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Do I really need a permit for my remodel?

The Importance of Pulling Permits

In 1994, a 46-year-old man lost his footing on a staircase while shopping at his local hardware store. The shop owner had constructed the staircase without obtaining the required permits, and the stairs did not conform to the city's building codes. In the resulting lawsuit, the injured man was awarded a settlement for his injuries.

Building codes exist to protect us from unscrupulous contractors who cut corners by using sub-standard materials and unlicensed tradesmen. They also try to shield us from well-intentioned do-it-yourselfers like Tom Hanks' character in "The Money Pit," who may think they're capable of doing certain jobs, only to find themselves in a hole -- literally. Getting a permit means that someone knowledgeable will review your remodel plans and spot mistakes before work begins. Once work is underway, inspectors ensure that any life-threatening errors are corrected before a job is completed.

So, permits are required by law and are intended to ensure your safety, but do you really need one? Contractor Jeff Lupton of Lupton Design + Build in Atlanta, Ga., gives an unequivocal yes. "Every property owner should pull a permit and hire a licensed contractor whenever the law demands it," he says.

This is not to say that there's no gray area. For one thing, building codes vary from place to place. In Atlanta, Ga., you are absolutely required to pull a permit if you want to build a fence around your yard. In Clark County, Washington, however, fences less than 6 feet (1.8 meters) high don't require a permit [source: Clark County]. Furthermore, municipalities in rural areas may offer more wiggle room than those in big cities.

You can always take a chance and not pull a permit. Unless an inspector catches you in the middle of a major remodel on a random drive-by, you may even get away with it. Once in a while, however, as in the case of the hardware store owner and his unpermitted staircase, the decision to forgo a permit can have unforeseen consequences.

You may not like it much, but, yes, you probably do need a permit for your remodel.