Sunday, 3 February 2013

WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT THE DOOR? The Building Inspector!

The City planned to loan money to homeowners to install high efficiency things, like windows and insulation.  It seems odd that Vancouver would want to take money from some homeowners and lend it to others to renovate their homes.  In any case the program flopped.

People who renovate older homes without permits gamble against the odds that they won’t be caught.  If, on the other hand, they are good citizens and apply for permits, they reduce the element of uncertainty.  They are sure to be caught for something else by the inspector.

A person's home is not his or her castle.  Homeowners can be ordered to restore their homes to conform to the last set of plans on file.  Even a house that is only a few years old is likely to have features that are not building code or zoning bylaw compliant.  If a previous owner made a change without a permit, and that change is not shown on the plans, the current owner can be ordered to restore the house.  The burden of proof is on the homeowner.

The case of City of North Vancouver v. Vanneck (1997), 39 M.P.L.R. (2d) 249 (B.C.S.C.) involved a house that was originally built in 1926 under permit for a "four room modern bungalow.”  At that time there was no zoning by-law in place.  In 1927, the City passed a By-Law which limited the house to a single family.  In 1935 and 1939, building permits were issued for additions.  In February, 1969, the city learned that there were two illegal units in the building.

Twenty two years later, in August, 1991, an inspector observed that a new roofing structure was being built without a permit.  A stop work order was issued.  Next the City inspectors discovered  that part of the building encroached on the yard set-back. They also rediscovered the long forgotten two dwelling units.  The City still took no steps to get rid of the extra unit.  The owner, therefore, assumed that two-family use was lawfully nonconforming on the site since the City at one point required him to make certain upgrades without mentioning the extra unit.

The case illustrates the rule that a property owner must establish the actual use on the exact date of the adoption of the new bylaw.  Here the bylaw came into effect in 1927.  The current owner could not prove the use.  The best he could do was to find an old lady who was 5 years old in 1927 and if she was interested in zoning at that age, it was a passing fancy.

In another case, a family lived in a house for 25 years.  They applied for and received a permit to install a gas fire place.  The fireplace inspectors found a door into a bedroom that was not shown on the plans. This triggered a fire separation problem.  When that seemed resolved, someone measured and discovered that the roof was 2 inches to high.

And so it goes.

There is a small grocer across from Lord Byng High School.  He had a small bottle recycling depot.  About 15 years ago, the City of Vancouver in a fit of whimsy decided that recycling was not to be allowed at that spot.  The bylaw that made it illegal was enacted in the thirties.  We got lucky.  We found an old man who went to Byng and recalled buying candy in the store and seeing the bottles on the sidewalk stand. The City still went to court.  I think the bottle depot is still there.

In 1985, a guy bought a house on 16th Avenue near Burrard St.  He did a renovation under permits and was required at the time to maintain the traditional architecture of the heritage house.  In the course of his work, he discovered that the front porch structure was entirely rotten.  He tore the deck down and built an exact replica of what was there before.  He did not, however, apply to amend his permit to repair the deck.  A City inspector noticed the work.  He interpreted the heritage bylaw to require the owner  to keep the rotten wood.  After all if dead-wood is not part of our heritage what is?  They said he should have abutted the new wood alongside of it.  Vancouver only backed down when the story made the Globe and mail.

This has been going on for years in most municipalities.  Everyone knows that it is almost as risky to build with a permit as without.

That is one reason that the City of Vancouver’s program was destined to flop.  Many people are willing to take their chances and renovate without permits.  Borrowing from the City is not a good idea if you don’t plan to get a permit and have an inspection. Its also not a good idea if you plan to get a permit.


  1. Yet the city inspectors had no time to address tree barriers removed from two building-sites on 23rd to make room for an excavator, countless full dump trucks, a pile of gravel, and any number of other things that surely destroyed the root-balls of these mature trees.

    I regret our headlong rush destroy the old and bring in the new.

  2. Hi Jonathan,
    I love reading your stuff. The Whose that knocking at the Door is particulary fascinating. Reminds me of roadblocks I ran into with various municipalities and the state of New Jersey that created knots in my stomach. But, on the surface, I had to remain unrattled and confident. As, so I've heard and read, Joseph P. Kennedy purportedly told his sons, "It's not who you are, it's who they think you are".

    1. And as Al Capone, of Boardwalk Empire fame said,"Canada? I don't even know what street its on!"

  3. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along.