It seems like a no-brainer. You’re a handy person, and you’re simply building a little screened porch onto your family room area. None of your neighbors can see it, and it’s not going to have anything more inside except for a few electrical outlets and a ceiling fan. Plus, maybe some vinyl planking, walls, and windows. Even the roof is just corrugated metal. You’re following the instructions on a YouTube DIY video, and it’s going great so far.
But what happens if you get caught without a building permit? Can you get in trouble for this very straight-forward and unobtrusive project? Why do building permits exist in the first place? Changes to your home go on the record because it’s important that homeowners do things correctly, following the current safety codes for electrical, plumbing, and structure. Doing it wrong could mean exposed wires, short-circuiting, and extensive repairs that could translate into thousands of dollars in damage. Worse yet, potential damage to your neighbors’ property as well.
Failing to follow the rules and get signed off on some projects may mean having to rip it all out and start again when selling your home after an inspection is done, costing hundreds to thousands of dollars. Even if you have an inspector enter your home to sign off on a permitted project, they may notice something else amiss with another part of your house. You may or may not have been the person who did the work, but that doesn’t matter to them. All that matters is the structure. If they research and discover non-permitted work was done, there may be consequences. Trying to sell a home with non-permitted rooms or work may also find you have to reduce the price of your home significantly. Realtors may not include non-permitted bedrooms and baths (or the correlating square footage) in their listings and must disclose the anomalies in the listing description in most states. In some areas, even removing the closet in a given room to make it into an office means you’ve automatically lost a bedroom in the count.
The general rule of thumb is that structural, electrical, plumbing or mechanical work will require a permit, but here is a breakdown:
Installing fencing or repairing it is something you would not think requires a permit. But there are height restrictions in many locales. Especially if you have neighborhood rules about aesthetics. Installing a fence that does not match those around it, you might be forced to take it down and start again. Check with a local fencing contractor, even if you are doing the work yourself.
If you are installing windows that are larger than the current opening, a permit is required. Even a retrofit for newer windows may require one. You won’t know unless you call your local building permit office. Same for skylights and new doors. There are several reasons for this, including energy calculations for how much glass exposure your house is permitted without having to upgrade your HVAC system.
As for plumbing and electrical work, you’ll need permits when installing or replacing wiring for an outlet, a ceiling fan or overhead lighting — especially recessed or can lights. Smaller projects like repairs and light fixture switch-outs probably won’t require it. As for plumbing, codes often change, which means you usually can’t just replace pipes and fittings with the same kinds that have been in your house for decades. A plumber can tell you what is being used now.
Structural changes are without a doubt the most noticeable renovations you can make to your home — things like changes to any load-bearing walls, adding or repairing balconies, decks, porches, roofs or foundation flooring. Additions, new construction, remodels, repairs, replacements, and upgrades totaling $5,000 or more will require a permit, including detached structures like garages, sheds, and platforms. Exceptions to this rule include construction less than 200 square feet.
As for heating and cooling, the person you hire to replace your water cooler will get a permit for you, as will the contractor making changes to your heating and air conditioning. Changes to the ventilation system, gas and wood fireplaces and ducts will also require a permit. This does not include filter changes, motor lubrication or equipment cleaning.
So, what can you do WITHOUT a permit? Plenty. Replacing flooring, doing minor electrical repairs, installing new countertops, replacing bathroom fixtures (faucets, showerheads, painting and wallpapering, as well as landscaping work, are all exempt from permit requirements.
The best rule of thumb is to with check with or hire a professional, who will have the experience to determine if your project requires an inspector to check for any red flags afterward. Professionals are always under strict scrutiny by the areas in which they do their work and will usually be the ones to procure the permits. They understand the bureaucracy, know the personnel at city hall, can do the paperwork in their sleep, and will no doubt take less time to get the job done.
Source: Redfin, Smileyfirm, TBWS