A couple bought a house that had previously been remodeled. They were planning to make more changes. When the workers started removing a wall, they discovered something really frightening. Whoever had done the previous work had made illegal electrical connections inside the walls and had concealed what had been done. On the outside, they had nice, new fixtures. On the inside, new wires were improperly connected to old wires, and there were other improper and illegal items. In at least one spot, there was evidence that the wiring had previously overheated.
This wasn't just a trivial "workaround" of no consequence. It was systematic, illegal, and extremely dangerous. It was surprising that there hadn't already been a fire. The entire house could have burned down, and people could have been killed. Because the crime had been concealed, it didn't show up in a standard home inspection, and was discovered only because the buyers were doing some extensive work of their own.
The home's sellers probably didn't know what was wrong. It's unlikely they would have chosen to live in a fire trap. More likely, an unscrupulous contractor had done this just to cut corners and save a little money.
Sadly, we see things like this (although not usually quite so bad) on these programs fairly often. Do-it-yourselfers with an imperfect understanding of how things work make disastrous mistakes. Older houses, built or repaired at a time when building codes were less stringent, are coming apart at the seams. Unlicensed contractors brought in to do some cheap work have done things very badly, either through lack of skill and knowledge, or because of laziness and greed.
If you are buying or remodeling a home, how can you protect yourself?
- When you buy a house, the sale should be contingent on a professional inspection. In some places this is required by law. If the house you are buying is unusually old, shows signs of problems, or has been remodeled in the past, you may want to pay for more than a standard inspection. If the inspector finds problems, you can decide how to proceed. If things aren't too bad, you may decide to buy anyway and fix things, especially if the seller will reduce the price.
- If you are buying a house that has been remodeled in the past, make sure that the work was properly permitted and inspected by the city. Your realtor can help you get this information.
- If you are a do-it-yourselfer, make sure you really know what you are doing, and that you know your own limits.
- Check the background of any contractor you hire. Is the company licensed? Have complaints been filed? Your state may have a website or phone number where you can get some basic information. Ask for references. Look for customer reviews on trusted websites.
- Do not attempt to bypass the permit process. Many small repairs and projects do not require permits. Larger projects, especially those that affect the structure of the house, usually do. Ask your contractor, and check with your local jurisdiction. Building codes are in place to protect everyone's safety. Additionally, if you have work done without a permit, you may later find that you cannot sell your house, you may be subject to fines, and you may even have to undo whatever work was done.
Above all, use common sense. If something looks dangerous, it probably is. If you feel that something is wrong, trust your gut and get a professional opinion. Keep your home, yourself, and your family safe.