When you decide to undertake a home improvement project, you probably spend time considering style, color, and whether you’ll need to hire a contractor or architect. But don’t forget one more, especially important step: Determining whether you will need a building permit from your city or county.
What Is a Building Permit?
Building permits are written authorizations issued by a city or county to construct a project. They are required for most construction or remodeling projects, in order to ensure the safety of the work and its compliance with building, construction, and zoning codes. Although the exact process varies by location, the typical steps to obtaining a permit are:
- Completing a permit application.
- Preparing a site plan for the project. If your project is extensive, you will likely need to hire an architect or other professional to draw the project as it will be constructed (to show that it will meet building and zoning codes).
- Scheduling an appointment for plan approval. You may be able to receive approval in person at an “over-the-counter” review. Or, the city may take several days or weeks to review the plans. The process may get extended even further if the city requires corrections and revisions.
- Getting the permit. In cases where a permit is required, you will need to obtain it before you conduct any construction on your property.
- Scheduling inspections. As you perform construction, you will need to schedule inspections throughout the process so the city can verify that you are acting according to your plans.
- Complete your project and obtain final city approval.
Projects Requiring a Building Permit
Not all construction requires a building permit. Whether your project needs a permit depends on what is required by your local building code. Each municipality is governed by its own code, which has its own permitting requirements. Codes tend to reflect regional issues. For example, in Florida, building codes may focus on safety considerations caused by humidity and heat. In rural regions prone to forest fires, the building code may include strict fireproofing requirements.
The projects most likely to require a permit are those that change the structure or use of a building or have the potential to create unsafe working conditions. For example, you will likely need a building permit to:
- add or remove walls
- change the use of a room (such as by converting a garage to a living room)
- change the piping in your house
- re-roof your house, or
- demolish a portion of your house.
Projects that don’t usually need a permit include:
- repainting your house
- adding kitchen cabinets
- replacing certain kitchen appliances
- repaving your driveway
- installing floor coverings, or
- erecting a small fence.
In addition to obtaining a building permit, depending on the scope of your project, you may need to obtain special system permits, such as electrical, plumbing, or mechanical permits. For example, you may need to obtain a plumbing permit if you plan to install an underground lawn sprinkler. Or, you may need a mechanical permit to install a central air conditioning unit.
The only way to determine whether your project needs a permit is to consult your city building and permit office. Most have information online that you may review. They are also accustomed to addressing questions by phone and in-person, so don’t hesitate to reach out to find the answers you need.
Who Arranges for the Permit?
If you hired a contractor for your project, it is customary for the contractor to arrange for – or, in contractor lingo, “pull” the permit. This is a good idea because typically the person who pulls the permit is responsible for construction following code.
If you pull the permit, you will be considered the contractor (at least in the eyes of the city) and liable if there is a construction problem. Contractors are also often familiar with the process and the city’s inspector(s). The contractor's preexisting relationship with the city may work to your benefit.
On the other hand, if your contractor is charging by the hour, you may save money by completing the permit paperwork and submitting it yourself. The scope and complexity of your project will help you decide the best way to work with the city and obtain a permit.
What If I Skip Getting a Permit?
If your project requires a permit, get a permit. If you are working with a contractor who suggests skipping this step, consider moving on to another contractor.
As cumbersome as the process may be, it will be better than dealing with the city if it finds out you should, but don’t have a permit. The city might force you to obtain a permit and could double or triple the permitting fees. It may also shut down your project or require you to tear down your work (for example, remove a wall to see what’s behind it) if there is a question as to whether the work was done according to building code. In short, it is not worth the risk. See "Discovering Unpermitted Construction When Selling Your Home" for more information on obtaining a permit after construction is complete.