Don't Let This Happen To You!
You spent two or three months trying to sell your home: Open House, Pictures, Brochures, Areal Photography, Advertising, etc. And, don't forget, showing your home to more than 15 prospective buyers and their agents. Then, you got an offer and struck a deal. You worked out the details. And finally, you're under contract. Now, after almost a month of inspections, appraisals, mortgage underwriting, etc., you hear that fateful question from the Buyer: Are there any open permits? "Oh, yes there are" you say. "Well, we'll continue working toward closing," they say, "but the lender will not fund unless you close all the open permits. Does that present a problem?" you're asked. "Because if so, I want my deposit back."
If you've experienced a scenario like that, you probably own, or know someone who owns, property located in South Florida. According to our research, there are presently in excess of 200,000 code violations, including expired open building permits, still in the system in South Florida. An unofficial survey shows that one out of every ten homes in some parts of South Florida still have open building permits. Additionally, some have hurricane repairs and/or additions which, to this day, haven't been permitted.
WHY CAN'T THE BUILDING DEPARTMENT JUST CLOSE THE PERMITS?
For what to some people are obvious reasons, building departments cannot simply close the thousands of remaining open permits. The liability to the jurisdiction could be in the billions of dollars. For example, what would you do if the home you bought in 1995, and presently live in, had truss damage and lost its roof during an earlier storm? And, what was still an open permit before you purchased the house in 1995, because there was no inspection, was quickly closed administratively and no longer showed up as an open permit. Yet, there still had not been inspections to verify that the roof trusses and tile placement met the requirements of the SFBC (South Florida Building Code). Well, so far, so good. However, in just a few months the hurricane season starts again and this time we get hit with a smaller, but nonetheless, windy storm. Again, there is truss damage and again your tile roof blows off.
Then, during a damage appraisal by the insurance company, it is realized that the trusses were not properly braced and/or the tile was not properly secured. And, to top it all off, the contractor and roofer are no longer in business. Who might you look to for relief? The county implied the work was done to code by virtue of the fact that the permit was (administratively) closed. Yet, the work was not to code. Might you want to sue the county for closing those permits? I think you would. And, so do they. Thus, we face the problem of having to close permits by first assuring the building department that the work performed as many as 12, 14 or maybe 20 years ago was done to code. This is not an easy task and, as mentioned above, certainly not one which most homeowners should take on as they would a weekend do-it-yourself project. Even a Realtor, with a network of contractors, would be foolish to take on a project like this. It is very demanding and, without the expertise required, one could get involved in something he'll regret for a long time.
Are Open Permits Like Liens?
No. One thing an open permit does not mean is that there is automatically a lien on the property. As of now, there may not be a lien or even a cloud on the title. We were enjoying the benefits of the Amnesty Ordinance, Ordinance 97-107, as an amendment to the South Florida Building Code. The ordinance was established in 1997 as a means to facilitate bringing additions or repairs, which had not been permitted, or where permits were issued but did not receive mandatory inspections, into compliance with the then present Building Code. However, as we are now under a new code; The Florida Building Code, the Amnesty Ordinance ended and the Code Relief Act has been enacted under Section 8-11 of the code of Miami-Dade County Ordinance 02-44. With this ordinance in place, we are again able to close open, expired, building permits as we did under the amnesty ordinance. On the flip side, however, Miami-Dade has started an aggressive program of issuing notices of violation and fines to those homeowners who have expired building permits on their properties. And the fines for an expired permit are steep: $500 and an order requiring you to cure the violation and close the permit within 30 days or be subject to additional fines of $500 per day. These fines accumulate to over $10,000 at which point liens are immanent.
So, why not address the problem now and retain the services of a specialist to research the permit and inspection history of your property and close any open and/or expired permits. Especially now, while the Code Relief Act is in place, an expired, open permit can be re-issued and the permitted work completed and inspected under the South Florida Building Code that was in place at the time the original permit was issued. In most cases, that means work permitted after Hurricane Andrew can be final approved (ie: obtain final inspection and thus close the permit) under those lessdemanding code requirements which were in place as many as 20 years ago when the permit was originally issued and/or the work performed.
There are exceptions to amnesty, however, and they are the life-safety issues, which must meet present code because human life could be at risk. Thus, items such as windows or doors (egress), electrical (fire), shutters, etc. must meet present code even where a permit is being closed under the Code Relief Ordinance. This gets very complicated once we get into specific properties, permits, or repairs. For instance, if windows were replaced after the storm and for some reason that permit did not receive an approved final inspection, today the homeowner must renew that master permit, which included the windows, in order to call for a final inspection of the windows to close the permit. And then (because of life-safety issues) may be required to permit and install hurricane shutters or storm panels that meet the present code on windows and doors replaced under a permit that is now being closed, even under amnesty. That may not mean every window in the house; only those which have been replaced.
Closing open permits is a slow, frustrating, and physically demanding process; not exactly the playing field on which the novice should represent his/her own interests. (You know the drill: any attorney who represents himself, has a fool for a client.) Too much time wasted and too many mistakes made can cost you in the long run. Simply put, the deal may fall apart if the problem is not corrected quickly. And where the homeowner tries to handle this on his/her own, they often find themselves on a treadmill trying to traverse the corridors of the Building Department, in as many as two or three different buildings between West Dade and Downtown Miami. Thus, in this age of specialization, a new professional has emerged: the Open Permit Professional. There are several companies in Miami that handle many different permitting functions. But only one limits its practice specifically to the closure of open building permits and the curing of code violations. Open Permit Services was founded on the premise that a qualified and experienced team of professionals, representing several property owners at the same time, can produce faster and better results, and at lower costs, than the property owner alone.
How Did This Mess Come to Be?
To better understand the ramifications of the open permit problem, we must understand how the problem first came to be. Anyone who lived in South Dade in August of 1992, remembers Hurricane Andrew and the devastation it caused. Thousands of homes were damaged some beyond repair and thousands of contractors many of whom were not even licensed in Florida, no less Dade County, came to the rescue. They were welcomed with open arms because we wanted roofs back on our homes, and we wanted our air conditioners and refrigerators running again. In other words, we would do whatever it took to return to normal. However, some of the work was done without permits, whether by licensed or unlicensed contractors. And, some was done with permits by licensed contractors who were not able, or chose to not even try, to get some or all of the required inspections performed. Work was then completed and in most cases the jobs were done well and according to the thenpresent code. However, without a final inspection, the permit remains open.