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January 26, 2018

How to Get a Building Permit: Don’t Renovate Without It!

How to get a building permit is one of those things you’ll need to learn when you renovate your home. That’s right—even though you own your house, you still need to get permits for structural changes, to ensure that your changes will be “up to code,” as they say.

Before you start grumbling about all this paperwork, keep in mind that the permitting process is put in place by the government to keep you and your family safe. Building permits ensure that your home meets important requirements that minimize fire hazards, structural failure, electrical shock, and other potential health and safety risks.

Ready to get your renovation rolling? Here’s everything you need to know about how to get a building permit.

Do you need a building permit?

Spoiler: You probably do, unless you’re only doing cosmetic interior upgrades, like painting or updating your kitchen faucet. Any time you are adding square footage, making structural modifications, or significantly altering other building components, you’ll need to obtain a permit, says Brian McHugh of McHugh Construction in Mead, CO.

And don’t think about trying to sidestep the question. Doing the work without a permit is just a bad idea, for a number of reasons:

  • It might be hard to sell the house if you can’t show a permit for your work.
  • A lender can refuse to grant you a mortgage if you have unpermitted work.
  • Your municipality could apply fines or penalties.
  • You might have to do the work again to bring it up to code.
  • A home appraiser might not include the unpermitted work in a future appraisal, lowering your home’s value.

In other words, renovating without a permit is just not worth the risk.

How to apply for a building permit

The great news is that getting a building permit is easier than you think—mostly because you probably don’t have to do it yourself. Unless you’re a pretty slick DIY-er, chances are good that your project is going to require a contractor, and that’s the person to rely on for the building permit process.

First of all, contractors will know the ins and outs of the process for obtaining building permits in your local area, and they’ll also know exactly which permits you need, from structural to electrical to plumbing.

And it’s not just easier to have them do it; it’s smarter, too. That’s because the person who pulls the permit is responsible for making sure the work is done correctly. As such, you’ll want to make sure you fully trust whomever you hire; here’s how to find a good contractor.

If you are doing the work yourself, then you’ll need to get your own building permit, which will involve drawing up and submitting plans. For a relatively simple project, check with your local building permits agency to see if they have suggested plans. The City of Portland, OR, for example, has developed a comprehensive “deck design guide” that helps you with the process. (If looking through this document gives you a headache, as it did us, then please hire a contractor.)

How much does a building permit cost?

Asking how much a building permit costs is a little like asking how much a house renovation will cost—prices vary wildly. Not only does it matter how extensive the project is, but each municipality will have its own price schedules for permits.

Your first step to determine how much a building permit will cost should be your local building permits website; most will have a fee schedule. For example, a wood fence in the city of Miami will cost 70 cents for each linear foot. Do the math! In Northport, AL, a fence permit for any length is $15. In Madison, WI, you may build your fence permit-free. Your contractor will be well-versed in how to ballpark the costs, depending on what your specific project needs.

The good news is that the upfront permit price will cover all additional inspections that the city will make as the work progresses, including the final sign-off.

“Any work with a permit attached usually requires one or more inspections to be performed by licensed inspectors, to verify the work was done according to code, the plans on file, and any other requirements,” says McHugh. The local building department and/or permit office will have all the information you need to make sure the inspections are scheduled appropriately.

How long does it take to get a building permit?

The timeline for getting a permit will vary.

“Most areas will allow a permit to be pulled the same day for relatively simple projects such as fences, plumbing, electrical, HVAC, decks, roofing, and small remodels,” says McHugh.

However, once you are significantly altering a structure or building an addition, the review process could take several weeks, especially depending on how many projects are ahead of yours. You should be given a ballpark timeline when you submit the plans.

Most permits require that work start within six months. And if you take a hiatus for more than six months, you’ll probably need an extension. However, if you are consistently working, the permit lasts as long as the job does.

Building permit paperwork to keep

Once the dust has settled—literally—on your renovation project, a final inspection will occur. After that, a final approval will be filed with your local building department.

Still, says McHugh, it’s always wise to get copies of the documentation, including permits and final approvals, for your own records. Having them at your disposal if you are selling the home is a great way to assure the buyer that any work was done correctly and verified by the local inspector.

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