What is a Building Permit?

Real estate agent to explain a couple
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A building permit is an official approval issued by the local governmental agency that allows you or your contractor to proceed with a construction or remodeling project on your property. It is intended to ensure that the project plans to comply with local standards for land use, zoning, and construction. These standards are intended to ensure the safety of current and future owners and occupants and to provide enforcement of zoning and land use policies.

Specific issues that the building permit process may address include structural integrity of the framing work, zoning, sanitation, water, and sewer lines, fire protection, and electrical service. 

When Is a Building Permit Needed?

Not all home construction and renovation projects require a building permit. In most cases, simple repairs and replacements can be performed by professional contractors or homeowners without applying for a permit. However, and project that involves additions or major changes to your home's structure or its mechanical systems usually require you to apply for an appropriate permit from the local building department. If you are hiring a contractor to perform the work, he usually will handle the permit process for you, factoring in the costs of the permit to his bid. If you are doing the work yourself, it is your responsibility to apply for the permit. Be aware that your building department may require that some types of work be done only by licensed professionals. Work on gas lines, for example, may be forbidden to homeowners is some communities. 

The requirements for permits vary widely from region to region, though, and the only way you can tell for sure if a permit is required is to call your local building office and describe the work you want to do. Some regions may require permits for almost every type of work, even building a landscape fence. The decision to require a permit or not often depends on an assessment of the relative risk the work poses to current and future residents of the house. 

The Building Permit Process

If you are planning to do the work yourself, the process of obtaining a building permit usually goes something like this: 

  1. Contact your local building office and describe the project you want to do. If a permit is required, an application form will be provided to you that outlines the requirements for applying for a building permit. Some jobs may require multiple permits. A major remodeling project, for example, might require a carpentry/construction permit, an electrical permit, and a plumbing permit. 
  2. Prepare the permit application, including whatever additional materials may be required. Construction projects may require drawings of the work you plan. 
  3. Submit the building permit application and pay whatever fees are required. The licensing office will issue you an official permit certificate. 
  4. As you begin work, post the building permit certificate as required. This may mean taping the permit to a door or window near where the work is being done. 
  5. At the designated points during the work, call the inspection office to arrange for an inspector to visit the work site and review the quality of the work. If the inspector orders any changes to the work, complete these changes and have the inspector return to review the work again. Many projects require two inspections—a "rough-in" inspection at a prescribed point in the workflow, then a final inspection once the work is complete. 
  1. Once the work is approved by the inspector, you no longer need to display the permit certificate.

Can I Bypass the Building Permit?

It is unfortunately fairly common for homeowners to complete home improvement projects without applying for a permit, paying the application fee, or having the work inspected and approved. And while it is possible that such projects can be completed with good quality and to never cause problems, it is not good practice to try and bypass the official permit process. Some possible hazards include: 

  •  If and when you try to sell your house, the buyers’ inspection may uncover remodeling or additions that were done without proper permits and which may not be completely up to code. This can prevent you from selling the house and may require that you undo the previous work and start again—this time with a permit.
  • In the event of a fire, structural collapse, or major plumbing problem, if it is discovered the mishap is the result of work that was done without the benefit of permit or inspections, it's possible your homeowner's damage and liability policy may decline to cover the damage.