Is It Legal to Do Your Own Electrical Work?

Installation of a switch box

Michelle Gibson / Getty Images

Many do-it-yourself home renovators are unafraid to take up a hammer and saw—but may balk when it comes to electrical repairs. Do-it-yourself electrical work rightfully so can be a daunting project, and it's no shame at all to call in a qualified electrician for even the smallest project such as installing a light switch or changing an outlet. Yet if you have any inclination, electrical work is one home project that yields to logic and science.

Is DIY Electrical Work Legal?

The legality of do-it-yourself electrical work varies from state to state, and from one municipality to another. Always call your local permit office for the answer that pertains to you.

One scenario found in many communities is that you can legally do your own electrical work as long as you can attest to being the owner-occupant and that this work is being done for your benefit, not commercially.

If this regulating body allows you, the owner-occupant, to do the work, you might be required to obtain a temporary license to do this work. In some cases, you might be required to take a test to obtain this temporary license.

This is not the same as the extensive test taken by individuals wishing to become certified electricians or master electricians. Instead, it is usually a modified, scaled-down test designed to ensure that the homeowner knows a few of the basics of electrical code before embarking on the electrical work.

Typical of language found in many states' law books is this, which expressly allows an owner-occupant to do their own work:

Nothing...shall be construed to require that a person obtain a license or a certified electrician in order to do electrical work at his or her residence...unless the electrical work is on the construction of a new building intended for rent, sale, or lease.

State of Washington RCW 19.28.261

Why You Might Want to Do It Yourself

Electricians Can be Scarce

It's easy to find people to replace your windows or install the siding. They practically fall out of the sky. But it can be difficult to find an electrician when you need one. Along with plumbers, a good electrician—especially one who has time to take on contract work for a do-it-yourself renovator—can be difficult to find.

Electricians Are Expensive

If you're intent on saving money on remodeling costs, the first place to start is with highly skilled trades like electricians. Conversely, some of the best money ever spent by a homeowner has been with hiring an electrician.

Electrical Work Is Clean

Compared to drywall installation or demolition—or any other type of renovation work—electrical work is clean. You get to work in a clean environment for the most part, unless you are in a crawlspace or attic. Compared to most do-it-yourself work, electrical work is orderly and neat. 

That said, much of the peripheral work isn't so clean: breaking into drywall to access cables; getting into messy ceiling cavities; crawling around in basements and crawlspaces.

Electrical Work Is Logical

There is nothing squishy about electrical work. It's all based on tried and true rules and methods—all very logical. You have books and tables to guide you along, and if something isn't working, there is a very real reason why it isn't working. You can not—and should not—improvise your electrical work. There is no duct-taping, construction-gluing, tweaking, or fudging of electrical work. So, if you are a rule-follower, electrical work might suit your style.

Electrical Work Is Safe

Is electrical work safe? With proper precautions, electrical work is not dangerous. Complacency in conjunction with electricity is dangerous, though.

Consider that circuits can safely be worked on as long as the circuit breaker is turned off. With that circuit broken, electricity cannot flow to the light or wall heater or outlet that you happen to be working on.

When to Call the Professionals

Even if you love doing your own home remodel work, there are times when you will want to hire professionals. After all, the pros do this work every day. Jobs that require a steep learning curve for you are second nature to them.

For example, many do-it-yourselfers are put off by the idea of probing in the electrical service panel and installing new circuits. Contact with the lugs within the service panel is a very serious business. But service panel work is only one aspect of electrical work. The heavy lifting of running new circuits can be done safely by do-it-yourselfers. If they so choose, they can hire an electrician for that last job of connecting to the service panel.