By: By Dian Hymer
Recently a homeowner in the hills above Oakland, Calif., applied for a refinance. An appraiser visited the property and measured both levels of the house. The appraiser called the homeowner a few days later to find out if the lower level had been added with a permit. The public record indicated the house had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and 1,513-square feet.
The actual house in its current configuration has four bedrooms, three baths and a recreation room, giving it considerably more square feet than the public record indicates. The owner didn't know if the lower level had been added legally, claiming the house was in its present configuration when he bought it about 30 years ago.
Due to changes in appraisal guidelines for residential properties that took effect in 2009, appraisers usually don't give livable square footage credit for work that was done without building permits. Without the extra square footage, the appraised value will be less than it would have been if the work were done legally.
This doesn't mean that the lender won't grant a loan. But, if your house appraises low and you were expecting a loan amount based on a higher figure, you'll be disappointed and perhaps unable to complete the refinance -- or, if you're a buyer, you may be unable to purchase.
Let's say you wanted a loan for 70 percent of an $800,000 value, or $560,000. The appraisal comes in at $600,000. On a refinance, the lender probably won't lend more than 70 percent of $600,000, or $420,000, which is $140,000 less than what you requested.
HOUSE HUNTING TIP: What can you do in a situation like this to increase the appraised value of your home? The first thing to do is go to the local planning department and request copies of all permits on the house going back to the original building permit. If you can find a permit for the additional work that was done, give a copy to the appraiser. The appraiser will have measured the unpermitted square footage. With confirmation that this space is legal, the appraiser will be able to include the additional square feet and increase the appraised value.
Take a copy of the permit that confirms more rooms than is reflected in the public record to the county assessor's office and have them update their records. You may be reassessed based on the fact that your house has a legal addition, so your property taxes could increase. However, your house will appraise and sell for more if you can substantiate that the additional space was added with permits.
If you discover that the work was done without permits, you can attempt to have the work legalized after the fact. This can be a complicated and expensive project, depending on when the work was done and how many square feet were added. If the addition is 10-20 percent of the size of the house, the permitting process will be less onerous than if the illegal space equaled 50 percent of the entire house.
You will need to meet certain code requirements. For example, if a stairway leads to the unpermitted space, it must be 36 inches wide. Replacing an entire staircase can be prohibitively expensive.
Walls may have to be opened to inspect the plumbing and electrical. If something doesn't meet current code requirements, it will probably have to be brought into compliance. You might have to add or change windows. Plus, if the building inspector discovers other items in the house that do not comply with current code requirements, you might have to correct these in order to receive final approval of the project.
THE CLOSING: Sometimes contractors take out permits for work, but don't take the time to have the final inspection done. In this case, call the contractor and have him finish his job.
Dian Hymer, a real estate broker with more than 30 years' experience, is a nationally syndicated real estate columnist and author.