Building an Addition – Inspectors, Zoning Rules, Permits and Septic Systems (Cautionary Tale)

How we could not buy our dream house and how a building inspector made me not want to move to a town that we so much wanted.

Learn how to find out if you can build an addition to your home or a house you are planning to buy, and how to avoid problems with the building inspector and Zoning board.

So we are now looking for a house in a very desirable town in Massachusetts, but here are the problems – we are very particular in what we want, but even more so – we need lots of space. First, we are about to have our 4th child, and who knows how many more we might want to have later. Second – I need an office, and my wife, who is an artist – needs a studio.

So we wanted to buy a house and if it did not have enough space – build an addition. We would hire a concrete contractor to pour foundation, a framer to build the frame, and I would do the rest (except for electrical and mechanical work).

This way our addition would be pretty inexpensive, compared to market rates, and we would get the space and layout we wanted. Great plan, but not so fast!



400 sq. ft. Attic Addition Costs:
Low End
$59455
Mid Range
$66803
High End
$83504

See costs in your area Start Here - Enter Your Zip Code



The town also has a considerable issue. It does not have a municipal sewer system, so each house has its own septic system or a cesspool. This means that there are strict limitations on the minimum lot size, as it relates to the number of bedrooms you are allowed to have.

Moreover, there are parts of town that fall under Ground or Surface Water Protection rules, which further restrict the lot size and the corresponding number of bedrooms. As a result of all these restrictions, building an addition becomes a very complex and unlikely undertaking.

Building an Addition

To start – I have real issues with being allowed to do anything – this is a free country after all. But the worst part is the building inspector! In my being a contractor for over 10 years, I never liked building inspectors – but now, I think I’m starting to hate them a little. Now, of course not every inspector is bad, but in my experience, majority of them are corrupt, power-hungry pricks, who no longer know what is the purpose of their existence.



What is a building inspector (definition): Building inspector is a very mean creature that is designed to make the lives of city or town residents’ and contractors’, working for said residents’, pure hell. These creatures should not be allowed to breed, because they will take over the world and put us all in slavery

So let me explain several concepts here. First – a building inspector is supposed to make sure that state and building codes are being upheld. He is also there to help expedite construction and make it easy for taxpayers to do what they want (within rules and regulations).

But in reality, inspectors make your life miserable: some want a bribe, others are just mean people who have got some power and now abuse it.

How I could not get my addition and why I once again hate building inspectors

So we found a home that we really wanted, but it did not have enough square feet. No problem we thought: build an addition.

Not so fast – we were advised to contact the inspector and ask him what we can build, before we make an offer on the house. When I called, the guy was super rude, and told me: “You are not getting your bedroom! In fact you are not getting anything!” He also threw out some local zoning rules and terminology, that I did not understand – but the idea was: I needed a minimum of 60,000 sq. ft. of land to have 3 bedrooms. 70,000 sq.ft. for 4 bedrooms and over 80,000 for 5 bedrooms, (the house that we wanted has about 1/2 acre or about 23,000 sq.ft. of land). I did not understand why at the time. So we ended the call. Reminder – guy was SUPER rude and aggressive.

Next, I look up this town’s zoning map, bylaws and lot requirements based on district. These requirements show that based on the district that house was in – I only need 20,000 sq.ft. of land to build, as long as I’m within front, rear and side offsets. Weird, huh?!



400 sq. ft. Attic Addition Costs:
Low End
$59455
Mid Range
$66803
High End
$83504

See costs in your area Start Here - Enter Your Zip Code



So the next day, I gather the documents I have (including old addition plans provided by the seller), and go to meet with the inspector during his office hours. I come in, and tell him I’m Leo so and so – we spoke on the phone yesterday, I got some additional info and a few more questions. The guy’s response: “I told you yesterday – you are not getting your bedroom! You can go to the zoning board of appeals and other boards and even if they all allow it (which is unlikely), I will still NOT allow it!”

ME: Like what the FCUK??? I never met the guy – why so much hatred? I tell him: Here – the zoning and this chart say that I only need 20,000 sq.ft. of land. It’s all in Zoning Bylaws … Blah, blah …

INSPECTOR: No, it’s an overlay district, you are a bozo – you are not getting your bedroom…

The worst thing – the house is practically across the street from building department offices. So if I do buy this house, the inspector will always be on the lookout. And if I buy something else, he will remember my face and never let me build anything. And he is pretty much the final authority in town. I’m screwed.

So I say fine – I say I will go read zoning rules, and I do. Leave his office – go to the front and open up bylaws on my computer. At the same time, I once again look at the zoning map on the wall. Damn – I finally notice small red and blue grid lines.

Red is for the Ground Water Protection (GWP) area and Blue is for the Surface Water Protection (SWP) area. This is the “OVERLAY” he was talking about. I read the rules – yes in GWP I need 60,000 s.f. and in SWP 80,000. Now it all starts to make sense, and yes – I did not do my homework thoroughly enough.

BUT … the guy does not need to be a dick about it. He could explain to me on the phone or in person in 20 seconds or less: This house falls under GWP rules that limit how much land you need, blah blah… Instead, he is being a complete dick, telling me I will never get my bedroom.



This is where I want to come back to the purpose of Building Inspectors as well as ALL other civil SERVANTS – their job is to serve the people. We the people should be their #1 priority, so long as what they and we do, is legal, etc.

Instead, these bastards get to power and abuse it or simply enjoy being pricks. In worst cases they can make our lives real hell. A good example is a story of how a $1,000,000 home in Marblehead MA had to be demolished because the owner did not pull some small permit.

Marblehead house demolished

Homeowners / Home Buyers should be aware

If you want to buy a home and are seriously considering an addition – go talk with the building inspector BEFORE you make an offer. It’s very likely that you will end up with a house that you cannot make an expansion to.

Your steps should be as follows:

1) Go to the town website and find the ZONING MAP, Zoning Rules / By-laws, and other information that relates to your home, lot and how much you can build.

2) Make sure you have enough land, meet width / depth requirements, offsets, and do not fall into any restrictions, such as wetlands, environmental protection restrictions, historic, etc.

3) Request that the seller’s agent gives you a land plan. Make sure you meet all offset requirements.

4) With that land plan and assuming you are not restricted from building, go speak with the inspector, during his office hours. You might want to make an appointment with him.

Ask how much and what you can build if you buy this house. Only based on his answers make a decision to buy or not to buy. DO NOT assume you can just build 2,000 sq. ft. addition on a 10,000 sq. ft. lot.

Attic Addition - Shed Dormer

Also in many cases if you have a steep roof, with an unfinished attic, you can expand living space by building an Attic Addition (shed dormer), which will typically cost less than building an addition with a foundation.



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