While it may be difficult to get exact numbers nationally, recent surveys show that when renovating or working on their home, nearly 75% of homeowners do all/part of the work themselves. I’m all for the do-it-yourself style as my clients may be aware already, but that means that many people are doing work on their own and it’s easy to miss steps when you’re a weekend warrior with a lot of enthusiasm but perhaps not a lot of experience. Having the tools and the knowledge are one thing, but knowing the process is easy to screw up. I find this is most often seen in failing to gain proper permits for the work which can result in dangerous work and cost homeowners fines and very large expenses when the errors are discovered.
Is Permitting Intrusive / Evil?
Depending on who you ask you might get that idea, and I won’t claim that every municipality is perfect in this regard but, despite what you may have been told, permitting is not meant to make homeowners and contractors lives more difficult. The requirements of doing work to a permit and being evaluated by an inspector can be frustrating if you’re not experienced with the work at hand, but the end result is a properly constructed and safe structure that should last for many years. Let’s look at the purpose common permit required work in the next section.
The Basics of Permitting
What Requires a Permit?
The general rule here is anything that is structural, makes a structure weather tight, or deals with the major systems of a home is typically work that requires permits. While this will vary from one city/municipality to another, some examples of this include:
Decks, porches and other additions
Retaining walls in excess of 4 feet
Replace windows and doors
Re-roof / re-siding of home (not universally true)
Addition or relocation of plumbing lines (water supply and waste)
Replacement of water heater, heating and cooling systems (HVAC)
Electrical work (excepting minor repair work)
What DOESN’T Require a Permit?
As mentioned earlier, this can vary from one area to the next, but typically you do not need permits to:
Replacing a tub or sink
Replacing light fixtures
Adding or re-doing cabinets or shelves
Most yard projects
As long as the projects immediately above don’t significantly alter a structure or change what is existing, you are typically free to do as you please without any outside review. We’ll address the basic permitting process later on, but most cities make it fairly easy once you know how the system works. Still, you may wonder why are permits important?
The Purpose of Permitting
Your city cares about building permits because there are standards that result in an agreed upon, safe, construction of work on a home. Whether a municipality uses their State Building Code (as in the Minnesota version relevant for our clients) or the International Building Code, the result is a set of standards that ensure that new construction projects are utilizing the best possible practices and builders are on the same page.
A common example that I am personally familiar with (I personally replaced a 50 year old deck with a new one in 2022) is decks on residential homes. In the years between the first and most recent deck, standards changed to account for different usages, modern materials such as composite decking, and a better understanding of the loads at play (including snow loads in our climate). Newer decks that are built to code are not only safer for all users, but also represent the best known construction practices available today. Further, they are often easier to build as a result and adherance to the code guidelines protects homeowners against litigation (by preventing failure and being able to demonstrate following code).
Using the deck example, the permit focuses mainly on the minimum standards for construction such as footing dimensions, post and beam sizes, railing height and stair run/rise. As long as those items are followed, there is little else a building inspector is concerned with. They don’t mind at all if you improve upon something to make it more durable or better constructed. The same goes for a project like a retaining wall over 4 feet in our city. The rationale for permits and basic requirements are designed to result in a retaining wall that will not fail to do its job for its serviceable life.
A Cautionary Example
On the other hand, in 2021 I showed a house to a client where the homeowner did work to a deck/addition in 2020 that no work permits were pulled. It was a nice house, but it became clear quickly that something wasn’t right. A 3-season porch was converted into year round living space. Tile floor was added to the former decked surface, and a new perimeter deck was installed around the earlier deck/porch. Footings for this new deck were pre-poured blocks placed at ground level and the posts. Lumber was somewhat scarce in 2020 so it appears that the joists were spaced wider (aka “over-spanned”). New joists and decking were secured to old posts and a new “ledger” board was not installed for new decking.
I don’t know the outcome of that home; my clients wisely passed on purchasing it. Anyone with some familiarity of decks would have counted not less than 5 serious hazards in the description above, and it’s not a stretch to infer more. That great new room and deck, complete with gas fireplace will fail at some point. It may be minor, or it may be major, but the long term cost to repair and replace is sure to be painful for a homeowner.
Permits Matter to Buyers and Sellers
As real estate professionals, agents and brokers are required by state law to disclose “material facts” to parties to a transaction. This means that if we know of something that is an issue, or potential issue, we are bound to disclose it to protect our clients. When I work with a buyer, I will attempt to verify that recent work has been permitted properly. We do this by looking up ePermits [many cities now have online databases of all permit work going back 10+ years] or inquiring with sellers and listing agents on whether the work is completed as such. If anything is discovered that does not demonstrate the work was done properly to permit, we have to have a conversation with our clients to determine if they are okay with taking on the risk.
Buyers are understandably concerned to learn that Uncle Buck installed the new furnace on a Saturday while knocking back some ice cold ones. They may be less concerned that you replaced a broken window on your own, but without permits, a buyer is left to take a strangers word on the matter. As a seller, everything you can show that indicates your home was cared for and maintained in a proper manner reinforces its value.
Doing Permits Correctly
Whether you are doing work yourself, or having it done by a contractor, you can make sure that the work is done right and with the necessary permits by just doing a little research. If you are having a contractor do the work, verify that they will pull the permits and discuss the process beforehand. Where I live in Eagan, Minnesota I can begin my search by going to the city building inspection page.
You’ll notice in this case that I can also apply for permits or search for permits for other properties, all while getting a quick understanding of the project I have in mind and the necessary steps. The permit search is invaluable for us as agents to see what work was done on a property, and how recently something was completed. If you determine that your project requires a permit, the available “handouts” can serve as your rule book for how to do what you plan to do. If you hire a contractor, you can still do the research portion of the below list and you can stay in the loop with your General Contractor better.
My recommendations for permitted work for DIY projects are:
Do a little research – check your cities requirements, buy or checkout a book on the project you hope to do, and use online design programs to conceptualize your project.
Call the Building Inspections department for your city – you’ll find most of these folks are very helpful and willing to talk or email with you on your project.
Apply for permit – create a detailed project plan and submit for approval.
Work to the permit– keep all your documentation handy, and consult it frequently. If an issue or error arises, get in touch with your inspector quickly to remedy.
Do what an inspector recommends – you’re not likely to win an argument, but I’ve gotten good results when asking an inspector for clarification on an item.
Just remember, an inspector doesn’t want to keep coming back to your project any more than you want them in your hair every few days.
I run into discussion for and against permits frequently, and I will agree that its possible to do great work without a permit. The fact is, however, that it’s very difficult to do sub-par work when it’s properly permitted. If you choose to turn a blind eye as a homeowner, you do so at your own potential peril. If you’re a buyer, You should be very cautious of work you believe to have been done without permit (particularly work related to natural gas, electric, and water). The potential issues caused by these either can take a while to make themselves known, or do so unexpectedly in a dangerous way.
Because of this, if you ever plan to sell your home you owe it to future you to do things right the first time and don’t skip out on necessary permits. Well educated buyers and excellent agents can tell when things don’t add up, and for the benefit of my clients, I dig into the issues I see. You may be able to provide a satisfactory answer for why you didn’t permit it, but it’s left to a potential buyer to decide if that’s fine by them.