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Building? Need a Permit

A homeowner puts in a new bathroom in the basement. It is an easy task, and the homeowner does not bother getting the necessary electrical, plumbing or construction permits, even though the addition complies with the state code.

Several years later, the homeowner wants to sell the house. In the meantime, the state code governing home improvement projects has changed. But because the homeowner did not get a permit, the basement bathroom is no longer up to the current standards. Realtors refuse to list the house because it does not meet the new standards. Had the homeowner gotten the permit earlier, the new bathroom would have been grandfathered in. Without the permit, however, the homeowner must upgrade the bathroom before the house can be put on the market.

This is a situation Paul Lynch has seen dozens of times in all parts of the county. Lynch, Fairfax County's director of residential inspections, routinely inspects electrical and other upgrades for homesellers "because the hair dryers are now almost turbo jets and cause a blackout in your community," he said.

"A lot of times people are coming clean when they're transacting real estate," he noted. "We're looking into finished basements three days before closing.

"Our position is we can't give anybody any slack based on a job they didn't do 10 years ago," he said. "We're empathetic, but we can't be sympathetic."

LAST YEAR, Fairfax County issued 82,100 permits. Of those, 24,587 were building permits. In many instances, a home improvement project will require several different permits, although the Department of Public Works and Environmental Services, which administers the permits, is working to streamline the process so that one permit can cover all aspects of construction.

"But that's not going to happen tomorrow or next week or next month, but we're working on it," warned Lu Wright, the executive assistant to the director of building code services.

"It's really easier to say where permits aren't required," said Lynch.

For instance, a backyard shed that is under 150 square feet does not require a permit. Neither do buildings on working farms other than residences. But a horse barn in the back of a Fairfax County house is not exempt from a permit because the house is not technically a working farm. Ordinary repairs, such as replacing windows or the paneling on a deck, do not require a permit, either. But if a homeowner does work that affects foundations, that homeowner has to first obtain a permit.

"If it's structural in any way, permits would be required," said Lynch.

"Our permits are safety-related," said Wright. "You want to make sure it is inspected and you don't have a short and you don't get electrocuted."

ADDITIONS or modifications have some impact on the tax assessment of the property. Homeowners who have just completed major renovations may see their real estate property taxes increased.

But if they don't report the improvements to the county, a situation which Lynch said is becoming "routine," the county will not be able to revise the home's assessed price.

"If there have been improvements that we're not aware of, it would have a negative impact on the coffers of the county," said Lynch. "Assessments wouldn't reflect that."

But Lonnie Bryan, assistant director of the real estate division of the Department of Tax Administration (DTA), said such instances are rare. The DTA matches information from Realtors with property tax records during a home sale to look for discrepancies and performs its own inspection of all county homes every eight years.

In addition, Bryan said, the DTA uses Geographic Information System (GIS), takes photographs and listens to neighbors to make sure they are informed of any home improvement project going on.

Also, he said, contractors are aware of the county's permit requirements and will inform the homeowners.

"We find that for the majority of improvements, they would have permits," he said.

In instances where a improvements were made without notifying the county, the DTA will charge the homeowners back taxes for the current fiscal year and possibly for previous years also.

"Typically we don't have too many occasions like that," said Bryan.