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When it comes to making a plan to either update or expand your living space, one question that comes to mind is whether the project requires a building permit or not? Building permits (also called construction permits) work to ensure public safety by requiring builders and planners to follow a series of standards. Projects without required permits may turn into huge headaches and may cause draining of vital financial resources.

This article goes into detail on how to know if you need a building permit as well as the potential consequences if you build without a permit when it’s required.

What are Building Permits

Business dictionaries state that building permits are the approval of potential building plans by specific agencies in a particular location. Offices that handle permit information include your local Development Services and the Building Department. Structural changes and alterations to existing buildings require permits besides new construction. Property owners must obtain all required building permits for their desired projects.

Room and floor additions, decks, porches and sheds all require permits. Approval is also required for roofing projects that include extreme re-sheeting. Building new walls within a property also requires a building permit. Laws differ by locale, so interested parties should connect with the city or county where the construction is needed before committing to a particular project.

Permit types vary from county to county but general options include:

  • Structural permits that address building elements and appearance.
  • Plumbing permits that deal with indoor and wastewater features.
  • Mechanical permits that cover work conducted on heating, cooling and ventilation systems.
  • Electrical permits that handle new and corrected electrical work.
  • Combination permits combine two or more permit types. This typically covers single-family dwellings.

Why is Having a Building Permit Important?

Permits ensure that every construction project meets a series of health and safety codes to protect current and future inhabitants. The review process deals with sanitation, ventilation and structural strength. Experts also make sure that the new structures fall within community guidelines. For example, modern construction features will not always be welcome within historic districts and most residential districts do not condone commercial add-ons.

Real estate blogs and local newspapers constantly debate whether building permits are an absolute necessity. Some buyers and occupants feel they enjoy more usable space without paying premium prices. This sounds great, but consider some horror stories of electric fires due to short circuits and partial collapses due to non-regulated amateur work.

How to Tell if You Need a Building Permit

Code Enforcement Officers tell property owners to consider the following points. If any of the situations apply to an upcoming project, building permits are required.

  • Construction, repair or installation estimated to cost more than $5,000 United States dollars (USD) will most likely need an approval.
  • Work dealing with load-bearing structures as determined by building professionals will need a permit.
  • Any additions or changes to structural, electrical, plumbing, heating or cooling systems need approval.
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Property owners should check with the authorities to see if their projects need permits. Once again, every county has different qualifications and some may be more stringent than others. Careful research also keeps your financial budgets in check.

Penalties for Ignoring the Law

Average building permit fees as of November 2012 range from $50 to $41,075 USD depending upon the assessed project value. Some property owners opt out of applying for permits due to ignorance. Either way the decision winds up being a costly one.

Building Permit with Young Barry Morgan* Stop Work Orders

State or country law-enforcement agencies issue Stop-Work orders on non-permitted projects. Property owners lose money as equipment and personnel wait for proper paperwork. In some cases, they may have to pay a daily fine until the project is given the permission to restart.

In extreme cases, property owners may have to tear down new structures and convert buildings back to their previous appearance. The process, also known as un-renovating, commonly occurs when builders ignore setback guidelines. Setbacks are wall recessions that provide properties with improved light and air circulation. Simple paperwork could have eliminated all this financial loss and heartache.

* Home Insurance

Property owners also encounter problems with home insurers when they do not receive prior upgrade approvals. Imagine someone taking a legal action after getting hurt inside your new, fabulous swimming pool. Existing coverage will not be of much assistance because the structure is an illegal add-on. This also applies to amateur decks that collapse under the weight of a family reunion or casual barbecue. The event could end in major financial disaster in addition to a host of injured guests.

To conclude, it may seem like a small part of the renovation or construction process but building permits carry huge weight. As a property owner, you may have to wait up to a month to receive your building permit, but once you have it, you know you have a building project legally considered safe. Never let the desire for new and improved dwellings cloud good judgment. Take a few minutes and consider a few questions to determine if your project requires a building permit or not.


Richard Campen is owner of ArchwayPress Garage and House Plans, a website with 1000’s of custom house plans and garage plans available for purchase from leading architects around the country. ~jb, Editor

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