Building Permits: What They Are and Why You Need Them

Whether you’re planning to build a whole new home from scratch or add a shed to your yard, you may be required to obtain a building permit before the work can commence. While most of us have heard the term before, it can be difficult to define exactly what a building permit is, and why you might need one. If you’re not sure how they work, read on.

What is a building permit?

In plain and simple terms, a building permit is an approval granted by the local governmental agencies to build or make changes on a new or existing building. Depending on the kind of work you’re doing, you may or may not need one. If local regulations demand that you do need one, you can either apply for it yourself, or if you’re using a contractor, they can handle the process for you. This involves several steps:

  • Contact your local building department to find out if your project needs a permit;
  • Fill out the permit application;
  • Submit the application and pay the fees that go with it;
  • Receive your permit — this may take several weeks depending on the scale of your project;
  • Once you have the permit, make sure to display it on the site you’re working on;
  • Schedule inspections so that the local authorities can verify that you’re working in accordance with the plans and application you submitted. Depending on where you live, two inspections might be needed: one during work, and one once the work is completed.

When considering whether a permit application is approved or not, local agencies will take several factors into consideration. Usually building codes play an important role in this decision, as do zoning ordinances and other regulations that can vary from state to state.

Why are building permits needed?

The main thing building permits aim to achieve is not just ensuring that construction work is done in accordance with building codes and zoning, but that the job is performed safely. And because the safety of both you, your family and your neighbors is paramount, performing a job without a permit when one is needed is illegal.

In areas where wildfires or hurricanes are common, building permits aim to reduce both property damage as well as loss of human lives. But building permits are essential even if you live somewhere unlikely to be struck by natural disasters.

Picture the following scenario: you’re planning to upgrade your electrical panel and outlets. In order to save time and money, you decide to skip applying for a permit, which is illegal for this type of work. You finish the job, and several weeks later, a short circuit causes an electrical fire in your home. Luckily, nobody is hurt, but you suffer serious property damage. Even if you have fire insurance on your home, the insurance company can deny coverage due to the fact that the work was done without a permit.

When do you need a building permit?

Whether you do or don’t need a building permit depends on where you live, and the kind of work being done. Different counties and municipalities have different regulations. For example, you’ll need a permit to build a shed larger than 70 sq.ft. in Chicago, but in Boise, ID, you only need one if your shed is more than 200 sq.ft.
Generally speaking, you will need a building permit if you plan to:

  • Build a new structure (such as a garage) or a house;
  • Add or remove walls;
  • Demolish a part of your house;
  • Roofing or re-roofing your house;
  • Changing the designated use of a room, such as converting a garage into a guest bedroom;
  • Installing windows that require changes to the walls;
  • Installing or replacing plumbing and electrical services;
  • Installing a water heater or HVAC;
  • Building decks and fences over a certain height; etc.

When is a building permit NOT needed?

Not all types of construction and remodeling work need a building permit, especially if you don’t plan to make structural changes to your home. For example, you don’t need a permit to repaint the walls, install hardwood flooring or wall-to-wall carpets, change kitchen cabinets, or replace plumbing fixtures.

The rule of thumb when it comes to building permits is that it’s always best to check with your local building department whether you need one. While this may delay your project, it will save you a lot of hassle in the future. It will prevent any potential issues with your homeowner’s insurance coverage, and even prevent legal repercussions.

Also, don’t be tempted to play along with contractors that assure you that a permit isn’t needed, especially for large projects that will result in major changes to your home.

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