When Do I Need a Building Permit?

By Blair Korchinski

1When beginning renovations, homeowners often ask, “When do I need a permit?” It sounds like a fairly simple question that should have a fairly simple answer, but it isn’t. Whether you will need a permit varies with where you live, what sort of construction or renovation you are doing, and even what you do for a living. Some areas require permits for almost everything except painting, while other areas allow fairly extensive work to be done without a permit. Some jurisdictions require a permit to build a deck that is attached to a dwelling, but not if it is freestanding or attached to a garage or shed. Others exempt farmers and businesses from needing a permit in situations where a homeowner would require one.

Some examples for when you need a permit are: If you are altering an exterior or supporting wall; if you are altering your roof line; if you are attaching new construction such as a deck or addition to an existing structure; if you are constructing a large freestanding structure such as a garage; if you are installing new electrical or plumbing.

Some examples for when you should check to see if you need a permit are: if you are building a small, freestanding structure such as a shed or non-attached deck; if you are building a fence; if you are completely renovating any room; if you are altering partition (non-supporting) walls. Permit requirements for this type of construction and renovation work vary widely depending on local laws and the amount of work being done.

That leaves a lot of grey area. Does installing insulation and vapor barriers require a permit? It depends where you live. In some jurisdictions it doesn’t. In some it does, but only if you upgrade the plumbing and electrical. In other jurisdictions a permit is required and you will be required to upgrade any plumbing or electrical in the wall to the latest code requirements.

General maintenance work almost never requires a permit. If you are replacing the shingles on your roof, your eaves trough or your siding, for instance, no permit is required. If you are replacing a deck or fence, you usually do not require a permit. If you are replacing doors and windows, kitchen and bath fixtures, or flooring, permits are not usually required.

The number one rule when deciding whether or not you require a permit is that if you are in doubt, ask the agency that grants the permits. Usually this information can be acquired with a quick phone call to the appropriate city/town office.

In most situations, it is the planning agency of the city, town, rural municipality, or county that grants building and renovation permits. They can also fill you in on general guidelines for your project so that you can draw up a proper plan. The drawing should show any alterations being made to the structure, and include any plumbing or electrical changes that are to be made. The plan is then taken to the office for approval, and, once approval is granted, work can begin. In most areas, a single permit is issued for an entire project, but some jurisdictions require separate permits for utilities. Separate permits are also sometimes required for demolition work.

If you are hiring contractors or sub-contractors to complete part or all of the work, check with them to see if they are responsible for the permit, or if you are. Some contractors will look after all of the details, while others will require you to get the permit. Property owners are responsible for ensuring that the proper permits are acquired, whether they get the permit themselves or the contractor they hired does.

Remember that you, as the property owner, are ultimately responsible. If you get electrical work done without a permit, for instance, and there is an electrical fire, you may find that your insurance will not cover the damages. In other instances, an inspector may happen by and find that you are working without a permit. In that case you may be required to stop work, (or even remove the work that has been completed) until a permit is granted.

Permits are there to protect you, the homeowner, as much as for any other reason. They help to ensure that any work is up to required standards, protecting you from future costs and possibly dangerous conditions. If in doubt, check with your local planning office. A simple phone call can save you both time and money.

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