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Do I Need a Building Permit?

Becca Stokes
Written by Becca Stokes
Updated October 22, 2021
The facade of a Victorian mansion surrounded by gardens
Jon Lovette/Stone via Getty Images

A building permit ensures your project follows guidelines and is accounted for by officials

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While the rules and regulations about building permits vary depending on where you live, one thing is the same no matter where you go: skipping out on getting a building permit is a bad idea. If you don’t get a building permit, you could face fines and other issues, but you also miss out on a major form of homeowner protection. 

Let’s break down what a building permit is, why you need one, how to get it, as well as the risks you face if you decide not to get a permit at all.

What Is a Building Permit?

A building permit is an authorization form issued by local officials. This authorization is needed before you start any construction, be it a renovation or a build from the ground up. 

On the 18th day of every month, the U.S. Census Bureau shares the total number of construction projects taking place. They can only report construction that has been authorized through a building permit. 

That matters because lots of important folks watch that list. It’s a major economic indicator, as more projects happening means money is moving within the economy. That useful metric is part of why building permits are so essential, but it’s far from the only reason.

What Projects Require Building Permits?

Not every project around your home requires a building permit, as you can usually do more “minor” tasks without one. If you are putting in a new lighting fixture or painting a room, you don’t have to apply for permits. Which projects require permits depends on the codes in the area where you live, which it’s always best to do your own research. Typical examples of projects that require building permits include:

  • Building or removing walls

  • Converting a garage to a guesthouse

  • Redoing your home’s piping 

  • Getting a new roof

  • Demolishing any portion of your home

Why Do You Need a Building Permit?

Being given a building permit means that you and the contractors you hire agree to comply with zoning laws and construction ordinances. 

When you follow those guidelines and make sure everyone on the site does too, you are protecting them, yourself, and the house as a financial asset, too. Abiding by the standards of the building permit means you’re all staying as safe as possible. 

Avoiding any short-cuts in building or construction can prevent damage to your project and may protect your resale value later. Having building permits means that a code-enforcement inspector will visit your site and sign off on things like framing, plumbing, electrical, or other work, guaranteeing it all meets code.

What Are the Risks of Not Having a Building Permit?

There are several risks if you don’t get a building permit. Firstly, it’s a great way of vetting your contractors. If a contractor refuses to file for building permits, it could indicate that they are unlicensed, and thus, not someone you want tackling this project for their safety and your home.

Building without a permit is a violation of the law. If you do it, you could face serious fines and fees. You might even have to tear down your project should you skip the important step of getting a building permit. 

In addition to fines, many insurance providers won’t cover projects without a building permit on record. That leaves you in a serious situation should your project or anyone working on it experience damage.

How Do You Get a Building Permit?

Each area is going to handle issuing building permits slightly differently. The U.S. General Services Administration should be able to direct you to the appropriate guidelines for where you live. That said, here’s what the process looks like generally, so you’ll know what to expect:

1. Fill out a permit application: Once you’ve identified what’s required, gather your materials and file your application in person or online. 

2. Get your site plan ready: This means hiring a contractor or architect to do design drawings so you can make it clear the project will meet building and zoning codes. 

3. Schedule a plan approval meeting: Depending on the size and scope of your project, this can take weeks or months. The process becomes longer if the submitted site plans need revisions to meet code. 

4. Get the physical permit: Do this before you build anything.

5. Schedule inspections: When you file for a permit, you agree to allow permit professionals to inspect the site. It’s not optional.

6. Complete your project: That doesn’t just mean a final coat of paint; it means getting an official sign-off from all the appropriate authorities.

Reach out to your local department of buildings to get more information on the specifics of the building permit application process in your state.

Who Should Apply for a Building Permit?

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Typically, the contractor you hire is responsible for applying for the building permits required. You may hear contractors refer to this as “pulling” the permits—this means applying for them. 

The person who files for the permits for your build is responsible for making sure everyone abides by them. You can do it yourself, but chances are if you have hired a contractor, you trust them, and they are more well-versed in construction and the building permit process itself.

That said, because contractors work on an hourly wage, you might want to take on the permit process yourself, just to save a little bit of money. Of course, if the project is a huge one and you have no experience, you could be making your life a lot more difficult. 

No matter who applies, the homeowner is responsible for paying for the building permits.

How Much Do Building Permits Cost?

The national average cost of a building permit is about $1,330. Homeowners typically spend between $425 and $2,295. That said, there are parts of the country where you could spend upwards of $7,500; meanwhile, towns in rural areas might just charge $150 for one.

The other cost you need to factor in is just how much you’ll be paying for contractors. On average, you will spend $300 to $500 a day on your contractor. General contractors charge on average between 10% and 20% of the overall project cost.

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