When Homeowners Must Obtain Permits for Home Projects

Even minor home improvement projects frequently require a permit; a step you skip at your peril.

Updated 7/05/2023

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, and if so, obtaining it (or making sure your contractor will do so). Here, we'll discuss how to take these steps regarding researching and obtaining a building permit.

Why Do I Need a Building Permit at All?

Building permits are written authorizations issued by a city or county to construct a project. They are required for most construction or remodeling projects. Their purpose is to ensure the safety of the work and its compliance with building, construction, and zoning codes, for both the homeowners' personal safety and public safety, along with broader considerations.

Do All Types of Projects Require 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 often focus on safety considerations caused by humidity and heat. In rural regions prone to forest fires, the building code might 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 might need to obtain special system permits, such as electrical, plumbing, or mechanical permits. For example, you might need to obtain a plumbing permit if you plan to install an underground lawn sprinkler. Or, you might 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 (online or directly). They are accustomed to addressing questions by phone and in-person, so don't hesitate to reach out to find the answers you need.

How Do I Get a Building Permit?

The typical steps to obtaining a building 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 might be able to receive approval in person at an "over-the-counter" review. Or, the city might take several days or weeks to review the plans. The process could 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 conducting 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.

The exact process varies by location.

Who Arranges for the Building 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 the 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 inspectors. The contractor's preexisting relationship with the city can work to your benefit.

On the other hand, if your contractor is charging by the hour, you might 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 Building 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 can 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 could 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 code.

The worst thing would be if this were to happen when you're in the middle of trying to sell your house, which is when such issues often come to light. Unpermitted construction can lower your home's value, and you might even need to bring it up to code as a condition of the sale.

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.

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