A Do-it-yourselfer’s (DIY) Guide to Building Permits

Living in the country has many advantages when it comes to remodeling one’s own property or building completely new structures on one’s own property. The local authorities having jurisdiction have a tendency to look the other way if the property owner doesn’t pull the required building permits as long as no one files a formal complaint against them. Many country folk will do everything from building a patio on their old farm house to completely rewiring their milking sheds without pulling a single permit but it’s not a practice that I would recommend to anyone. Most of the country folk that I do work for balk when I include permit fees in my estimates but I refuse to work without all the required permits and having all the required inspections done. I try to communicate to my customers that working under the required permits is as much for their protection as mine because work performed without a permit could make their homeowners insurance null and void.

Homeowners are permitted to do almost anything that a licensed trade’s person is as long as they are the occupants of the residence. If residence is rented or leased to other who occupy the home owner cannot do many things, things like electrical repairs and remodeling work that involves electrical work. Although the authorities having jurisdiction permit homeowners to do their own work, the home owner is still required to pull or the required permits and they are required to have all the inspection required by those permits. Permits are a good thing. Besides keeping your insurance coverage intact, they are proof that you have the knowledge needed to do the work involved. You have to present detailed drawings when applying for a permit and these drawing give the building department engineers a pretty good idea of your qualifications. If your project involves electrical or plumbing work you can also expect to be asked some pretty pointed questions involving the NEC (National Electric Code) as well as other national and local building codes. The inspections required by the permits are important too because the inspectors are experts at what they do and they will catch any mistakes that you may make and most of them will even make suggestions as to what you can do to correct them.

When are you required to pull a permit?

Permits are required anytime you alter an existing structure. What does that mean exactly? If you construct a deck where no deck existed before you are altering the existing structure and you need a permit. If there is a deck already built on your home and you simply replace the existing steps with new ones because the old were rotten, you are not altering the structure and no permit is required. If you are replacing an older light fixture with a modern, energy efficient one, no permit is required. If you are installing a ceiling fan/light in a room where no ceiling fixture existed and you have to run a new circuit for it, a permit is required. It’s simply a matter of whether you are repairing something that already existed or whether you are adding something entirely new. In the latter case you need to get a permit before proceeding with your project.

When do I need zoning approval?

Some localities have very strict zoning regulations as to what kind of alterations that you can make to your property. Some structure may have to be set back a certain distance from your property line or from the street. Some communities may have special regulations to preserve the historical appearance of the property and you must abide by those rules and regulations. If what you plan to do involves an alteration to the exterior appearance of your home and property it’s always a good idea to check the zoning laws before you even apply for a building permit.

What do you need to have in hand when you apply for a building permit?

Depending on what the project involves you may need some or all of the following items

  • plot map
  • floor plans
  • specifications
  • elevations
  • mechanical, plumbing, and electrical drawings
  • foundation plan
  • energy documentation
  • structural calculations
  • required fire-protection equipment

If you have any questions about which documents you will need call the building department and they will tell you exactly what you will need to supply.

As a rule the people that work for the building department, everyone from the counter clerk to the building inspectors that inspect your work are friendly, helpful folks as long as you play by the rules and playing by the rules means that you don’t start your project until you have the actual permit in hand.


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Jerry Walch
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Posted on Apr 8, 2009
Jen Frank
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Posted on Apr 8, 2009