How to Apply for a Building Permit

Lead Image for How to Apply for a Building Permit

Acquiring building permits can be daunting, which is why knowing the process before you start can help make it all go a little smoother. With the multitude of projects available for both interior and exterior home renovations, hiring a professional may or may not be the answer to help get you started. Here is an overview of how to apply for a building permit so you can make an informed decision on how best to move forward with your project.

Know Your Area

Every municipality will be a little different when it comes to permits. Check with your jurisdiction before making any major changes, and if you aren’t sure if something needs a permit, make a call to the local building department. While the International Building Code covers the majority of the United States, not all communities have adopted every aspect similarly. What may be strictly enforced in New York City, for example, may be overlooked in a smaller town or the neighboring state. With technological, environmental, and energy-efficient changes to construction, local planning and building departments are constantly adapting their rules.

Types of Permits

A pool being constructed in a backyard.

It’s impossible to cover all types of permits that exist, however, permits are almost always required for any major structural modification to your existing living space. Check if any electrical or plumbing changes will need a permit before work starts. The same goes for enlarging any opening in your home, altering windows, conducting sewer work, making roofline changes, adding fireplaces, or constructing outdoor areas like pools. Bathroom and kitchen renovations may not need a permit if walls or major systems aren’t being disrupted but, again, make that call ahead of time to be sure. Minor aesthetic alterations like new carpet, flooring, paint, trim, or lighting fixtures typically don't need a permit.

Prep for Submittal

Once you know you need a permit, the next step is submitting the required plans and details for approval. You can do this yourself or hire a professional, usually the contractor that is doing the work or a recommended third party. Make sure to discuss the full process, outlining what each is responsible for, as well as basic timelines. For jobs like building a small deck, you may be comfortable and knowledgeable enough to submit the building permit yourself, however, larger projects may be too difficult to navigate or may even legally require an engineer to submit plans. Any additions tend to go smoother when the contractor involved goes through the permit process, as there will be multiple stages. Changing out a water heater, however, may be as easy as filling out some paperwork at the municipal office and having it approved that day.

Where to Submit

Every jurisdiction will have a local planning or building department. Whether you submit to the planning or building department depends on the variety and scope of your project. Generally speaking, the planning department is more concerned with how a project will affect the community planning codes, ordinances, and zoning requirements. (Think multi-level decks, major landscaping, additions, or pools.) The building department is more concerned with your home’s structural integrity and that it meets your area’s building code requirements. Some examples of this include taking out walls and changes to electrical and plumbing systems. Often, both departments are involved for larger projects.

Building Permits and Homeowners Associations

Homeowners associations (HOA) can be either beneficial resources or deterrents to your plans. Their approval may be necessary, however, if the planning department decides so. It’s a good idea to check with your local HOA before submitting any plans. It may save you time in the long run and provide some helpful tips. Remember, plans may pass through the planning department and the HOA, but the building department is always the last—and potentially hardest—hurdle to jump through. Additions, for instance, may get approval in the beginning, but will require a building inspector to keep coming back to check the various trades like framing, electrical, plumbing, or HVAC and insulation inspections. Each one must be approved before the next trade can move forward, no matter what the HOA or planning department stamped.

The Costs of Building Permits

A small toy house on a stack of cash against a white background.

Any permit submittal will incur a cost. Small projects should be in the lower hundreds while larger ones can be enormously expensive, especially if designs aren’t fully thought out beforehand. The best way to keep unnecessary costs at bay is to plan well and communicate your ideas to contractors, engineers, or any third parties when applying for a permit. Any noncompliance issues can be found up front with detailed, well-documented plans, saving you time and money in the end. Hiring a professional will cost you money up front as well, but their knowledge of local codes and restrictions will no doubt aid your overall design and keep your project headed in the right direction.

Purpose of Following Codes

Although it may seem cumbersome to even have to think about whether you need a permit, there are many reasons to follow the rules. For example, if you put an addition on your house without a permit and then go to sell your home, the square footage will not be allowed until the project is properly inspected, potentially resulting in tearing out the finished work. Or, imagine you built a treehouse that doesn’t follow sight and/or height guidelines. The planning department may require the structure to be taken down and rebuilt according to code. A properly permitted work site will also maintain safety and prevent hazards, keeping everyone safe and homeowners free from liability.

While smaller, simpler jobs tend to be easier than others to get approved, it doesn’t mean they won’t need detailed plans. Do some research, ask a professional, or place a call to your local building or planning department before any work begins. Submitting a permit may take a day or months to get approved, depending on your project, but in both cases it’s absolutely essential to safeguard the integrity of your home, your community, and potentially your wallet.