A hidden camera test reveals some contractors are more than willing to do work without obtaining the necessary permits, part of a CBC News and Business in Vancouver series looking at B.C.'s $7.6-billion home renovation business.

A CBC producer used her home for a hidden-camera video shoot where three contractors were asked to submit estimates for expanding a landing off the back of the home.

By the numbers

  • British Columbians spent $7.6 billion on renovations in 2011.
  • That number is expected to grow to $7.8 billion by 2013.
  • Vancouver issued 1,662 building permits, worth $180 million, for renovations in 2011.
  • Vancouver issued 788 building permits worth $83 million in the first six months of 2012.
  • Stop work orders issued in 2011: 256 for building, 155 electrical, 18 plumbing.
  • Reasons for stop work orders: no permit, work beyond the scope of a permit, safety concerns.

Source: City of Vancouver, CMHC

According to the City of Vancouver, the work requires a permit and may even need a zoning change.

But when asked about permits by the CBC News producer, two contractors said it was her decision to make.

"I’d say you would be fine without one," said one contractor. He estimated the job would cost $5,000 to $6,000.

A second contractor said getting permits would add a month and add about $1,000 to the job.  

"You know …. $300 for the permit, then you have to pay somebody just to do the drawings," he said, adding that city inspectors are unlikely to visit the property.

"Down here, I highly doubt the city is going to drive up this alley and take a look."

The same contractor said most of his clients don’t bother taking out permits.

"I’ve done big, big interior renos without permits ... structural walls and big basement renos," he said.

This second contractor suggested the job would cost about $2,000 without the permits.

The third contractor, however, recommended obtaining the required permits.

"We don’t want to play with people’s lives, them falling from 12 feet high," he said. "We've got to sleep at night, too."

The last contractor took a few days to send the producer a written estimate which broke down the various costs, permits and taxes totalling $11,500, almost six times more than the cheapest estimate.

Vulnerable homeowners

Will Johnston, Vancouver’s director of licences and inspections, called the results of the hidden camera investigation "unfortunate."

Johnston says permits are intended to ensure sure things are built to code and prevent safety hazards, like fires caused by faulty electrical wiring.

The City of Vancouver shut down more than 250 projects last year because they didn't have proper permits.

The penalty starts with a fee that is double the cost of a permit, and could run owners tens of thousands of dollars more.

"What’s concerning to us is that what it’s doing is putting homeowners in a very vulnerable position," Johnston said.

"If the work has been done incorrectly, they could be looking at situations where the city would come in and ask them to remove the work to correct it, to make it compliant with city bylaws."

Inside a successful reno

Photos from a home renovation in Vancouver's Dunbar neighbourhood courtesy of the My House Design/Build Team.

With files from the CBC's Enza Uda, Kirk Williams