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They can be a big problem if located in a city with an agressive code enforcement department. In my community, there is 1 city employee who searchs local MSL data bases looking for "unpermitted additions" or anything that would give them cause to inspect the property. They charge several thousand dollars for a permit to tear down illegal additions. Good luck.
It all depends on the municipality and how serious they are about code enforcement. We have so many violations that the city is considering a grace period to allow existing non-conforming units to obtain permits easily and at a much lower cost.
Thank you, Chris and Mark. As a follow-up, who would know whether the given city enforces the codes stringently or not? I'm looking at a building outside my own metro area, where I don't have contacts.
Contact the building inspector or code enforcement person for the area you are looking to purchase the property in. There is got to be somebody responsible no matter how rural the area as well. Start at the county level if you have to, or whatever the municipality is (city or township)
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