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Building Permits

Most states, provinces and local municipalities have bylaws which require that homeowners, or contractors working on behalf of a homeowner, obtain permits for many building and remodeling projects. A building permit ensures that you (or the person you hire) plan to build, remodel or renovate something in a way that will be safe and last a long time. A building permit is also a commitment to have the work inspected and approved when it is finished. An inspector will make sure that the work complies with current laws, called building codes, that spell out what is.

The basic building code is part of state or provincial law, but local governments can add to it to make sure buildings are safe in a particular climate or location.

Building permits and building codes are part of a system for making sure that what we build, remodel, or renovate will be safe, and that it will last. This system protects our pocketbooks by making sure work gets done right the first time. Getting a building permit and getting the job done right also protect the value of our homes and businesses, and make them easier to resell.

When do I need a building permit?

The specific requirements for when to get a building permit vary from place to place. But here are some general examples of the kinds of projects that do – and do not – require building permits:

Usually DOES require a building permit:

  • Building a house
  • Adding a room or dormer
  • Building a garage
  • Adding or removing walls
  • Adding or changing a porch or sun room
  • Installing a swimming pool
  • Building a deck over 30” off the ground
  • Installing a new furnace
  • Altering windows or doors
  • Changing duct work or electrical wiring
  • Plumbing a bathroom

Usually DOES NOT require a building permit:

  • Building a one story garden shed, playhouse or other outbuilding that is less than 200 square feet
  • Building a fence that is not over 6 feet high
  • Painting, wallpapering, tiling, carpeting, and other finish work
  • Installing swings or other play equipment for a one- or two-family dwelling
  • Replacing a fixture (such as a toilet) or an appliance

You must verify the exact requirements in your area!

Where do I get a building permit?

Local governments issue most building permits. If you live in a town or a city, your municipal government will issue you a permit. If you live in an unincorporated area, your county government will issue one. The local office that issues building permits may be called the Department of Community Development, the Planning Department, or a similar name.

Many local governments have information about building permits on their web sites. Some also have the forms you will need to fill out, and information about what to bring with you when you apply for a permit.

It’s important to find out in advance what to bring with you when you apply for a building permit. You may need to bring specific plans and a legal description of your property, and your permit may be delayed if you don’t have the right documents with you when you apply.

What is a building code, and who writes them?

Building codes are detailed rules for ensuring safety and consumer protection. They specify how buildings must be constructed, wired, plumbed, and ventilated, and what materials may be used. Building codes are written by people from the construction industry and government officials.

Building codes have been around for thousands of years. The first known building code was in Babylon. It was very simple: It said that if a building collapsed, the person who built it should be slain. Today’s codes are more complex, to say the least.

Generally speaking, the building industry and governments are working to make codes more consistent all across the US, and eventually they hope to have a consistent national code. However, Washington, Oregon and California have stricter energy codes than other states, designed to reduce the amount of energy used.

How long does it take to get a building permit?

The time it takes to get a building permit varies, depending on where you live, and the size, cost, and complexity of your project. You can speed up the process by finding out in advance what you need to take with you when you apply.

In the last few years, many local governments have been working to make getting building permits faster and easier, because citizens and builders have complained when permits were delayed. Many cities and towns have streamlined their building permit processes to provide better, more customer-friendly services.

If you have problems getting a building permit, your local elected officials want to know about it. They are committed to improving services, and they need to hear from citizens about whether their efforts are succeeding, or whether more work is needed.

How much does a building permit cost?

Most building permit fees are based on the size and cost of the project. Fees range from $20-30 for small, simple projects to several thousand dollars for building an expensive new house.

What can happen if I don’t get a building permit?

If you don’t get a building permit for a project that requires one, it is a violation of the law. Local officials may issue a “stop work order” until you get required permits. If you complete your project without a building permit and an inspection, you risk having to make costly repairs if the job isn’t done right, and you risk your own and your family’s safety. If the project doesn’t meet building codes, it may have to be redone. There are additional penalties and fees when this happens. You may also be required to have the work redone in order to sell your home.

Building permit trivia: