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Unpermitted renovations: When your dream home becomes a nightmare

In today’s red-hot housing market, buyers are skipping the home inspection process. Here’s why you shouldn’t.

Some insurance companies will not pay claims on unpermitted work.Adobe Stock/Andrey Popov -

The crawl space of their dream home was littered with feces, dead rodents, and mold.

It’s not uncommon for Lisa Alajajian Giroux, 2023 president of the American Society of Home Inspectors, to perform postsale home inspections and find such horrors. This one happened to be in a six-bedroom ranch she looked at in March 2022.

Giroux noticed that the crawl space had been built without the proper installation of a vapor barrier. It did not meet building code, she said, and the entrance was hidden behind a tapestry.

The entire house smelled like decay, and the new owner’s children were suffering from allergies.


And, it turns out, the new kitchen and roof were installed without permits.

The buyer hadn’t had an inspection before purchasing the home.

“It was very sad. I said, ‘Do you want to talk to someone about this?’ and [the buyer] said, ‘I just want this nightmare to be over,’ " Giroux said. “That’s been the attitude of a lot of buyers. They feel forced to go into something, they agree to do it, they regret they did it, and then they don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

According to Giroux, the crawl space cleanup cost the homeowners $98,000 on top of the $2.1 million spent on the house — and it could have been avoided if the buyers had gotten the home inspected before purchasing it.

“Once you own the home, you own all past history,” Giroux said. “Whoever owns the home at that time is responsible for the workmanship.”

Home inspector Lisa Alajajian Giroux photographed this basement crawl space, which had an improperly installed vapor barrier. The crawl space was littered with feces, dead rodents, moisture, and mold. The buyer didn't have a home inspection, which could have uncovered this, as well as the unpermitted new kitchen and roof.Handout

Real estate lawyer Jonas Jacobson said some buyers waive the home inspection until after the sale to make their bid look more appealing to the sellers, but this can be dangerous.

“If you have an older roof, you don’t want to know that at or around the time it fails,” Jacobson said. “If there’s a problem there, it’s a massive problem. … You’re gambling with your family.”


Giroux said mortgage lenders could require loans to be paid in full when unpermitted work is found, and some insurance companies won’t pay claims on homes with unpermitted work. That means buying an uninspected home is not only potentially unsafe, but also financially risky.

‘That’s been the attitude of a lot of buyers. They feel forced to go into something, they agree to do it, they regret they did it, and then they don’t want to talk about it anymore.’

Both Jacobson and Giroux said a licensed home inspector is the best person to identify faulty work. In addition to having the expertise to know what’s been updated in the home, a licensed professional may also perform a permit search at the town building department.

“The first thing a building inspector will say is, ‘Do your due diligence; hire a home inspector,’ ” Giroux said.

Robin Kelly, an agent with Coldwell Banker Realty in Cambridge, said it’s important for buyers, especially those who have never bought a home in Massachusetts before, to know that this is a caveat emptor state, meaning sellers are legally obligated to disclose information only about lead paint and septic systems. Sellers, however, must answer truthfully when asked direct questions about the house.

So it is up to the consumer to ask, which is why it’s important for buyers and their real estate teams to be inquisitive, especially about “obscured components” like wiring and plumbing hidden behind walls, Kelly said. Giroux encouraged buyers to be wary of “Home Depot specials,” do-it-yourself projects done by previous owners, often without permits.


Kelly emphasized that as long as the buyer hasn’t officially bought the house, the responsibility to update permits and meet building code falls on the seller.

“You want to have the seller address things, because they’re going to have the best information about what was done, who did the work, and who should have been responsible for getting sign-offs or getting the permit,” she said.

Real estate lawyer Adam T. Sherwin recommended that buyers negotiate with sellers to lower the price of homes with unpermitted work or to get the permits and sign-offs before the sale.

In some cases, Sherwin said, it’s possible to get a permit for completed work that has been done correctly. This type of postrenovation permit allows contractors to get buildings up to code even after renovations, but it works mostly for visible updates. Boston residents can visit the city’s website to find which permit is necessary for certain projects.

In less fortunate scenarios, the building department classifies projects as unfixable. In those cases, Sherwin said, a buyer can apply for a variance to the local zoning code, but they are not guaranteed and can be difficult to obtain postrenovation.

While it’s best to address unpermitted work, Kelly said, it can be challenging — and pricey.

“If you discover that something’s amiss, trying to go back and fix it is the appropriate thing,” she said. “Whether you can do that easily is the question.”

Vivi Smilgius can be reached at Follow her and Address on Twitter @viviraye and @globehomes. Subscribe to the Globe’s free weekly real estate newsletter at


Correction: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this story said the crawl space of the home pictured was unpermitted. It was installed when the home was built, but the buyer did not get a home inspection. A new kitchen and roof were installed without permits. The Globe regrets the error.

Vivi Smilgius can be reached at Follow her @viviraye.