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  • Andy

Should I get a Building Permit?

One important consideration that should be made in connection with any decision to have work done to your home should be whether or not a building permit is required for the work. Almost every town, village, city or locality will have a building department that issues building permits for home renovations, conducts inspections to make sure that any work performed under those permits is done in a satisfactory and safe manner, and then issue a document at the end of construction that indicates that all the work was done correctly and legally.

Many homeowners are reluctant to get a permit when they have work done in their home and usually it is for one of the following reasons:

  • I’m not doing a major renovation like an addition so a permit isn’t required

  • The permit process is going to slow up the entire process and cost me more money

  • My contractor told me a permit was not needed

  • If I get a permit for my renovation, my real estate taxes will go up

Since any one of the above statements could be true or false, let’s review each one in more detail so that you (as a homeowner) can make a more informed decision the next time the permit question comes up.

Although it may seem like the size of a job can dictate when a permit is required, that is not the case; there are more nuances involved. Loosely ask the question “Is the work I want to do a repair or a renovation?” I say ‘loosely’ because not every situation is cut and dry. If a leak in your upstairs bathroom causes damage to the drywall ceiling in the room below, you may have to replace a section of the ceiling but this would almost always be considered a repair and not require a permit. If however you are removing a drywall ceiling to insulate and install new LED lighting and plan to install a new hardwood floor in that room while you are at it, a permit would be required. In addition to the repair/renovation question, you may want to ask yourself “Am I adding value to my home?” This is the litmus test that many building departments will consider when deeming if a permit is necessary.

The permit process will cost you some additional money since there will most certainly be a fee to issue a permit and possibly to conduct any needed inspections. In some cases, the application process can add some waiting time to your job as well, especially if your locality has a backlog of work. Neither of these too factors should discourage you for obtaining a permit. More than likely, the permit fee will be a small percentage of your total job cost. Any waiting period could help you better prepare for you job and most contractors worth hiring will also not be able to start immediately anyway. Remember that you a dealing with your home here… probably the single most expensive and important asset in your life. A little more time shouldn’t be sacrificed for getting things done right.

When people tell me that their “contractor told me that a permit wasn’t needed”, I always cringe just a little bit. It is absolutely true that not every job you call a contractor in for will require a permit but there are also a lot of shady contractors out there as well. You have seen the shows on cable. My advice to you is to do some homework on your own before you even call for your first quote. Most localities and counties have websites set up to help homeowners through the home improvement process. Many have specific examples of when a building permit is required and when one is not. You can usually find an online database of all licensed contractors in your area as well. Two points of advice: (1) if you are thinking of using an unlicensed contractor…Don’t! (2) If a contractor tries to convince you not to get a permit when you know one is required, just thank them for their time and call someone else. If a contractor doesn’t follow some of the rules (like getting licensed and pulling a building permit) then they likely will not follow other rules as well (like using inferior building products and not following standard building practices).

One fear that some people have is that if they get a building permit and “let the village know about the work they are having done” that their property taxes will go up. I really do not have any absolute knowledge that this is true or false. My feeling is that is likely depends on multiple considerations and varies from town to town. Don’t be afraid to speak to the people in your village or town hall. I have had people tell me that they were afraid to call the building department to ask questions because that would alert them that they were considering getting work done in their house. Firstly, they answer “what if” questions all day as part of their job and probably have other work to do besides tracking your address for months in the hopes of catching you doing illegal work. More importantly however, if you are afraid of getting caught doing something then you likely believe that you are doing something wrong.

There is one last element in the building permit decision making process that should be considered and that is whether any of this will have an impact later on when you want to sell your home? Most residential purchase contracts will contain the following language or something similar:

“Seller represents that (i) any alterations made to the dwelling by seller were done in accordance will all applicable governmental regulations, (including without limitation all zoning laws and building codes); (ii) all necessary permits and licenses were obtained and all required fees were paid in connection with such alterations, and (iii) all such alterations were approved by the appropriate governmental agency. Seller specifically agrees to hold Purchaser harmless from and against any loss, claims or damage occasioned by any that’s contrary to the representations and warranties hereunder. This paragraph shall survive closing.”

My intent in this article was not to necessarily promote building permits but rather to help you make better informed decisions. That being said, I don’t think anyone should be afraid of the process either. Take the time to find a contractor who will take the time to discuss your project with you and answer all the questions you have. Don’t be afraid to be an active participant in the process either.

Wishing you the best with all your future home improvement projects!

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