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An open letter to all homeowners who wish to renovate, add on to, or otherwise significantly alter their house:

Dear Sir or Madam,

Being a homeowner offers a lot of freedom; you can paint your walls any damn color you like, you can dig up the yard and plant nothing but shrubberies if you so desire. When it comes to renovating or adding on to your house or changing out the furnace or upgrading your electrical system, however, there are rules you do have to follow. These rules are called codes, and codes are enforced by building inspectors. The inspectors’ job is not to be a pain in your ass, but to make sure that your house remains safe to live in after you are done changing it around. They also help to protect you against unscrupulous, shoddy contractors. You, as the homeowner, do have the option to do large portions of the work yourself, if you deem yourself so able, but be advised that you still have to get permits and have inspections. Please note and bear in mind that the above-linked document applies only to the city of Kansas City, Missouri, and any suburbs under its jurisdiction. Your hometown may have different rules as regards owner/occupant liabilities and responsibilities. Call your local codes department to determine what is allowed where you live.

If you do hire a contractor, please do be sure that your contractor holds a valid professional license and up to date indemnity insurance. Though this information may sound arcane, a simple call to your local building codes office should confirm this information. If your potential contractor does not have a license, he or she cannot pull a permit. If he or she doesn’t have a permit, he or she can’t get an inspection; if the work isn’t inspected, you have no way of confirming that it is up to code.

While we’re on the topic of letting your fingers do the walking, it would be well worth your while to check with the local chamber of commerce (often, your local C. of C. will have a department specifically for such inquiries and complaints, usually called the Better Business Bureau) to be sure that no complaints have been lodged against this contractor.

This may sound like a lot of hassle, but think about it this way—you have to live in your house, so you should want to be sure that any work done to it is done safely, correctly, and legally. You as the homeowner have a lot of autonomy, but you also have a lot of responsibility, and if you hire cowboy contractors who work without permits, and they are caught, you will have legal responsibility when the code violation citations are being handed out. But beyond that, if you hire Handyman McYahoo, and he tears up your house, routes the hot water line through your toilet, jumps breakers in your panel box, and turns your house into a total deathtrap, you have no protection, and no recourse to make the contractor do it right. A licensed professional may quote you a higher price than Mr. Under-the-Table, but in dealing with an aboveboard professional, you can be safer in assuming that the correct materials and techniques will be used, and that it will be inspected and approved before the work is deemed completed. Would you rather save $500 but have your toilet fall through the bathroom floor because the plumbing leaked and caused your floor joists to rot? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

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