7 DIY Projects That Actually Need Permits

A measuring tape and small house on top of a building permit.

Being a lawbreaker looks pretty cool in the movies, and sometimes you end up rooting for the guy who’s flouting all the rules. But in real life, you have to play by the rules or you’ll end up getting seriously burned by fines and other big problems. So before you strap on your toolbelt and get down and dirty with your latest DIY project, make sure you’re staying well within the boundaries of the law. Get all the proper paperwork before you perform one of these DIY projects that actually needs permits before you can start on them.

1. Fences

Someone holding a level on the top of fence boards.

Fencing in your yard is a great addition to any property. A good fence can increase home value, add privacy, or give you that perfect white picket look everyone dreams about. Just make sure the dream includes a few calls to the local building inspection office because you may not be able to build a fence of any size anywhere on your property without getting a permit first. Lots of places have strict codes regarding fence size and fence material. For example, if you're planning on a 10-foot fence topped with barbed wire, you're probably going to have to change those plans after you chat with the permit office. You'll also want to check with your neighborhood association (if you have one) because many neighborhoods have their own fence codes that must be followed.

2. Water Heaters

They look simple enough. You disconnect something here, turn off something there, replace it, and hook it up. But water heaters are nothing to mess around with. When improperly installed, a water heater can actually kill you. Yes, kill you. That's why all water heater installation must be permitted, and it's highly recommended that you use a licensed plumber to perform this task rather than attempting to DIY it. No matter what, make sure you get your water heater permit before you install a new one in your home, if for no other reason than to obtain peace of mind that you'll be totally safe.

3. Sheds and Outbuildings

A shed in a backyard.

Want to add a shed to your property for convenient storage? Since you can purchase entire pre-made sheds in all sorts of places, it seems like a simple matter to get a shed or build one and plop it down somewhere in your yard. But it's not so easy because you have to get an approved permit before you add any kind of new structure to your property no matter how small and simple your shed may be. Some states, cities, and counties have very precise specifications regarding sheds, so make sure you get all your paperwork and ensure your shed is up to code before you get slapped with a hefty fine.

4. Garages

Want to convert your garage into a living space? Turning a garage into an extra bedroom, an office, or a home gym is so common it's practically a cliche, but that doesn't mean it's something you can do all by yourself. No matter what level of skill you may have, you also have to get a permit and get permission before making this change. You need to get approval from your local Housing Authority before turning the garage into any sort of living space, so go ahead and add this task to your to-do list.

5. Decks

Someone cutting wood boards for a deck with a circular saw.

Adding a deck is a great way to create outdoor living space and it increases the value of your property, but it will only give you headaches if you don't get your permit first. There are strict requirements for decks, which must meet certain structural and safety codes. The permit will probably include standards for adding railings and a bunch of other technical specifications needed to meet building codes, so you definitely don't want to skip this essential step.

6. Floor Plans

Want to eliminate that wall? Open up a staircase? Get rid of a closet, or make your closet even bigger? If you're doing anything to change the layout of your home, you need a permit for that, whether or not your plans involve a load-bearing wall. It's a common misconception that you need a permit only if you're altering a load-bearing wall—but that's not true. Anything that alters the layout of your home, even if you're just changing a tiny corner closet, requires a permit.

7. Windows and Doors

Someone measuring a window frame.

You can purchase windows and doors ready-to-install from home improvement stores, and on the surface this looks like a pretty straightforward DIY task. But it's not because you actually do need a permit before you can replace any exterior windows and doors for your home. There are strict regulations about light and ventilation and code standards regarding window and door frames. So before you think about doing it, get all the right permits first.

It’s always a good idea to call your local permit office before performing any serious DIY work on your home. Simple projects like painting, adding trim, and placing shelves are pretty safe and straightforward, but when you start thinking about moving a wall or building something new, make the call before you finalize your plans. Before you complete your DIY budget, don’t forget to find out about permits so you can factor this cost into your final plan. Safer DIY is better DIY, so it’s worth it to check on permits before you forge ahead.