Property Document Analysis, Part IV: Permits and Inspections

Building permits and building inspection records are useful public documents in various situations, including determining if a property owner has flouted local building codes, a landlord has not kept his property up to code or a company has illegally maintained waste or chemicals on their property. Building permit and building inspection records can be obtained by visiting the local City and/or County Inspection Department or the Building and Planning Department (the office name will vary); although some municipalities have begun to make their records available online; including the City of Anaheim Planning Department Building Division.

Building Permits

Most major renovations to a property require that the property owner provide detailed plans to the local municipality; including building plans, the name of the contact person, the names of general contractors and subcontractors that will work on the project and the cost of the project.  This information provides insight into the premises, but here are some examples of additional knowledge that can be garnered.

First, building permits can be used to determine if a property owner received special consideration or a variance allowing them to build or renovate a structure.  For instance, a municipality could have a requirement that no structure could be built within 50 feet of a shoreline, but a property owner could receive a variance allowing them to build a structure coming within 25 feet of the shoreline.  This could lead to questions of why was the variance allowed?  Is this going to cause environmental harm to the community or have an affect on local property values?

Building permit records also can help determine if a property owner received the proper approval before making structural changes to a property.  This information can be especially pertinent to a potential buyer of the property, because after buying the property it is discovered that changes were made without the property permit the purchaser will be responsible for making necessary changes and getting the proper permits or will have to restore the property to the condition it was in before the changes were made.

Lastly, for those interested in purchasing a property, building permits can provide an indication of prior damages to the property that may not be evident on the surface.  For instance, a building permit could have been obtained in order to renovate a basement shortly after a flood occurred in the area.  Whether or not the current owner discloses the renovations, it is possible to infer that the renovations may have only been cosmetic and there could still be potential mold problems or other issues with the property.

Building Inspections

Whenever a property owner makes structural changes to their property requiring a building permit, the local planning department will conduct inspections at various phases of the project.  In addition, inspections are also carried out if a complaint is lodged regarding a property or members of the planning department identify a code violation.  Here are several situations in which building inspection records can be used as a research tool.

A review of building inspection records can verify that a property owner and/or the construction company completed their work properly and met all local building code regulations.

Another use for inspection records is to determine if property management companies or landlords have been properly maintaining their properties.  Landlords that do not maintain their properties will frequently have numerous complaints lodged with the planning department by their tenants for issues such as leaking pipes or roofs, broken heaters, cold water, pests or garbage.  However, even without complaints from tenants, planning departments often make regular inspections of larger apartment complexes or buildings and will detail violations that future tenants or investors in the property ought to be aware of.  In addition, anyone who purchases a property that has been cited for code violations prior to the purchase is responsible for the repairs.

Lastly, building inspection records can provide insight into a business and their operations; including the names of the company owners and contacts are, the purpose of the business, what materials or chemicals are stored on the site, if environmental hazards have been identified on the premises or if the company has a history of skirting local code violations.  For instance, inspection records can provide details on barrels of hazardous waste being stored at the site without the property permits.