Why building permits in Belmont matter

Living in the Commonwealth is expensive and at times the old joke “Taxachusetts” feels all too real. There seems to be a fee for everything and renovating your home in Belmont is no exception.  As we learn from Belmont-ma.gov,  “Building an addition, adding a structure of any kind, enlarging your driveway or adding a dormer are just a few instances where a permit is required.”  The building permit fees start at $15 per $1,000 of estimated construction costs and additional inspections (e.g., plumbing, gas, occupancy) with associated fees may also be required.

Whether it is time for a bathroom renovation, or you need an office to work from home, you are going to spend money and invest further in your Belmont home. Many homeowners wonder why they should pay the town for what seems like permission to work on their own home. What does a building permit do?

“The building permit is there for the homeowner’s protection”, explains Tom Gatzunis.  “It ensures that the work is done safely and according to code. By code, we mean electrical, plumbing, fire and structural Iintegrity.”  Further, it ensures that the contractors doing the work are licensed, insured, and reputable. It also seeks to ensure that the workers themselves are protected and working in safe conditions.

Gatzunis was the Belmont town engineer from 1988 to 2004, after which he became the public safety commissioner for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In that role, Gatzunis was responsible for building inspections and code enforcement for all of Massachusetts.  Gatzunis is currently the owner’s project manager at CHA, overseeing construction of the new Belmont High School.

Gatzunis was succeeded in Belmont by Glen Clancy.  Clancy has worked for the town of Belmont for 35 years. As the director of community development, he is also the town engineer, building inspector and zoning enforcement officer. Clancy and his team are certified building officials which means they have met the Commonwealth’s criteria for inspectors, passed the building certification official exam, and engage in continuing education. To become a local building inspector, one must have domain knowledge and pass exams in three areas; IBC general building codes, international residential code and fire protection. Inspectors have strong knowledge in building materials, plumbing, gas, electrical, environmental factors.

“Building Permits are a matter of public safety”, says Clancy. “The permitting process verifies that the contractor is properly licensed. The process provides up front review and back end protection.”  This means that every licensed contractor in the Commonwealth has paid for two licenses: first, their construction supervisor license and second, their home improvement contractor license. The permitting process makes sure the person doing the work on your house has both licenses.

What many people may not know is that the monies collected by the Commonwealth for the Home Improvement contractor license fee goes into a dispute resolution fund.  This fund is reserved for the protection of homeowners. Should a dispute arise, or a contractor leave you with a half-finished kitchen, this is the fund from which one would receive restitution. However, if a permit was not pulled, the homeowner does not have access to the fund and forfeits their opportunity for restitution.

On average, the Belmont building department receives about 1,000 permit applications a year. During the pandemic shutdown, construction was considered an essential service at the state level and left to the discretion of local government. Belmont stayed open and observed about a 10% drop in permits compared to 2019. For many projects, applications can be processed on-line (e.g., driveways, kitchen and bath remodels, roofing).

The consequences of unpermitted work can be devastating. For example, in the case of a fire, flood, structural damage or personal injury, an Insurance company does not have to pay out on a claim where unpermitted work was done. Upon sale of the property, the lending institution’s appraisers will review the permit records for the property. Where renovations have evidently been done without a permit, risk to the lending institution is created and loans are often denied.

Not pulling a permit is also a form of cheating on your taxes, as the assessed value of a property accounts for home improvements, which are documented through the permitting process. More importantly, “Building permits are the law. They ensure that all construction in Belmont conform to zoning regulations and local ordinances,” said Gatzunis.

Belmont’s permitting process and its Building Inspectors provide an essential service to “The Town of Homes”. While every line item seems expensive during a renovation, one should consider the building permit an essential item with a very high return on investment.

John Kolis has been a resident of Belmont for over 25 years and is a Realtor with Coldwell Banker. He can be reached [email protected]

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