When Do You Need a Permit for Your Remodeling Project?

A building permit with blueprint and hard hat
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Determining if you need a permit for your home remodeling project can be difficult because permitting departments often frustrate homeowners' attempts to sort out rules. Departments traditionally have prioritized commercial interests over those of homeowners doing their own work. Often it is a bias borne from necessity: contractors, builders, and the trades represent an overwhelmingly large majority of applicants.

While all cities and counties are different, certain themes do emerge to clarify permitting requirements. These themes, expanded below, can be generalized as public and personal safety, plumbing, electrical, and natural gas. Projects touching on those areas will require permits. With changing safety codes and a need for greater revenue, cities and counties shift more projects to the "Permit Required" list.

Permit Required

Most localities will require a permit for the following activities.

WallsDemolishing a load-bearing wall
RoofChanging house's roofline
LayoutWhenever you expand the house in any way or alter the house's envelope, you will need a permit.
ElectricalInstalling any new electrical wiring or adding circuits
Fencesinstalling a fence over a certain height, such as 6 feet, triggers a permit. Most municipalities will consider an add-on such as shrubbery to be part of the fence.
DemolitionParking your roll-off dumpster on a public street will require a permit. This is one of the rare permitting instances where your own property is not involved.
DecksBuilding decks over a certain height, such as 30 inches above grade.
SewerDoing anything with a sewer line typically requires a permit. This permit action concerns not just your personal safety, but the health of those serviced by the main sewer line down from your house.
AdditionBuilding an addition will always require a permit.
Driveway or GarageBuilding a garage or even a carport
Windows and DoorsExterior doors, windows, and skylights that require a new opening
Fireplace and ChimneyFireplaces, wood-burning stoves, and inserts nearly always require a permit because of the potential for fires. Chimney cleaning will be an exception, though.
GaragesGarage conversions
HVACInstalling a new furnace or air conditioner
Water HeatersInstallation of a new water heater
PlumbingNew hose bibs for the outside of your house
RoofingRe-roofing involving structural elements, including but not limited to sheathing, skylights, change of roof pitch and change of roof material where the total weight exceeds 10 pounds per square foot.

Permit Might Be Required

PlumbingMoving a sink, as this entails running new plumbing supply and drain lines
WallsDemolishing a non-load-bearing wall usually requires a permit. Even though this type of work does not structurally compromise your home, some permitting agencies want to be overly cautious and make certain that do-it-yourself homeowners do not undertake dangerous repairs.
Doors and WindowsReplacing doors or windows on a one-for-one basis
LandscapingCutting down a tree on your property
LandscapingRetaining walls over 4 feet tall tend to require permits, as retaining walls have a tendency to topple above this height.

Permit Often Not Required

As time goes by, more non-permitted actions become permit-required. In some municipalities, the following actions may still steer clear of permit requirements.

RoofLaying in a new roof of similar materials.
DemolitionParking your roll-off dumpster on your own property. However, if you happen to live in an association-controlled neighborhood, make sure you do not run afoul of your own housing association's rules.
FlooringPutting in any kind of hard flooring (wood, laminate, vinyl, etc.) or carpeting
PlumbingReplacing an existing sink
PaintingInterior or exterior painting
KitchenReplacing your countertops
SidingFreshening up the exterior with new siding, as long as it is non-structural
ElectricalMinor electrical work, such as replacing a light fixture or an electrical outlet, often does not require a permit. Replacing a circuit breaker in-kind will not require a permit either.
DecksDecks below a certain height (such as 30 inches) are not considered to be a safety hazard and therefore do not require permits.
ExteriorsOne-story detached buildings like workshops and storage sheds as long as they do not receive electrical or plumbing services
LandscapingBuilding tree houses under a certain size and height may not require a permit. However, habitable or live-in treehouses will need a permit.
FencesFences below a certain height, such as 6 feet
Property BoundariesPermitting departments are not concerned with matters involving your boundary with your neighbor. Disputes are civil matters for the courts.
LandscapingRetaining walls below 4 feet tall
DecksDecking surface replacement, as long as you are not replacing structural materials
Bathrooms and KitchensBathroom and kitchen fixture replacements without plumbing line modifications such as sinks and toilets
AppliancesAppliance replacement in the same location as long as you are not modifying gas, plumbing lines, or electrical circuits such as dishwashers, ranges, ovens, gas logs, washers, and dryers.

For Definitive Answers

A phone call to your local permitting office is the best way to determine if you need a permit. Many permit officers are happy to discuss permitting issues with anonymous callers as a way to ward off future code violations. Even then, the only definitive way to know if a permit is required is often to apply for a permit.