CHICAGO (CBS) — It’s happening in thousands of Chicago homes: major construction or rehab work is being done without city permits.
The builders may save money by cutting corners, but buyers get stuck with expensive repairs to correct health and safety violations. CBS2 investigator Pam Zekman found it goes on even when the city is warned about the illegal work.
“We loved the house. It was remodeled. It didn’t need any work,” recalled Jane Intrieri. She and her husband Chris Simmons were first time homebuyers when they fell in love with a bungalow that was rehabbed with improvements that included a new kitchen, bathrooms, basement and attic rooms.
“It looked pretty and cozy,” Jane said. It was not so cozy two months after they moved in when they got an unexpected visit from a city building inspector followed by a notice charging them with doing the remodeling work without permits.
“I was terrified,” said Chris, fearful about the prospect of having to deal with the city and the additional costs they might have.
“We thought we made a good sound decision,” recalled Jane. “And we didn’t want it to turn into a financial burden for us.”
It was a classic flip. Records show the developer, Peter Szaflarski, paid $165,000 for the bungalow in April 2017.
Eight months later he sold it to Jane and Chris for $390,000.
“They were able to sell it really quickly to us. So they made a lot of money pretty fast. They turned it around quickly.”
Months before the couple moved in, the city received complaints about construction work being done without permits. Once in June from a neighbor and again in September from the office of the 26th Ward Alderman, Roberto Maldonado.
Maldonado said unpermitted construction work in the ward is rampant and he’s concerned.
“If you buy a property in the city of Chicago that was rehabbed without the proper permits, guess what? The new owners are going to be carrying the bag,” Maldonado stated.
So far inspections indicate Jane and Chris could be on the hook for an estimated $20,000 worth of fixes to correct ventilation, insulation, and electrical problems; and they’re not alone.
City records obtained by the CBS2 investigators under the Freedom of Information Act, show that between January 2017 and July 2019, 7,127 complaints were made to 3-1-1 about work being done without permits. Of those, 1,878 were not checked out by city inspectors—some because they could not gain entry to the home.
Like Jane and Chris, their home was not inspected until 8 months after the first complaint to 3-1-1.
Alderman Maldonado said that is “absolutely not” acceptable. “I am enraged because,” he said, “that means potentially buyers could buy homes that are potentially a hazard for them and their family.”
In fact, it could be dangerous. An Inspector General report covering five months in 2017 found a backlog of 5,000 inspections, many involving new and rehab construction with no permits.
“What we saw was the department summarily closed out thousands of those,” said Joseph Ferguson, the city’s Inspector General. “No action being taken and simply closed off the books.”
Ferguson said the city needs more inspectors.
“A lot of construction done in this city, like every city is done by people without proper licenses and proper certification and it’s not done to code,” Ferguson said. “It means a public safety risk.”
Judy Fryland, the Chicago Building Commissioner, said she does not believe she needs more inspectors. She said they are now using inspectors more efficiently on weekends and at night, and they have been given electronic tablets to write up their findings, decreasing the downtime for paperwork.
“Right now I believe we are hitting the sweet spot,” Fryland said. “But if that changes and we need more inspectors of course we would ask for it.”
Jane and Chris were unable to catch up with the developer who sold them the home, rehabbed without city permits. But CBS2 Investigator Pam Zekman did.
“Why didn’t you get city building department permits,” Zekman asked.
“It was just a regular, you know, touch up paint kind of job,” Szaflarski responded.
No it wasn’t. If you look at these photos they show the homes condition before he purchased it.
“It was a gut rehab,” Zekman told Szaflarski.
“I would like to speak to my attorney,” he responded before closing the door on Zekman.
As a result of our investigation, the building department threatened to sue the developer if he did not fix the violations. He has now reportedly agreed to make the repairs, which may include additional violations hidden behind the walls.
“We are very serious about going after people doing work without permits because it puts people in danger and it can cause a lot of issues.”
It’s what Jane and Chris were hoping for.
“The city should go after the builders and the contractors,” Jane said. “They shouldn’t go after me.”
To protect yourself when buying a home that is newly constructed or a gut rehab, make sure the contractor had permits and that city inspectors approved the work that was done. Demand to see copies of that paperwork.
The building departments’ website has detailed information on the permitting process.