First, Do Not Be Discouraged

Obtaining a building permit for your project is perhaps one of the most dreaded steps in the home renovation process. The extra cost, time, paperwork and bureaucracy of city regulations often make one tempted to by-pass the process in its entirety. More concerning, homeowners should be aware that pulling a building permit could trigger reassessment of their property value, which could in turn increase property taxes.

Though certain renovations are more likely to cause one’s property taxes to increase, (e.g. projects that increase square footage or living space), many popular types of projects pose low risk of increased taxes (e.g. upgrading of existing spaces). If taxes are a major concern, contact the proper office of your local municipality, prior to starting your project, to gain a better understanding of the likelihood that your home’s value could be reassessed. Regardless of what your initial trepidations may be, it is imperative to understand the inherent role permits fill and the critical liability protection that they can provide.

The Purpose of Permits

The primary purpose of permits is to protect homeowners, by validating the underlying methods of key work performed by contractors. Permits are an important step to insure that changes made to your property meet existing standards set by city government. Inspectors, who must sign off on these permitted changes, will validate your contractor’s work and give you the peace of mind that the property complies with current and required building codes and ordinances. Most ethical contractors will not perform work on a property without the required permits, as this will surely risk their professional standing within the construction industry. Licensed contractors will be fined heavily, or in some cases, lose their licenses should they perform work without pulling the necessary permits prior to construction.

The permitting process can also help homeowner become aware of underlying issues. For example, if an inspection fails, work cannot proceed until known defects are corrected and re-inspected. The contract should explicitly state that the contractor will follow all state and city building codes as mandated. The permitting and inspection process will also facilitate early detection of construction defects. Proactive discovery of problems will save homeowners time, money and heartache, as it is easier and less painful to fix issues mid-project than to correct after a project has been completed.

The Risks of Not Obtaining Permits

Think twice about NOT obtaining a permit when it is needed. The penalties for remodeling without the required permits could be more than just financial. Non-permitted work could impede the sale of your home or in the worse scenario, result in jail time.

Well-informed buyers know to check permits for new additions and recent remodels before proceeding to a purchase contract. Should you decide to build without the required permits, and if an inspector knocks at your door, you will be required to shut down your project. In many cases, the city can demand that any part of the project be demolished, if work does not meet the required zoning ordinances and building code. In the absolute worst case scenario, a failure to adhere to building codes can result in jail time in some states. Don’t be tempted to take this risk.

There are, however, legitimate exceptions to requirements for pulling permits. For example, some jurisdictions may grant more flexibility for DIY projects done by homeowners that plan to live within the same property for a specified minimal period. Conversely, rules and permit requirements tend to be more strict and demanding for projects that are intended to facilitate a near-term sale. We always recommend that you take pulling permits seriously and proactively engage your local permit agency to understand your options and requirements responsibly.

Projects that Typically Require a Permit

Though building codes vary by jurisdiction, a permit is normally required for renovation projects that involve changes to a property’s current footprint, plumbing, electrical, HVAC, or adding new windows. Projects that exceed the scope of basic repair or aesthetic upgrades, will often require a permit, such as: modifying or removing load-bearing walls; new roofing; new external structures; in-ground pools; porches and decks; and cement work, such as sidewalks and driveways.

Steps for Pulling a Permit

  1. Check with your city government’s website to determine which projects require permits
  2. Determine if you or your contractor must pull the permit. If the contractor pulls the permit, make sure to make a copy of all of the paperwork for your records to be filed with your homeowner documents. If your local jurisdiction allows either the homeowner or contractor to pull permits, be sure to understand the implications of this assignment of responsibility.
  3. If the homeowner pulls the permit, protect yourself and hire ONLY a licensed General Contractor to perform the work. In many states or municipalities, this will indemnify you from any legal obligations regarding financial or personal injuries on the job site.
  4. Confirm the number of inspections and work criteria per permit, and coordinate these inspections with the overall project timeline.
  5. After the final inspection, file a copy of the Inspection Record, which details the dates and work performed, signed by the city inspector, receipts for the permit and any other documentation in your files for transfer to the next homeowner.

Still Not Convinced on the Importance of Pulling Permits?

We recommend reading some real-life stories on people that did by-pass the permit process, in Cautionary Tales from the Non-Permitted. Ultimately, it is the homeowner’s choice, but be sure you fully understand the risks.