How Building Permits Work


The regulations behind building permits can help keep you and your home safe. See more Home Construction Pictures.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida with a vengeance. Think wind speeds of 170 miles an hour (273 kilometers per hour). Ultimately, the storm destroyed more than 53,000 homes, at a cost of $25 billion, but part of that damage could have been prevented [source: Zarella]. Inadequate codes, shoddy construction and -- believe it or not -- lax enforcement of building permits contributed significantly to the destruction.

But isn't a building permit just a nuisance that plagues every home improvement project? Isn't it just a way for bureaucrats to tell you what you can and can't do on your own property?

That's how a lot of homeowners think of building permits. But a natural disaster can be wake-up call. The fact is, the building permit process can save your life. It can also play a big role in protecting the value of your home.

Building permits are the way counties, towns and municipalities enforce their building codes. Local governments adopt those codes in order to ensure that all buildings meet minimum safety and structural standards. They update them every few years as new building methods and materials are introduced.

Hurricane Andrew caused many Florida communities to beef up building codes and to enforce permits more rigorously. From their beginning, building codes and permits have often been responses to disaster. Way back in 1625, the Dutch West India Company addressed problems of fire and poor sanitation by passing a building code for New Amsterdam, which we now know as New York. A terrible fire in 1666 in London led to the London Building Act. The famous 1871 Chicago Fire resulted in new regulations there four years later [source: NYC Building Dept., Buyer's Choice].

Today, those initial responses to disaster have grown into comprehensive building codes for both commercial and residential construction. They're common in America, Europe and many other parts of the world. Many states and municipalities base their own codes on model codes, which have been around since the National Board of Fire Underwriters published the first model code in the United States in 1905 [source: Dehring]. The International Residential Code is another widely used model today.

The regulations behind building permits are based on the best and safest methods determined by experienced engineers. These set parameters help keep you and your home safe, but as you'll find out on the next page, there are some other benefits to getting a building permit as well.

Why Do I Need a Building Permit?

Building permits are mainly about safety. By enforcing construction standards, they give you and the other occupants of the building the best chance to avoid fire, structural failure or something as simple as a child getting his head caught between stair posts. If you decide to move, the permit process also protects future owners.

The first reason to obtain a building permit is that it's illegal not to. If you fail to get a permit for work that requires it, you can be fined. You may be forced to remove a building or tear out completed work. But there are plenty of positive reasons for following the permit process as well:

  • It keeps your contractor honest. To beat out the price of a competitor, a profit-driven contractor might be tempted to cut corners. Would you know it if he did? Most construction work ends up hidden behind walls and under floors. A building permit requires that a contractor use sound and safe methods and materials. And inspections assure you that he does so.
  • It guides your do-it-yourself project. No matter how handy you are, you aren't likely to know everything about modern building practices. When you get a permit, you'll have to show the building department your plans. If they don't follow the codes, the building inspector will ask you to revise them. But if you never apply for a permit, you might go ahead with work that's dangerous or unsound.
  • It keeps your insurance valid. Building done without a permit can mean that your insurance company may not honor your policy. A fire resulting from work without a permit could leave you holding the bag. If someone falls off a deck that was built without a permit, your liability insurance may not cover his or her injuries [source: Redondo Beach].
  • It's valuable when you sell your home. If you perform work without a permit, you can assume a potential buyer will know about it. The permit process is a matter of public record. In addition, you may be required to sign a Property Disclosure Statement, in which you have to reveal all problems or defects in the property. Having all the necessary permits makes the sale proceed much more smoothly [source: Oregon Association of Realtors].

Even if they understand a building permit's value, often, homeowners get confused about the type of work for which they need one. On the next page, you'll find out it that if often depends on where you live.

When Do I Need a Permit?

Each state or municipality writes its own rules about when a building permit is needed. A job that requires a building permit in one place may not need it in another. Local conditions will affect whether or not you need a permit. If you live in "Tornado Alley" in the central United States, a building permit might be needed for a safe room or storm shelter, and such protection may be required by code.

New construction almost always requires a building permit, whether you're putting up a building or a major part of a building like a new addition [source: Barker]. These permits are also known as construction permits. They cover everything from the footings below the foundation to the roofing material overhead.

There are many other construction activities that require permits in most localities. For example, if you plan to install insulation or drywall in a large area, add or remove walls, or put in replacement windows, you will probably need a permit.

Any change of use, such as remodeling a garage into a living space, will call for a permit. And believe it or not, demolishing a structure often requires a building permit. Go figure.

Plenty of building projects are in a kind of gray area -- they may or may not need a permit. A deck may not need a permit if it's less than 30 inches (76.2 centimeters) from the ground [source: The Building Department]. A shed or gazebo might require a permit, but not if it's smaller than a certain size. Putting in a retaining wall might send you to get a permit if it's taller than 5 feet (1.5 meters), but you often don't need a permit to build a fence that's less than 6 feet (1.8 meters) high. Some towns require you to get a permit for new siding, some don't. In all of these cases, it's smart to check with your building department before you go ahead.

Plumbing, electrical and mechanical work is sometimes covered by a building permit and sometimes requires a separate permit. These permits may be issued only to licensed specialists like electricians or plumbers, and can cover anything from installing a new water heater to rewiring a kitchen. Work involving septic, air conditioning, irrigation and solar power systems usually needs a permit as well.

So, is there anything that doesn't need a permit? Fortunately, yes. Simple repairs, painting, wallpapering, new carpets, changing a faucet -- none of these requires a permit. If you replace a door with a similar door, you don't need a permit. Replacing window glass is OK, but replacing the window itself requires a permit [source: Barker]

Once you know you need one, actually getting a permit can seem like a big hassle. But as you'll find out in the next section, it's probably not as difficult as you think.

The Building Permit Process

Should you obtain the building permit or leave it to the contractor, if you're working with one? It's a common question and the answer is simple: Let the contractor handle the permit. He knows about the process and can accurately answer questions about the project when applying. He can address issues that might come up during inspections. And he becomes the contractor of record listed on the permit, meaning he's liable for fulfilling its terms. If a contractor insists that you take out the permit or tells you a permit is not needed for a major job, it should raise a red flag.

If you're going to do the work yourself, you can get your own permit. Then, however, you'll be the one responsible for following the codes. If you plan to hire someone to help, you'll also need proof of insurance or worker's compensation coverage.

Obtaining a building permit does require some planning. You'll need plans showing in detail what you'll be doing. Sometimes these will be formal blueprints or shop drawings completed by an architect or engineer. For small projects, a simple drawing can be enough. If you're putting up a new building or altering the footprint of an existing one, you'll also need a site map to show the location of the building on the property.

You'll first submit the plans and your building permit application to the local building department or building official for review. For a big project, this could take two weeks or more, so plan ahead. Once your permit is issued, you usually have six months to start the work. If you continue building, the permit is good until the project is done, but if you have to suspend work for more than six months, you should request an extension or your permit might lapse.

Sometimes, permits can be pre-approved, if you agree to standard plans. For example, your municipality may offer a basic design for a carport or deck. As long as you follow their plans, you don't need to submit your own. If you're building from a kit, as in the case of a prefabricated shed or solar room, the documentation from the manufacturer becomes the plan. For simple projects like installing a water heater, you can often be granted a permit the same day you apply.

Fees for building permits vary widely. They often depend on how extensive your building or renovation project is. A permit might cost you anywhere from $50 for a small improvement project to $500 or more for a new home. Keep in mind that you're paying for professionals to review your project and for inspectors to come out and examine the work. That costs.

On the next page, you'll find out about one part of the building permit process that often makes homeowners nervous.

Building Permit Inspections

The most stressful part of the building permit process is usually the inspections. To make sure that construction complies with building codes, municipalities send an inspector to the job site to examine what's been done. This inspector will visit your site -- likely more than once -- as the project progresses and ask things like: Does the work match the plans on which the permit is based? Does it use methods and materials that comply with the building codes? Holding up work while waiting for an inspector to arrive and enduring his critical examination can wear on the nerves of both the contractor and the homeowner.

Because later construction covers over earlier work, a major building project will require a number of inspections. It's up to the contractor -- or the homeowner, if it's a do-it-yourself project -- to schedule inspections when they're needed. The work has to be planned to allow for inspections. For example, you don't want a truckload of cement to arrive before the inspector has examined the footings.

If you pass inspection, you can continue work. If you fail, the inspector will tell you or your contractor how to correct the problem. For small matters, the problem can sometimes be corrected on the spot and approval given to continue.

A major building project, such as a new home or an addition, involves a series of inspections, depending on local regulations. Your inspection schedule may go like this one used by the city of Scranton, Penn. [source: Scranton.gov]:

  1. Footing inspection. This takes place before the first concrete is poured. The inspector looks at the soil on which the building will rest, the forms for the footing, reinforcing rods and other factors that provide a solid base.
  2. Foundation. After the foundation is erected, the inspector assures that it has been built according to code and properly coated. He will check that the anchor bolts for the top plate are in place.
  3. Framing. Once the building is up and the basic plumbing, electrical and mechanical systems are in place, the inspector returns to look over all of this work.
  4. Fire Protection. The inspector looks at fire alarms and fire suppression systems.
  5. Final. When all the work is done, the inspector will return one last time. He will make sure the entire project complies with code. He might look at things like the grading, fire suppression systems, smoke detectors and the heating system. He'll verify that all work followed the original plan.

As nervous as you might be about inspections, there's one fear you can put behind you. The inspector will only be looking at work covered by your permit. He will not be nosing around your home looking for things that aren't "up to code." If you're remodeling a kitchen, for example, you don't need to upgrade features of a bathroom that may not meet current building codes.

When you've passed your final inspection, the building permit process is over. Usually, the inspector will issue you a certificate of occupancy which verifies that your project was finished in accordance with building codes.

Still have questions about the building permit process? We've got you covered on the next page.

Building Permit Questions

Instead of looking at the building permit process as a nuisance, it's better to see it as a service provided by your local government. And a relatively cheap one, in spite of the fees. Objective, trained engineers will examine and approve your building plans. Experienced inspectors will assure that work is up to standard. Any corner-cutting or shoddy workmanship by a contractor will come to light.

Your building department can clear up any uncertainties you have about the process. Here are some questions that often arise about building permits:

  • What if work has been completed without a permit? Maybe it was done by a previous owner. Maybe you did it without knowing a permit was needed. You may still be able to get a permit, depending in part on whether the work can be properly inspected. You may have to pay an extra fee, but the local building department will usually try to work with you.
  • What if I can't wait for an inspection? If you have a pressing reason to continue with work before a scheduled inspection, contact the inspector in advance. He may allow you to record the work in photos or videos and go on. Today's digital cameras make the process easy.
  • How do I make changes in my building plan? If you change your mind about any important part of your project, make sure you contact your building department before you go ahead. They issue the permit for a specific plan. If you don't get approval for the change, you may not pass the final inspection.
  • Is the final inspection important? Sometimes work is delayed and the homeowner or contractor forgets that one more inspection is needed after the finishing touches are applied. But the final inspection is essential. If you don't get it, the building permit may lapse. You may have to apply for a new permit or comply with codes that were enacted after you began work.

It always helps to take a positive attitude toward the building permit process and to understand that most inspectors are knowledgeable and want to help. With luck, you'll never face a hurricane, tornado or flood. But if you do, you'll rest easier knowing you got your building permit and followed local codes.

Author's Note:How Building Permits Work

I had a running start on researching this article because I built an addition to my own home about four years ago -- a new kitchen, laundry room and porch. I hired an experienced builder and subcontracted the insulation, wall board, roofing and cabinet work. I handled the permits and inspections myself. One big lesson: Building permits and codes are really no problem, especially if you plan to live in your home for the foreseeable future. If anything, you'll want your building to exceed code, and it's reassuring to know your work has passed inspection. Another lesson: be good to your inspector. He or she works hard. An offer of a cup of coffee or some homegrown tomatoes never hurts. And, oh yeah, always follow that old carpenter's rule: measure twice, cut once.

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Sources

  • Barker, Bruce. "Codes for Home Owners." Creative Publishing International, 2010.
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  • Buyer's Choice Home Inspections. "History of Building Codes." (Feb. 24, 2012) http://www.buyerschoiceinspections.com/history-of-building-codes
  • City of Houston. "Deed Restrictions General Information." (Feb. 24, 2012) http://www.houstontx.gov/legal/deed.html
  • City of Redondo Beach, California. "Applying for Permits." (Feb. 24, 2012) http://www.redondo.org/depts/eng_build/building/building_services/applying_for_permits.asp
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  • Scranton.gov. "Permits and Inspection Process." (Feb. 24, 2012) http://www.scrantonpa.gov/lips_permits_inspections.html
  • Worell, Carolina. "Mayor Says Green Building Codes Will Help City Meet PlaNYC Goals," ENRNew York, February 7, 2012. (Feb. 24, 2012) http://newyork.construction.com/new_york_construction_news/2012/0207-mayor-says-green-building-codes-will-help-city-meet-planyc-goals.asp
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