Remodeling your home, or building a new one? You may need one or more permits from your city or other local government. The process of obtaining permit approval can seem mysterious to homeowners, largely because it’s mostly handled by the builders or contractors. It can involve multiple steps, including submitting an application, paying a fee, undergoing a review, and passing an inspection after the work is done.
If all goes well, you won’t even have to think about the permitting process (though you will have to pay the fees, even if they’re wrapped into the contractor’s costs). But if the contractor fails to fulfill that responsibility, you could wind up facing fines, a need to tear down and rebuild parts of your project, or reduced property value if and when you sell.
This article will explore some common questions that homeowners have about the permitting process and how to play a role in making sure your remodeling or construction project receives all appropriate government approvals.
The permits you’ll need for your remodel or new home construction project will, naturally, depend on the scope and type of work being done.
The typical new home, regardless of size, will require a comprehensive building permit, as well as individual but common permits like an electrical permit, a plumbing permit, a fire systems permit, and a roofing permit. If your new home requires site demolition, an elevator for an in-law apartment, or a retaining wall, you may need these permits, as well.
Figuring out necessary permits in a new-home-construction situation is made easier by the fact that you’re likely to obtain bank financing. Any reputable bank will insist, among other things, on a set of construction loan documents that include the builder’s license and an itemized list of construction elements, along with the permits required to undertake them. The contractor has nothing to gain by behaving in a lax manner when it comes to getting permits (the bank won’t disburse funds until the work is completed) and a great deal to be lost. In any event, you may wish to review these various documents with your architect or builder so as to develop an understanding of what’s involved and to show interest in getting the job done right. Be sure to ask questions if you think something may be missing.
On the other hand, home remodeling is not subject to initial scrutiny or ongoing review by an experienced, interested lending institution. Here, you may want to pay extra attention to whether your contractor is actively identifying the needed permits and taking steps to acquire them, as described next.
Occasionally, one hears stories of home contractors who ask clients to pull the required permits on their own, or who suggest that, to save money, the clients simply go without various permits. These are huge red flags, indicating that the contractor is either unlicensed or acting unlawfully. Do not be persuaded that any permits are unimportant – years later, you can still be held accountable for unpermitted construction, as can the next owner of your home.
Even a reputable, experienced builder may forget to ask for a permit or may ask for an unnecessary one. Although uncommon, it’s most likely to happen for an ancillary permit, like one for a fence, retaining wall, or elevator. It’s also possible, but just as uncommon, that your local building department, through its own negligence during the review process, has not issued the permits required by your construction documents. Again, reviewing the construction loan documents with your architect and/or builder should uncover any discrepancies. The builder can then reapply for the missing or overlooked permit.
If you suspect that your builder is not following through on applying for the needed permits, contact your local permitting authority to find out what’s on file. If there’s a discrepancy between what the local permitting authority requires and the permits your builder has obtained, talk to the contractor or builder – the mistake may be an honest one.
Owner-initiated changes during the course of construction are a common reason for missing a permit or needing to upgrade an existing one. It’s the uncommon construction project that doesn't change course at some point, perhaps because work is delayed by a subcontractor’s temporary unavailability or because you decided that the in-law apartment you designed for your mother and father simply isn't spacious enough.
Additions like new fencing, retaining walls, paved driveways or parking areas, swimming pools, or even whole additions may seem extrinsic to the home as initially designed, but may require individual permits under your local building code. Even changes that call for more of something, like a larger patio or a longer driveway, rather than something new or different, may require a permit modification.
Be sure to review any new plans with your builder with an eye toward the possibility that you may need to return to the building department for a new or an updated permit.