Ask the Architect

Permits are a homeowner’s responsibility

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Q. My neighbor and I share a fence, and I want to get a permit for it, but they don’t want me to, because we both have sheds and they’re sure we’ll both get caught for our sheds and possibly other things, like their pool and deck. I’m also not sure if the fence is exactly on our property line, because of some trees that we didn’t want to cut down. We’re very close with our neighbors, and I wonder why the fence people, the shed company and the pool company didn’t get a permit or tell us about it. Don’t they have the responsibility for permits, and can we still get them to take care of it?

A. Your property, your problem, unfortunately, which is why so much work is done illegally — and why so much is done more than once. Over many years of dealing with property problems, consulting with attorneys, building officials and the sellers and installers of sheds, fences, decks and pools, I’ve observed that homeowners and installers avoid responsibility if they can pass it on to somebody else. The attorneys and building officials have great stories of property problems. The reason why we property owners have these problems is that there are assumptions that permits are “taken care of,” but there are no penalties for the people installing the work, just the property owners for having the work done.

I was recently surprised when a contractor I’m working with in Manhattan told me how concerned he was with the possibility of getting the work permit before he starts, wanting to prevent the $10,000 fine for doing work without the permit or the $1,000-a-day fine for continuing to do the work, plus license revocation. Many people need the fear of getting caught to prevent them from doing the wrong thing, but since the problem is the property owner’s, without penalty to the companies providing the service, fences, sheds, decks and pools are going to continue to be installed without proper review.

And why is this issue so important? What’s the big deal about a fence, a pool, a deck or a shed? Public safety, believe it or not, and all the legal problems with property disputes, sales closing delays, nuisance to neighbors, wrongful death, fire protection and congestion. If you and your neighbor decide to do nothing, it will someday be decided for you. Having lived long enough to observe that nothing stays the same, either you or your neighbor will experience a change. Maybe it will just be a refinance, maybe a property sale. Hopefully it will be nothing extreme, like storm damage, fire or drowning — the kinds of things that start investigations of responsibility and closed permits that point the finger at liability. The chances are pretty remote, yet every year I’m called to work on fire restoration due to lightning or fireworks. Plan and legalize to avoid complications later.

© 2018 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to yourhousedr@aol.com, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.