TBT: Permits Aren’t Worth a Squat if They Aren’t Finaled.

January 28, 2021


Since the creation the White Oaks Blog in 2007, I have written over 1,700 different articles about real estate and life in San Carlos. That's a LOT of content! I will be the first to admit that not every one of these articles were home runs or perfect specimens of journalism, and I've learned a ton from writing this blog for 14 years. But there are a number of popular posts whose content is still very relevant today, and have been literally buried in the archives of the blog. Each week, I'll pull one of these topics, sweep away some of the dust, and repost them under this new TBT series on Thursday.

Below was a very popular post that discussed the importance not only of getting permits, but getting them fully signed off when they're done. Enjoy!

A Lurking Problem.

I have written numerous articles on this blog about the importance of obtaining the necessary permits for any improvements that you do to your home. The benefits of doing so far outweigh the nominal cost of obtaining the permits. The work is “legitimized” by the City, and you're following the rules outlined in their municipal code.  But another and probably more important factor for homeowners is that your home will be far more attractive (and therefore more valuable) to home buyers down the road when the work you've done is all “above board.”

Buyers in this market are very savvy, and they have more information at their fingertips than any other period in home buying history.  Checking the permit history of a home in most communities on the Peninsula is now just a matter of a few clicks.  If a home has had obvious modifications done such as a kitchen upgrade, new windows, or electrical work and no permits were pulled for the work, today's home buyers almost always assume the worst — regardless of the quality of the work, or if a licensed contractor was used for the project.  The question always lingers:  “Why didn't they get permits for the work?” 

But that's not the point of this particular post.  Today I want to focus on those homeowners who have indeed taken all of the right steps and have pulled the necessary permits for their work. They paid their permit fees and hired professionals in their respective field — all things that may significantly add to the cost of the project in the name of doing the job “right”.   But many of these homeowners are completely unaware that this due diligence can be almost completely nullified by missing one critical step in the process:  The final sign-off by the city.

Depending on the scope of the work that is being done to a house, there may be several points in the process where the city inspector will review the work and approve the progress by signing the permit card at the appropriate place.  But no signature is more important than the final signature that designates the project as complete, or “finaled” as we often refer to it.

Why is that?  Consider the mindset of the aforementioned home buyers. When they are doing their due diligence on your property, and they see that permits were pulled for your work but never finaled, they immediately assume that something was done incorrectly, and that the city did not approve of the project.  Sadly for the homeowner, this is an incorrect assumption in the vast majority of cases.  In four of my listings just this year, I researched the permit histories and found perfectly legitimate jobs where the permits were never finaled, much to the surprise of the homeowners.  They ranged from a full A/C and HVAC replacement to the installation of solar panels on the roof. All were done completely by the book, but none of them were ever finaled.  How does this happen?

The main culprit is usually a simple miscommunication between the homeowner and the contractor.  The homeowner naturally assumes that the contractor is going to call the city for the final inspection, while the contract instead is racing off to another job and leaving that task to the unwitting owner.  In the end, neither party called for the final sign-off, and it never gets done.  It happens more often that you can probably imagine.

The Solution.

While this is a fairly common and serious issue for homeowners, there is fortunately a quick and relatively painless way to fix it.   The City of San Carlos makes it very easy to research and resolve permit problems.  The first step is to look up the permit history of your home.  San Carlos has uploaded all permits for the past 30 years online, and you can access them by clicking here:  City of San Carlos Permit Search.  If you live in Redwood City, here's your site:  Redwood City Permit Search.  Click “Search Permits” and then simply enter your address.   You will need to create a free account if it's your first time on the site.  Once you're in, you can review the permit history of your home.

This is the typical screen that you'll see for each permit, and the key area is circled where the final sign-off should be:

If you do encounter a permit that you believe should have been finaled, simply contact the San Carlos Building Department and request that an inspector to come out and sign-off the project.  This can be done even if the work was done several years ago.  In my experience, the City has been super responsive to my requests to get these final signatures done.  A word of caution, however…. If you have other work that was done in your house that was done without permits, you run the risk of it being spotted by the inspector and being required to bring that work up to code and get the required permits for it, and you've effectively created a bigger and costlier problem than the one you were trying to solve.  It's like asking a cop help you move a bunch of stolen goods out of your trunk to get access to your spare tire…probably not a great idea.

But the bottom line is this — If you paid for the permits, see them through to completion and make sure they were finaled.  If not, they are almost worthless in the eyes of today's home buyer.

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