How Do You Know When a Building Permit is Necessary?

You know exactly what you want to do to improve your home: a kitchen renovation, a bathroom remodel, a finished basement . . . the list can go on.

But having a vision and making it come to fruition isn’t as easy as hiring a contractor and picking out your finishes. There are plenty of steps – and obstacles – along the way, one of which is obtaining building permits.

If you neglect to apply for the necessary building permits, you could face a myriad of problems down the line, including fines, problems with the finished work, and even issues when selling down the road. Permits are also meant to ensure that everyone is kept safe. A shoddy job that compromises the integrity of a structure could easily result in injury, and even lawsuits – and it’s happened many times.


What’s the Point of a Building Permit?

Building codes exist to protect people from lazy contractors who cut corners, as well as unsuspecting do-it-yourselfers who don’t fully understand the ins and outs of the work they’re doing.

Obtaining a building permit basically gives a knowledgeable professional the chance to look over your renovation plans and pinpoint errors before the work starts. Throughout the renovation process, building inspectors will pop in to make sure that the job is being done correctly so that serious mistakes are rectified before the job is done.

But how do you know when permits are needed for the specific job you’re doing?

To play it safe, assume that a permit will be needed for your project, which is almost always the case. Every homeowner should get a permit and hire a reputable contractor when the law calls for it.

The International Building Code (IBC) is a uniform code that governs residential building codes in most states across the country. According to the IBC, a permit is always needed for any addition or structural modification to an existing property. That includes electrical alterations, plumbing work, mechanical system changes, and window modifications.

So, if you are rewiring your home, adding a bathroom, changing the roof line, knocking down a wall, or installing a fireplace, you’ll likely require a permit.

Check With Your Local Jurisdiction

Of course, building codes vary from one state or municipality to the next, and can often differ between rural areas and big cities as well. It’s always essential to check with your local jurisdiction before starting any work. The rules governing construction can also change over time, and typically become increasingly rigorous as time passes. Double-checking with your local building department is the safest, most responsible thing you can do.

The world of building permits isn’t entirely black and white, however. There are certain exterior jobs that may or may not require a building permit. Building a retaining wall, putting up a fence, or building a deck might not necessarily require a building permit depending on how extensive the work is, where they’re situated, and their specific design.

If the work you’re doing is strictly cosmetic in nature, a permit isn’t needed. If you’re repainting, installing new carpeting, or refinishing the hardwood floors, you shouldn’t have to worry about applying for a permit to complete these jobs.

Obtaining a Permit

Permits are typically pretty easy to get for the majority of interior renovations if the exterior of your home isn’t being changed or replaced, as long as you don’t live in a historic home. If the renovations are relatively simple, you’ll likely get what’s referred to as an ‘over-the-counter’ permit, which means you can get your permit the same day after submitting your plans to the city. However, more in-depth and complex renovating plans will likely require days or even weeks before your municipality grants your the permits needed for work to start.

And don’t forget about the cost that comes with obtaining a permit: the national average cost of a building permit is $922, with the average ranging anywhere between $393 and $1,486.

Having a contractor or architect go through this process with you can help familiarize you with the process of getting a permit.

Never start any work without first determining whether or not a permit is needed. Consulting with a professional or your local jurisdiction that governs building permits should always be your first step to protecting yourself from issues in the future.