Saturday, February 7, 2009


After the holidays were over I decided it was time to try and get the last of my city inspections taken care of. Unfortunately, when I tried I wasn’t able to get into the computer system because my building permit had expired; you only get a year. I didn’t know that one needed a valid permit to get final inspections; I assumed that once the construction was complete a permit was no longer needed. So, I had to go down to the city and arrange for an extension on the permit.

While I was down at our charming and historic art deco city hall I was told that I could, if I was able, take advantage of a five day grace period during which I might be able to complete the inspection process without having to file (and pay for) an extension to my original permit. However, I was also told that l could not get any final inspections without first checking with various city agencies to make sure I had received their approvals. I needed to call the Office of Environmental Whatever to make sure I had not been cited for damage to trees, parkways, etc., I had to contact the fire department to ensure that I had complied with regulations regarding smoke detectors and if sprinklers were required they had been properly installed, and I had to check with the Business Licensing Division to make sure that all of my sub-contractors were properly licensed. Had I known about this last one I think I’d have listed fewer sub-contractors; as owner/builder I can claim to have done all of the work myself if I wish. But it was too late. The form had already been filed with the city. In checking they discovered that my electrician was behind in his business license payments and my plumber had no Santa Monica Business License whatsoever. Given that the amount of money involved was not huge – a couple hundred dollars – and I was in a hurry I opted to pay the money owed out of my own pocket and try to collect from the electrician and plumber later.

The fire department and outdoor environmental people signed me off quickly and I was able to arrange an inspection the next afternoon. When the guy got there he was somewhat surprised to find that I had called for a Final Inspection as it was not printed on his paperwork, but inasmuch as he was in a good mood and had a relatively light schedule I agreed to look around and see what he could see. All in all I didn’t do too badly. He found about a dozen things that weren’t quite right and most of them were minor. I needed to secure a length of wire in the attic, fix additional grounding to the water heater, install the ground-wire on the Jacuzzi motor, run a bead of sealant around the base of all toilets, repair some broken screens on the attic vents and build screened covers for each of the crawlspace entries. Stuff like that. The bigger jobs involved relocating the water heater behind my office – it seems to be about eight inches too high on the wall – enlarging one of my crawlspace entry point – mine was three inches to narrow from top to bottom - and putting in real steps for the rear exit.
I decided that as long as I had to put in regulation steps (not more than seven and three-quarter inches rise per step) at the back doors I might as well put in a deck, so over the next few days I built a redwood platform that goes from one side of the patio area to the other and creates a downstep for both of the doors. After that was in I just needed one additional step to get to ground level. It was slow, methodical work; the weather was warm and the wood gave off a summery scent. After I finished, my aged mother-in-law found that she liked to sit out there on warm afternoons and of course Scout, our dog, immediately took it over as his sunning area as well.

I scheduled another inspection for the following weeks. I wanted to ask some questions about the repositioning of the water heater before I actually did it, and I wanted to see if there was any way I could wheedle out of enlarging the crawlspace access hole which would necessitate cutting either stucco or concrete and was bound to get ugly.

The subsequent visit from the building inspector started out badly and ended only slightly better. The guy – who I’d never seen before - walked in angry. He asked me what he was supposed to do there and when I told him I wanted a final inspection he looked apoplectic. He’d never been to the house before; had never seen any phase of construction, was new on the job and had recently moved out here from Denver. He couldn’t believe they would send him out to do a final inspection on a project he’d had no experience with at all. Oh, was he disturbed. “What do I look at?” he asked. “I mean, where do I start? I don’t know what’s new construction here and what’s old. How do they expect me to…?” Air rushed in and out of his nose like tides. He barely spoke. He spent the first minute or so just standing there looking up at …nothing. He’d take a couple of steps one way, then pause and take a couple steps another way, then mumble, “What are they thinking?” Then he’d go stick his tester into an electrical outlet, then stand up and walk to another electrical outlet and do the same thing. Now, even if you don’t have as much experience with inspectors as I do you don’t have to be psychic to see that there was virtually no way the situation was going to work out well for me. Very likely this guy was going to begin charging around like a wounded bear ripping away at everything he could find out of sheer frustration and pique. He’d find just one thing out of compliance and from then on I’d be a dead duck. I’d get dinged for a mirror hanging one-quarter inch out of plumb; I’d be written up for using the wrong shade of green in the guest bath and having the toilet paper rolling backwards; I’d be ordered to remove the dog’s soiled bedding from what would eventually be the laundry area. He’d hate everything he saw, or he was going to throw up his hands and walk away. The latter being the better choice of the two I adopted my usual approach when dealing with upset people, I was very sympathetic, understanding; undemanding and most of all on-his-side. “Oh, this is a very bad spot those people have put you in”, I said, shaking my head slowly from side to side. “How can they expect you to….” and “I don’t really know what you can do what with the circumstances and all.” I took on a pained, deeply sympathetic expression. I reflected just how deeply troubled I was by this grave injustice that had been inflicted upon him. I called upon his expertise, “What do you think I ought to do right now? What do you think is the best approach to dealing with those people and the mess they’ve created.” That sort of thing. I was good, if I do slay so myself. Not showy or obvious; subtle and realistic You’d have been impressed.

He walked around to the back of the house, opened the electrical panel and commented on the missing ground connection between the hot, cold and gas lines at the rear water heater. I ran before him whisking away dog turds so he wouldn’t accidentally…(oh, aye dios mio, I don’t even want to think about it). Then he’d come back in again, make exasperated sounds and review the ceiling, visible whisps of steam floating off and away from his head. More than once I figured I was a sunk skunk, but eventually I did notice a slight calming. He looked over the plans I showed him and grudgingly remarked that he liked the electrical work. He thought the plumbing looked “OK”. He suggested that I call in for another inspector and try to get “Mechanical”, “Plumbing” and “Electrical” all done on the same day. By the time he left we were no longer combatants, but compatriots struggling against the outrages of “the system”. He didn’t sign anything or approve anything, but that was OK; just having him step out the door was a relief.

So, I gave myself a couple of days to recover from the trauma and then managed to schedule three inspections for one day. This morning when I checked on-line to see when I could expect the inspector to arrive I saw that they had scheduled the same guy who had shown up previously. I’m serious. Really. Imagine! I was a bit edgy awaiting his arrival. I only knew that he’d show up between 8 am and 12, but that is a lot of time to wait for trouble.

Finally he showed up, sneezing; some allergy thing. I was all set to offer chicken soup, coffee – some of the fresh tortillas my mother-in-law had just made or whatever it would take to make him feel better. But, to my surprise, this was a very different version of the same guy. He was smiling, happy to see Scout, animated, conversational; all of the things he had not been on the previous visit. I pulled out a ladder so he could look up in the attic area, he came back down and starting pouring over his sheaf of paperwork. I remembered to bring out my permit and the copy of my approval sheet and when I got there he just started initialing things. Wham. Zip. Just like that he had initialed approvals on Mechanical, Electrical and Plumbing. I tentatively, and more than a little nervously, asked, “So, what’s my next step here?” and he scribbled another set of initials next to “Comprehensive Approval” and said, “Nothing. You’re finished. Its done”. I was dumbstruck. Just like that the whole thing was over! I felt as though someone had pulled the rug out from under me, the flooring and the earth’s geographical surface as well. I floated like Major Tom.

Among the remarkable things about having completed this process is the jobs l never had to do. Just two weeks earlier an inspector had told me that I had to lower one of the water heaters eight inches, enlarge one of my crawlspace access openings, and two or three other jobs that were either difficult, time-consuming, expensive or problematic. Now, forget about it. Just like the last day of school there was a whole batch of problems, concerns and worries that never materialized or were attended to and suddenly became completely irrelevant.

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