar to others in the neighborhood but has features that vary from the typical home, find out if those features were changed legally. For example, if your house has a bedroom where the other homes all have garages, make sure that conversion was done legally. 

These red flags may indicate unpermitted work:

  • A real estate tax bill that doesn’t conform to the size of the home.
  • The home is larger than noted in the listing.
  • The home has features not included in the listing.
  • Development homes differ from others in the neighborhood.

Shouldn’t a home inspector discover unpermitted work during the inspection process? Yes, but it is more likely the inspector will alert you to improvements made over the years so that you can check to see if permits were issued. 

How would you check about unpermitted work?

Find the home’s original blueprints. That isn’t always easy. However, if you didn’t receive the blueprints from the prior owner, you can likely obtain them from the city or municipality. Of course, if the house is very old, the blueprints may not exist.

If it is clear the home has been remodeled, permits were likely necessary. Contact your local building department to find out if such permits were issued and if the dwelling passed an inspection by the zoning officer or other official. You can often find this information on the city’s website.

Consequences of unpermitted work

All sorts of consequences may ensue with unpermitted work. Construction practices were probably substandard if the previous homeowner did the job themselves or hired unlicensed contractors. Not only does amateur quality result in safety issues, but it can cause all sorts of other problems in the house.

The consequences of unpermitted electrical work may prove the most serious of all. Electrical work performed by amateurs raises the threat of fire. Other types of unpermitted work pose health and safety risks. If the previous homeowner installed a new bathroom without permits, the odds of leaks, mold development, and related problems are much higher. 

Unpermitted work voids your homeowner’s insurance policy. You are not covered if your house floods due to unpermitted plumbing or burns down because of unpermitted electrical work.

That also means the insurance company will not cover a liability claim if a guest has an accident on your property due to unpermitted work, such as the floor of an unpermitted balcony or deck giving way. In a worst-case scenario, unpermitted work can ruin you financially and drive you into bankruptcy.

There’s another nightmare scenario. As the current homeowner, you are responsible for paying to demolish or bring up to code the unpermitted work. You could end up in litigation with the city, county, or other agency and spend a fortune on legal fees and remediation.

What are the fines for unpermitted work?

Fines for unpermitted work are often substantial. The amount depends on municipal statutes and the nature of the unpermitted work, but they can run from hundreds to thousands of dollars PER DAY until the issue is corrected.

The homeowner might face back taxes and fines for unpermitted work, including interest and penalties. That’s usually the case when an extra room or other major unpermitted upgrade takes place.

Taxes are based on square footage, so homeowners with larger dwellings pay more. The owner who performed or authorized the unpermitted work might have done so, thinking they would save money on property taxes if the city was unaware of the remodeling.

How to sue the previous owner if this happens to you

By law, the previous owner must disclose to potential buyers that unpermitted construction was done on the premises. Some sellers may try to get around this by selling the home “as-is.”

While “as-is” often refers to fixer-uppers, it is also a way to unload a house with unpermitted work. Sellers are supposed to reveal that unpermitted work was done on the property when selling “as is,” but they may hope to get away with it.

Before you can sue the previous owner for unpermitted work, you’ll need evidence to back up your claim. Such evidence may include:

  • Photos of the unpermitted work
  • Proof that no permits or certificates of occupancy exist
  • The original blueprints

Evidence may also include testimony from a home appraiser. The home appraiser can confirm that the house's value is reduced due to the lack of permits.

For instance, if a two-bedroom dwelling was illegally made into a three-bedroom home, that would affect the value dramatically.

What are the next steps to suing for unpermitted work?

Consider the scope of the unpermitted work before deciding to file a lawsuit. Before suing, consider writing a letter to the previous owner or their real estate broker.

If the response from the prior owner or their broker is unproductive, then you may want to move forward with suing the previous owner for unpermitted work.

Online filing in small claims court with Dispute is the easiest way to sue a previous owner for unpermitted work.

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