Building Inspectors vs. Homeowners & Contractors (just a rant)

Foreword: If you are a building inspector / official, please try to understand that this rant is from a contractor’s point of view… Or at least try to be objective and unbiased.

Building permit

Pros and cons of building permits:

Why do we need building inspectors (and do we really need them)? Well, they are supposed to inspect – right? They are there to protect homeowners from shady contractors, and ensure that construction goes in accordance with state / national building codes. That’s why we also have specialty trade inspectors (electrical, plumbing, mechanical, etc). But do they really do their job? Another question – why do we need building permits? Yes, to pay the building inspector for doing his/her job of doing the inspections. Yea, right!

I will purposely omit building inspectors in charge of large construction projects, such as bridges, sky-scrapers, factories, etc. There is a lot more responsibility there, and these inspectors are a lot more knowledgeable than your average “Joe, the building inspector”.

In my time being a roofing contractor, I had to pull many permits in the last 10 years – for almost every job we did. In all this time, only once have I seen a building inspector at a job site, and he was there to harass the home-owner about the “illegal kitchen” that came with the house they just purchased. In the beginning of my career as a contractor, I needed to get permits, but did not have sufficient / adequate insurance and in some cases did not have the Home Improvement Contractor registration in a state where I was doing work. Luckily for me, I was able to get permits, and because I have dignity (I’d like to think so) I did decent work without code violations and nothing bad ever happened. I once had a “stop job” order posted at a job site, where we forgot to pull a permit. Ahh… the good old days.

When you get into serious contracting like Metal Roofing and IB Roof installations, you can’t afford not to have proper insurances and licenses. Your clients by default expect everything to be current and you to be fully insured – both worker’s comp and general liability.  And besides, it is easier to show proof of insurance than to explain why you do not have it, or better yet to ask a home owner to pull “an owners permit”. It is also much easier to get a permit in 5 minutes instead of waiting 3 days and hoping that the inspector is not a complete a$$ or is looking for a bribe – for some reason, I have a very strong suspicion that some building inspectors in Lynn, Revere, Malden and other surrounding towns in Massachusetts, purposely jerk contractors around, as if telling them – “give me $300 and you will have your permit”. I really believe so. Or they just hate people in general. But let me get back to building inspectors.

My experience with building inspectors and permits

I will try to be logical here, and present information in a chronological order. Here is a work day of a building inspector as I see it:

85% of the time I have walked into the building department of any city and town, the building inspector is not there. Apparently they are out, doing inspections. But as I mentioned before, I have never seen an inspector on my job site, inspecting my roof. If the inspector is in the office, he (I will use a “he” as all building inspectors I’ve met, were guys) will make you wait 2-5 minutes before asking you what you need. Apparently, they need to feel as if they have power and are in control. After the initial cold shoulder, I did get permits, so there is seemingly nothing to complain about. But there is. And it is about how I got my permits and why we actually need to pull them and pay for them. It is my honest belief that permits were instituted as a means for towns to raise money, and based on this assumption I’m more than happy to pay the fee. But any building inspector will tell you that the permit is necessary to pay for the inspection and enforcement on the building codes.

So I will tell you a few instances of how I got some of my permits, how horrendous the process can be for a contractor, and why so many contractors, including honest, illegal and shady ones, never pull permits. There is a provision in Mass. Building code that an inspector has up to 30 days to issue the permit. We installed a Metal Roof on an IHOP restaurant in Hyannis, MA (down at Cape Cod). When I went to pull the permit (which was an hour drive one way) I almost got rejected, as my Worker’s Comp certificate was generic and not made out to the Town of Barnstable. Fortunately, my insurance agent faxed in a copy 2 minutes before town hall closed.

As a side note, due to insurance fraud, in MA, your insurance agent cannot really give you an “all purpose” worker’s comp certificate, and the actual insurance company must print one out and mail it to you. This takes at least 3 days. Imagine a regular residential roofing company which installs a roof in one day and works 5 days a week. They have to get worker’s comp certificate for each roof, for every town they work in.

As my insurance certificate came out of the fax machine, the office lady called over the building inspector to look at my paperwork (after being there for an hour and a half, he never looked at it). He asked me for HIC registration ONLY, although all commercial work requires me having a CSL (construction supervisor license) and HIC implies that I do home improvement. When I offered the inspector my CSL, he said that he did not need it. Neither did he need my general liability insurance. Once he verified what he was looking for, he said: “You are all set – you can start in two weeks.” Why??? Why on earth do I have to wait two weeks??? I can lose a contract in two weeks. “Fortunately” half the roof on the restaurant was blown off by a storm wind, and it was more of an emergency roof work – this was the only reason he “allowed” us to start right away. So why do we need to wait two weeks I still don’t know. Time spent to get the permit – 4.5 hours.

Another time we did a roof in Grafton, MA. An IB low-slope roof on a residential home. Nothing fancy – a pretty straight forward roof. As I applied for the permit, I was told to first fill out 7 different forms, pay three different departments for some ridiculous things (even the health department) and I also had to submit a SPEC for an IB roof installation, including MSDS sheet (why?). They did not expect me to be back for a few days, but I was determined to either get a permit or permission to start work the same day, as once again I drove pretty far to make sure everything is ready for us to start when we planned to. I quickly ran to the town’s library and printed about 20 pages of IB specifications describing exactly the parts of the roof we were going to do (I love the IB online Quick Spec writer). When I brought back the whole package, the inspector was so surprised that he gave me an “ok” to start any time. Later, his secretary told me that he will actually read the specs. If I had known, I’d print out 200 pages, of exciting reading material. Time spent to get the permit – 5 hours.

There are many other stories I can tell about pulling a building permit. I do want to say that not all inspectors are evil. One time we told a building inspector in Abington, MA that we did not have MA HIC – only the one from Rhode Island. He was cool enough to tell us: “get the homeowner to pull the permit”, which we did and all worked out well. I also absolutely love the Boston building department. The flow of contractors there is so heavy that they do not have time for stupid things like full specs for a small residential re-roof. They check your insurances and licenses, collect a fee and give you a permit.

Many towns in MA and CT will give you permission to start and mail you the permit. Some will make you run around like a squirrel. They will want you to wait 3 days before you can start a job. So I adopted and “evolved”.  Now I call the building department of any city or town where I’m going to work and tell them that I have a 3 hours drive to just get to their town, and if they could “please let me start the same day I will apply for a permit”. This usually works great. For example, when we installed an IB flat roof in Andover, CT – I never actually met the building inspector in person. I spoke to him on the phone – told him that the roof leaks and is covered with tarps (which was true) and we need to start ASAP. He gave an ok and all I had to do was apply for the permit and provide proof of insurance and a construction license.

The second flat roof which we did in the Andover, CT – I still had to talk to him on the phone. This time he wasn’t as happy, but since we already came to town, I “begged” him to let us start the job, without looking at it. Once again it was a complete tear-off and pretty straight forward, so he gave us a green light. But from now on, I have to apply for the permit by mail and he wants to see my work. Next time I’m in Andover, I’ll give him a call ahead of time. Here you can see the pictures of our second roof in Andover, Connecticut and of a roof in Westminster , MA:

Why should you have a building permit for any construction work?

Bottom line – not all building inspectors are evil. Some are very nice, some are just bored and need things to do, and some need to feel powerful. It all depends on your luck. I learned how to coexist with any building inspector, and now do everything in advance – even have my insurance agent fax over my certificates before I arrive at city hall.

Why did I write all this? Well – this is my blog and I can do it! 🙂 Where else can I talk about it?

What is the point of all of this? I just had to get it out of my system after years of contractor – inspector interaction. Also my friend tried to pull a roofing permit for a VERY simple and straight forward roof – a measly 9 squares on a walkable gable roof in Malden, MA. And the inspector wants to inspect … maybe he had a bad day, but my buddy had to wait a few days until he could start. Really? So this was my inspiration.

Also, I want to make a point that many inspectors let shady contractors with fake certificates slide through or don’t even check for insurance and construction license, all-the-while they make other contractors chase their tails and waste time (and money), as if they have nothing to do. They also harass homeowners and issue stupid fines for stupid violations that should be grandfathered in. This creates situations where homeowners  and contractors knowingly do not pull permits. It also creates a risk for homeowners to be left out if a shady contractor does a bad job and screws them – without a permit they cannot use the Mass. Homeowner Protection Fund.

Can this be fixed? I don’t see a solution, since there are too many hack inspectors and contractors out there, and homeowners really need to do their due diligence – check references, call people, look at the jobs, licenses, insurance certificates, etc.

I encourage any homeowner to read my article on how to choose a roofing contractor. You should also know that it is pretty easy to “scam” the building permit process. For example, a roofing contractor must have a full roofing general liability insurance, which can easily cost $10,000+ per year, and worker’s comp which runs at about 35-40% of payroll ($35-40 for every $100 you pay your guys). Many contractors will buy a siding insurance for $500-700 per year and use that certificate to pull permits.  The can also claim to be “sole proprietor” on the Worker’s Comp form when they apply for a permit and get away with not having the insurance at all – even if they have employees.

As for licenses – in Rhode Island there is no construction license at all – only a contractor registration. You can do everything with it, except for electrical, plumbing, etc. In Massachusetts, only recently have they implemented a mandatory requirement for CSL to perform roofing, siding and windows work. Before, any hack could get a roofing permit with just an HIC registration.

So once again, always do your due diligence when choosing a contractor.

As for the contractors – have your paperwork ready, do good work and, good luck guys! 🙂

P.S. I’m not an angel and did not start my roofing business with $20,000 to buy all proper insurance. I did my share of getting around the permitting issue. Every one goes through it, but some remain in that stage forever. As for me – I prefer to do everything the right way, or not do it at all.

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  1. I am a homeowner in South Coast MA who served as GC on our recent renovation so I feel somewhat qualified to speak. I felt that my town’s building inspectors were pretty darn fair and I have to admit that they did help to prevent a couple of problems. I did most of the electrics myself, and the wiring inspector was a real gentleman and helped immensely — although I could tell from his body English when I’d asked enough questions to be annoying and so I had part of the work handled by a pro. For some reason the plumbing inspector resigned from responsibility for our house — something seemed not quite right with the guy — and he handed it off to his assistant. Best thing ever: the assistant is a SUPER gruff guy at first but he turned out to have a heart of gold and is totally on your side.

    They know full well that I’m not a pro by any means but they can deal with that as long as you are 100 percent honest about things. Then they relax noticeably. Until they have reason to trust you, the inspectors can be very very harsh — so be trustworthy and keep your word, or else! I can’t even imagine the living hell they could put you through if they really wanted to.

    For a 140 year old house you really thank your lucky stars for inspectors who have a practical bias. Not realistic to think that you can meet code on every single thing and they allowed exceptions as long as they deemed them safe. I can see how redoing an old house would be just about impossible without that mentality.

    The building inspector himself always seems to be in pretty bad mood and I have yet to hear him say a nice word to me other than when I offered him a donut. I just think he really does not like homeowners trying to be GCs, and he probably has a point — there’s lots of room for mistakes. That being said, he’s not a bad person. I think these inspectors get a little surly from everyone trying to pull the wool over their eyes all day every day, that’s all.

    • David, since I’m not an electrician or a plumber, I never really deal with those guys. But keep in mind, Plumbing/Electrical inspectors ALWAYS deal with licensed contractors (unless it is a homeowner) and have very specific responsibilities, mostly aimed at avoiding fires and floods.

      Now building inspectors often deal with unlicensed handymen, all types of contractors, homeowners, zoning regulations, etc, so their “life” is tougher.

      With that said, the nicest building inspectors I’ve ever met were in Connecticut, Boston, and rural MA towns (away from coast)… meanest guys are in Everett/Revere/Lynn/Malden and nearby towns on the north shore. Also the guy in Sharon is something 🙂

      So i don’t know how it works on the north shore, but years ago, it felt like they wanted a bribe or just really hated people and giving out permits, and just wanted to make your life hell – I don’t know why … but fortunately, i’ve not been there in years.

  2. Apparently you have had some bad experiences; but in my opinion you are bias and confused to the reality of today’s world of inspection process. Inspection and contractor or homeowner relationships are taken very seriously in the majority of jurisdictions. You make is sound as if inspectors are unruly, uneducated nuts out to harass people; well my opinion of roofers is similar but I’ll keep the details to myself in the interest of bringing value to this response. I have worked as a code professional for 28 years and not once have I been witness to my staff acting as you have described, attitude comes from the top; if the building official is absentee; the inspector will too be absentee. If you hire unqualified people, you get sloppy work; just as the case is in the roofing industry and opinions are like; well you know…. everyone has one. Try being part of a more professional approach and willingness to bring change rather than rant about poor experiences. I could share story after story about roofing mistakes or shady practices; it doesn’t mean all roofers are bad. Maybe your that guy getting it right? Maybe you are not? In any case the industry is for the most part professional and well credentialed; if there is bad blood; complain and get those bad ones moved out. I currently manage 11 inspectors; they are all former construction workers and possess multiple credentials. I will not tolerate inept or unqualified inspectors and I hate seeing the same on the contractors side. Best of luck!

  3. Im a GC. Everytime I try to pull a permit in Ipswich the inspector delays issuing for one reason or another. Permit applications are done online in Ipswich. The last job I did there I did the permit app online and uploaded all the required documents (signed contract, my WC affidavit stating I was not required to carry WC coverage but had supplied the sub contractor’s, the subcontractor’s WC Affidavit & WC certificate, all required licenses, and a complete application). He delayed, saying MY WC certificate was required. (It was not, and I had already provided the subcontractor’s WC who would be performing the work), and after a couple days he finally issued the permit. Now for another permit application I submitted yesterday, he is saying he won’t issue until I submit my General Liability certificate. What? I have NEVER had to provide my General Liability to pull a permit, ever, and is threatening to report me to the BBRS. It is always something with this bully inspector.

  4. Twice in Sharon, MA the building inspector refused to issue a Building Permit because of unrelated issues. He cost me thousands of dollars because he picked sides in a Neighborhood Dispute.

    What can be done when the Building Inspector refuses to issue a Building Permit and cites some bullshit reason. Is there any real way to go over his head to the BBRS and get the permit that way?

  5. I can’t believe how difficult our town’s inspector was last year when I had some work done, involving multiple trades, on our house in Fairhaven MA. First of all, the permit and sub-permits were bloody expensive. Second, you’d think that Wayne Fostin (the chief inspector) and his henchmen who oversee the sub-trades would appreciate the fact that homeowners are paying his salary. Nope. He was surly, short, and acted absolutely annoyed at every single turn, even though we did backward somersaults trying to please him. He said it was because he cared about our safety but that is NOT true — his actual inspections were cursory at best. No way did he actually look hard for actual defects and issues.

    It is like dealing with the proverbial Bad Cop Who Must Be Respected Or Else. I was going to complain to our town selectmen about the guy, but I didn’t want to rock the boat and have Mr. Fostin do something stupid like pin a condemnation notice to our front door.

    At any rate, these guys have way too much power and there are really no checks and balances in place other than a year-long appeals process. A real shame.

    • Ralph – I agree, MANY inspectors are total A$$holes – including the one in my own town!

      And it is true that they really forgot what their job is – to serve people, who pay their salary – not to make our lives a total hell.

      But the problem is the system that gives them all the power and zero responsibility – so to deal with the problem we must become part of the system and fix it from inside – are you ready to run for a selectman?


      • Well said ibroofma. I sincerely hope Mr. Fostin and like are granted the early retirements they so richly deserve. Why the Selectmen keep renewing the contract for this ass-clown is beyond me. The guy just has a terrible attitude that has infected all his sub-inspectors, and really doesn’t give a damn about the well-being of his paying customers, the townspeople. It’s all about being respected. This is simply about the fact that he hates himself. Lose weight and start treating people well, Wayne. You act like a clown; we simply need a courteous professional.

  6. Hello,

    I have a question: we (through a contractor who pulled a permit) had replaced our chimney with a prefabricated chimney. Inspector came in, and did not approve because carpet should be removed around chimney. He told everything else is fine.

    Now, when my husband removed the carpet, he came in, told to replace the chimney, move the electrical panel, and do something else.

    First, he is not electrical inspector, and he has no right to give that requirement.
    Second, how we can fight / complain? Those two reports are contradictions to each other. That’s at least is unprofessional.

    Suggestions? Thanks!

  7. You know the saying Locks are made to keep honest people out.
    Permits keep the contractors honest.

  8. Good day,
    I have recently been served two violations for an illegal 2nd kitchen and plumbing without a permit for that second kitchen. Now, I bough this house exactly as it is now. I did nothing on he inside. It was there when I bought it. Can I fight these violations? It appears the Title and CO both state that it s a 1 family house and yet there were still two kicthes in it when we bought it. There is no mention of the 2nd kitchecn in any of the documents though. Can I do anything about this?

  9. I like this article because you told the truth. I live in Arizona and the building inspectors here apparently accept bribes on a regular basis for slapping a green tag on improper wiring and incorrectly plumbed pipes, among other defects.

    They also, as you said, just aren’t around. They aren’t in their “offices” and they aren’t at any job sites. They’re probably at home. And the cities claim they are not responsible for the actions of their employees.

    I really don’t know why more people don’t understand that they are paying for services they don’t get. Not only that but the homes we live in are falling down and yet there’s a new “building boom” going on here.

    If only people who built these homes, along with the city officials who look the other way, were legally forced to live in these homes for a few years, I think we might get somewhere.

  10. No changes… but i do know what it’s like having a town building commissioner and the town board of health administrator that dont know how to do thier job properly. ive been living at my apartment for over a year and found 18 state building violations , leaky plumming, structure of the roof and basement holes in the wall paint chips falling off live wiring hanging out of the walls doors not being weather proof unstable back porch and alot more. have of these problems they known since 2007 and nothing has been done!!!! and ive called 100s of times and nothing i called the town mayor and hes always on vacation.i called the state to find out what i can do and i get the run around now i wrote to the town paper to hope it gets published.if you could help me in the right direction im lost and just about giving up

  11. If this has happened in Massachusetts ALL work over $1000 is supposed to have a written contract. Do you have a contract ? Have you asked him to to do things that are not on the contract. If it is in Mass you can call 1-617-727-3200 The BBRS Board of building Regulations and Standards. If you see hin doing drugs on your property call the police !
    If you do not have a contract the Contractor is in violation of the state building code.

  12. I know this doesn’t have to do with roofing, but you seem like a decent guy. What do you do, when you are trying to terminate your contractor, because not only is he 3 months over the date, he is trying to “inflate” his final amount from 14 to 66K! WTF!?!?! I cannot believe this guy…he’s threatening to put a lien on the property and stop all work. This is my first house (i’ve worked a very long time to get it) and the prospect of some crook easily being able to slap a lien on my property when he is being unfair, unreasonable and lying is phenemonal to me. I am looking for ANY HELP, ADVICE that can help me fight and BEat this guy. Please let it be known, that, my husband a BPO, is very diligent and is saying we owe him 15k we offered this guy this to walk away..but he won’ we’re finding out that he’s gotten kicked off other jobs for the same thing…does he have the power he thinks he has…btw, ALL OF HIS Subs have left him and agreed to work for us….even telling us about his drug use on the job….again any advice you could offer would be appreciate. THANK YOU.

    • Chanda,

      I’m sorry to hear about your trouble with the contractor. However, if you are looking for help and advice, you need to be more specific about details of your project and why contractor is 3 months overdue, and why he wants to charge you 66 thousand instead of 14 as you originally agreed upon.

      Please try not to be as emotional (I do understand your frustration, trust me – I had my share of shady contractors, sub-contractors, etc.) and provide details. You may also seek legal help, but before you go out and pay the lawyer, post details about your situation and I will try to help you.

      PS, what is BPO?