Do you need a permit for a renovation or remodel?

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One of the perks of home ownership is that your home is yours to make changes to as you please. Whether you want to boost your home’s value before putting it on the market or you need more space for a growing family, you can always remodel or renovate part of your home.

That said, you’re still subject to local ordinances, and most cities and counties require building permits for certain types of work. Permitting helps ensure safe remodels and renovations and protects consumers from shoddy, dangerous work. Since all cities and counties have different permitting requirements, getting permits before starting home projects can be frustrating and expensive. Still, you should always check for and get required permits. Failure to do so, according to the National Association of Realtors, may result in stopped or stalled renovations, or eventually complicate or cancel a home sale.

If required, you must get building permits to complete a home remodel or renovation. Of course, they’re not always required. Even though each municipality has different rules, some general themes guide the process.

The permitting process

Local municipalities tend to have stricter regulations than the state, so when it comes to permitting, you should check city ordinances.

To figure out your local permit requirements, you must visit your city’s website or call the local building office. As a homeowner, it’s your responsibility to ensure that all remodeling and renovations meet building codes and have the necessary permits. Some contractors will handle this for you, but you should always check that they did so lawfully.

Before you apply for permits, you should have plans drawn up that comply with local codes and ordinances. Municipal authorities want to ensure your property can support the work you plan to do and they’ll need to inspect your property before issuing permits.

Some municipalities charge 1% of the total construction costs to issue a permit and it may take up to six weeks to complete required inspections and issue a permit. Many homeowners don’t want to spend that money or wait that long. But failing to get the proper permits will make it very difficult to sell your home later as many lenders won’t approve loans for homes with unpermitted work. Worse yet, should the city discover unpermitted work, you may have to pay fines or tear down and redo the work at your own expense.

We’re reiterating this point upfront: If your municipality requires a permit for work, get the permit.

Remodel vs. renovation

First, a quick distinction between remodeling and renovating. Renovations update an existing structure with cosmetic changes. A remodel involves changing the structure of your home through demolition and construction. Most changes you’ll make to your home constitute a renovation, but the most significant, expensive changes tend to be remodels — and it’s those changes that typically require a permit. 

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What home renovations require a permit?

If you plan to make large changes to your home that add square footage, you will likely need a permit. Some projects that will almost always require a permit include:

  • Room additions: Any project that changes the roofline of your home and adds to the square footage of your home will need a permit. You may be able to expand a closet into a bedroom without a permit, but additions almost always require permitting. (Learn how much a house addition costs.)
  • Support systems: Any project that changes the existing support system of your home, like adding load-bearing walls, decks, balconies, or porches require permits.
  • Plumbing and electrical: Any time you’re installing new or removing existing plumbing or electrical systems, you need a permit. Even if you’re only moving an outlet, you have to get a permit.
  • Water heater or HVAC: You must get a permit to replace your water heater or ventilation system in most municipalities.
  • Windows: Replacing an existing window usually doesn’t require a permit, but cutting a hole for a new window, skylight, or door usually does.
  • Fireplace and chimney: Due to dangers posed by faulty fireplaces or wood-burning stoves, you have to get a permit and inspection for any such installation.
  • Fences: You don’t need a permit for all fences, but most municipalities have height restrictions on non-permitted fences. That means you might be able to build a two-foot fence without a permit, but not a three-foot one.
  • Decks: Building a deck over a certain height (usually 30” above grade) typically requires a permit. 
  • Garage: Building a new garage or driveway, or even converting a garage into livable space usually requires permitting.
  • Swimming pool: No surprise here, but if you want to build either an in-ground or above-ground pool, be prepared to spend a lot of time speaking with your local permitting office.
  • Total cost: Some municipalities require a permit for projects that cost over a certain amount, most often $5,000.

What can a homeowner do without a permit?

So, what home projects can you do without a permit? Most minor ones. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of the home renovations or remodels that do not require a permit.

  • Painting or wallpapering
  • Installing hardwood floors or carpeting
  • Minor electrical repairs that don’t involve adding or moving anything
  • Installing new countertops
  • Replacing faucets
  • Laying new roof of similar materials to the existing roof
  • Replacing kitchen or bathroom countertops
  • Replacing old exterior siding, as long as it is non-structural
  • Installing decks below 30” above grade
  • One-story detached buildings like workshops that don’t use electrical or plumbing
  • Tree houses
  • Appliance replacement in the same location, provided you are not modifying gas lines, pipes, or electrical circuits.

How to get a building permit

You should get a permit when required. It can be a hassle to do, but it can also be simple. Before you start a project, reach out to your local building permit office to see if you need a permit in the first place. If you do, apply for it through your local office. 

Depending on the complexity of the project, you might get a permit immediately, while other renovations may call for an inspection of the plans. Larger additions might require multiple inspections by the city. When the work is complete, you’ll have a final inspection and then receive the permit. Note that for large projects, you will usually finish the project before you receive permits, the city just needs to see that your plans are up to code so you won’t have to wait for the bureaucracy before breaking ground.

Most counties and cities have websites for the building department where you can check permitting requirements. It’s easy to check if you need a permit or not, even if the permitting process is a bit of a headache. Still, whether you need more space or you’re planning to sell your home, failure to get required building permits could result in fines or unnecessary complications down the line.

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