This week’s question deals with building permits, which typically falls outside the scope of my work as a private home inspector. This falls more under the role of the municipal building official, but it is an important issue and one that is often confusing to many homeowners. The letter sent in was a copy of one I believe was sent either to the City of Winnipeg Zoning office or some other authority. The content made it a little difficult to understand, so I have paraphrased it where needed for clarity.
Recently we have seen, in our neighbourhood on Southmoor Road , that a certain homeowner is extending their house into their back yard without any visible building permit displayed to the public. Under what conditions can they have their house extended? Is this legal or illegal?
Could you check out this inquiry and provide an answer in your column, please?
Your honest reader.
The short answer is that any addition to a building in Winnipeg , and most other municipalities, requires a building permit from the local authority. Any structural changes require application and approval of a permit, which often requires a blueprint or drawing of the proposed changes. In the case of a full “extension”, as you describe it, a proper plan drawn by an Architect or stamped by a professional Structural Engineer will often be needed to submit with the application. That will allow the building officials to review the plan to make sure it meets the appropriate building code standards and zoning restrictions.
According to the City of Winnipeg brochure on requirements for building permits, “A building permit is required for new construction, additions, alterations, renovations, relocations, and repairs or rehabilitation of a building or structure”. There are some exceptions, such as siding, fences, low decks, simple steps & landings, cabinets, shelving, and replacement doors and windows where the openings are not altered. Any renovation that requires mechanical, electrical or plumbing modifications also requires a permit. In larger renovation projects where these plumbing, heating, or electrical upgrades are a component, separate additional permits will be required. These may often be acquired by the licensed trades people doing the work under the general permit taken out by the homeowner or general contractor.
The purpose of the building permits is twofold. The first reason is to ensure that building modifications fall within the parameters of the bylaws and zoning restrictions of the community. The second purpose, as described in the aforementioned brochure, is to “ensure that the work is in compliance with all codes and safety standards”. They go further to state that these renovations “will be inspected by a City of Winnipeg Inspector to ensure professional standards are met”. Both of these issues are critical to ensure that proper building standards are maintained for our homes and that the zoning and property tax records are kept up to date.
While it is a requirement to display a copy of the building permit for the house addition in question, the lack of visibility does not necessarily mean that the work is being done illegally. It is possible that the homeowner or contractor has forgotten to display the permit, or it is in an area not visible to you and your neighbours. If the size of the addition did not exceed the maximum allowable for the lot and the location did not compromise the required clearances to property lines and structures, then a permit may have been issued without further consultation with the neighbours.
If a proper permit has not been applied for, then you may contact the City zoning office and a “stop work order” may be enforced to prevent any further work before the proper permits are issued. If the addition does not fall within the previously mentioned limitations, an application for a zoning variance would also be required. That process requires display of a bright variance application form on the property so that you and your neighbours can be made aware of the proposed changes. Once this variance application has been received and the form displayed, a public hearing will be scheduled after a specific period of time has elapsed. This delay will allow you and your neighbours to investigate the proposed renovations and form opinions about whether you will be affected by the changes. You will then be offered the opportunity to voice these opinions at the public hearing, where a decision will be made to allow or disallow the variance.
If you have not spoken with the homeowner in question, it would be a neighbourly courtesy to knock on the door and ask a few polite questions about the addition and whether proper permits have been taken out. If this cannot be verified or if the homeowner is evasive or dismissive it is within your rights to call the zoning office and follow up on the questionable addition. Doing it now, before the addition has progressed too far, may actually benefit the homeowner as they may be required to dismantle improperly constructed work to comply with applicable standards. If they have received the proper approval and permits, they should be happy to show you the proof.