Do I really need a permit for my remodel?

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Back in the 1980s, Amblin Entertainment released a hilarious movie called "The Money Pit." While house hunting, a young married couple (played by Tom Hanks and Shelly Long) stumbles upon an amazing deal on a beautiful old mansion that needs just the teensiest bit of fixing -- or so they're told. Before long, the stairway collapses, the bathtub falls through the floor and Tom Hanks' character ends up sinking up to his shoulders, trapped for hours, after stepping on a rug that hid a gaping hole in the second story floor.

The permitting process didn't make it into the script or onto the screen, but you can bet that if a real property owner found himself (as Tom Hanks' character did) caked in dust after watching his chimney spontaneously implode, one of the first questions he'd ask is, "Do I really need a permit to fix this?"


Most property owners can wrap their heads around the idea of a building permit for some things: new construction, or maybe even a complicated addition. But what about smaller remodeling projects? Do you need a permit to swap your laminate countertops for granite? What about if you want to build a privacy fence or a moderate-sized deck? Or what if you'd like to do the work yourself?

The short answer is, almost always, yes. The I-Codes, including the International Building Code and the International Residential Code, are the baselines from which most state, city and municipal building codes are developed. Regarding permits, I-Code rules are pretty clear. They state that a permit must be obtained whenever a structure is to be constructed, enlarged, altered, repaired, moved or demolished [source: Woodson].

Wait just a minute, you might declare! That makes it sound like property owners need a permit to tighten a washer on a leaky faucet. We asked Jeff Lupton, a licensed general contractor for Lupton Design + Build in Atlanta, Ga., to clear up the confusion. So when exactly do you really need a permit? Find out on the next page.


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.


Author's Note

When I'm not writing articles for Discovery, I work in marketing for a property management and development group. Over the years, I've witnessed lots of construction projects, from full-blown renovations to small repair jobs. I can't say that we've gotten permits for every single job we've ever done, but I can say that the number and type of jobs we permit has increased proportionately over the years. The more experienced our project managers get, the more clear it becomes that it's better to do a job the right way from the start than to have to deal with the consequences of inexperienced tradesmen and low-grade materials later.

These days, we always hire licensed professionals. They know when it's necessary to obtain permits, and they also know how to help us cut through the red tape to get them quickly. Part of me wanted to be able to write, "Eh ... it's your house! Do what you want!" But experience has taught me that "better safe than sorry" is more than just a silly cliché, especially when it comes to the business of construction and remodeling.


Related Articles
  • Clark County Washington. "Residential and Remodel Projects." Feb. 13, 2012. (May 2, 2012)
  • The Building Department, LLC. "Permits protect the safety and value of your home." (May 2, 2012)
  • The Independence Hall Association. "Reforming the Bureaucracy." 2012. (May 2, 2012)
  • The Internet Movie Database. "The Money Pit." Amblin Entertainment. 1986. (May 2, 2012)
  • Lupton, Jeff. Licensed contractor, Lupton Design + Build. Personal Interview. May 2, 2012.
  • McQueen, M.P. "The New Rules of Remodeling." The Wall Street Journal. April 24, 2010. (May 2, 2012)
  • Parker Scheer LLP. "Defective Stairway – Back Injury and Exacerbation of Depression; $50,000.00." (May 2, 2012)
  • Woodson, R. Dodge. "2006 International Building Code Companion." McGraw-Hill. 2007.