Why are building permits required for home improvements? When are they needed? How can property owners best navigate the quirks of the permitting process?


Building permits often rank right down there with doing your taxes, or going to the dentist. They are also just as important.

It is essential for homeowners to understand the need for permits, when they are needed, and the penalties of trying to make changes to a property without approval. Here’s what you need to know…

Why You Need to Get a Building Permit for Home Addition, Remodeling, or a Major Improvement Project:

“Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do.” – FEMA

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) opens its introduction to building codes with the above quote.

While there are many different causes of real estate related injuries; codes are designed to keep people safe.

Some may argue that they help generate local government revenues and protect the most entrenched home and commercial real estate builders. This system also makes it simpler for mortgage lenders to evaluate collateral and make loans.

The earliest record of building codes is the Mesopotamian Code of Hammurabi, which dates back to 1754 BC. Back then it was much simpler.

Instead of needing permits to hold them accountable, builders were held to compensating home buyers for any damages caused by faulty work. If someone were killed due to bad construction the builder or their mirroring family members would be put to death. Talk about motivation to deliver high quality work!

Other major historical moments on the building code timeline include the Rebuilding of London Act, after to homes of 70,000 out of 80,000 residents were lost in the great Fire of London. The City of Baltimore recorded its first code back in 1859.

Today most municipalities in the US appear to have adopted building code models. These are increasingly based on models created by the International Code Council (ICC), but are often customized at a state, county, and city level.

Building permits give contractors and property owners permission to conduct work, and aim to maintain uniform codes of aesthetics and safety.

How Do I Get a Building Permit?

The process of obtaining building permits by contractors and property owners may vary slightly depending on location, and governing authorities. There may be state, regional, county, and city codes and building departments involved.

In general the process will include:

  1. Obtaining a building permit application online
  2. Submitting your request with proof of ownership, and plans
  3. Paying the applicable upfront fee
  4. Waiting for building department approval
  5. Final inspections or Certificate of Occupancy

Site plans and project plans may need to include elevations, locations of electrical panels and outlets, locations of plumbing fixtures, details of materials and fasteners, and energy calculations.

Did you know? Most homeowners spend between $250 and $1,400 to obtain a building permit. The average is $800. Note: there may also be impact fees due depending on the type of work being done.

Understandably most homeowners are completely lost when it comes to obtaining building permits for remodeling or major home improvement or addition projects. It just sounds complicated and time consuming. It can be, but often isn’t as difficult as it appears.

3 ways to make it easier:

Most contractors and service providers will offer to handle the building permit application for you. They want to make it easy and stress free to use their services.

Check their websites when shopping around for your new pool, sunroom, or shed, and many advertise this extra perk. If in doubt call and ask.

Permit Services

Permit expediting services such as US Permit offer third party help to navigate and streamline the process of securing permits. They’ll work with you to collect the information that needs to be submitted, and deal with the authorities for you.

Online Site Plans and Conceptual Drawings

Did you know? When applying for a building permit you can often save time and money by providing a site plan with your application? Nine times out of ten, your city hall or township will accept an uncertified site plan, which means that you don’t need to hire a professional surveyor.

We offer remote plan drafting services to expedite the process for homeowners. We can turn around site plans in 24 hours, for around as cheap as $100, versus waiting on professional surveyors which may charge as much as $1,000 or more.

When Do I Need a Building Permit?

The four main occasions when a building permit is required are:

  1. New construction
  2. Home additions
  3. Major renovations
  4. Structural changes
  5. Electrical, plumbing, and mechanical work

Essentially if the work entails anything to do with safety or changing the look or layout of the property you can count on needing a permit.

If you are hiring contractors and vendors they should know if you need a permit and should be willing to help obtain it for you. Just make sure they do. If in doubt it is always better to contact the local building department and ask.

Common projects requiring a permit may include:

  • Installing new roofing
  • New electrical panels
  • Adding or moving electrical and plumbing fixtures
  • Blocking off or adding windows and doors
  • Garage conversions
  • Installing a swimming pool
  • Finishing an attic or basement
  • Installing green building features on the exterior (i.e. solar panels)

When Don’t I Need a Building Permit?

Fortunately there may be quite a few home remodeling projects which are exempt from permits.

This may include:

  • Traditional tribal architecture
  • Installing portable appliances
  • Resurfacing floors
  • Interior and exterior paint
  • Resurfacing driveways
  • Decorative pools and ponds
  • Children’s playground equipment
  • Screening in existing covered patios
  • Walkways and concrete pads
  • Covered awnings
  • Replacing air conditioning units
  • Basic alarm and communications systems
  • Replacing common fixtures

There can be exceptions to all the above, and rules depend on where your property is located. It is always safest to ask.

Awkward Permitting Quirks to Watch Out for

Code enforcement and building departments are rarely fun to engage with. Sometimes it is far easier to get a permit than expected. Then there are those times that homeowners and these powers butt heads.

One of the outcomes of work that requires building permits can be increased tax assessed values. That can mean higher property taxes. This especially applies to additions and increasing square footage and bedroom counts.

Then there can be quirks to presumed permitting exemptions. For example, Miami-Dade County, Florida offers an extensive list of home improvements which do not require permits, unless they exceed $1,000 or $5,000 thresholds. If you are renovating the average Miami Beach condo you aren’t going to get much done for less than $5,000.

Somethings which owners wouldn’t expect require permits too such as sheds and alternative structures like shipping container architecture.

Trees are another major stressor. Imagine a hurricane comes through, blows down a tree on your property and the city hauls it away. You think nothing of it; after all it was nature and the city doing their jobs; you had nothing to do with it. Then you get hit with a code violation and fine because you didn’t get a permit to remove the tree. Now the city expects you to obtain a permit to remove the old tree, and to get plans and a permit to replace the tree with a new one! It happens.

Permitting departments are not always the fastest. It can often take 30 to 60 days to get permit approval. This can get far worse if there has been a major storm or there is a major building boom.

Real estate investors need to take this into account when renovating and flipping houses. Putting in a swimming pool may add value but waiting two months for a permit can add to holding costs too.

Note that building codes are constantly changing too. This is specifically true when it comes to standards for wind and flood mitigation. If a current structure has been damaged it may need to be built to new codes.

The Dangers of Forgoing Building Permits

The perceived hassle and expense of getting a building permit tempts many homeowners and amateur contractors to try to get away without them. They often do get away with it, at least temporarily.

When it comes to permits RE/MAX Executive Realty in Massachusetts says “it’s vital,” and warns that failing to obtain them can “stop a home sale.” It’s true.

Sellers are required to disclose any work done that should have required a permit. That can be checked against public record.

Work done without a permit can and should scare home buyers. Mortgage lenders normally won’t loan on these properties either. Title companies often won’t facilitate a sale or insure properties with these issues.

The current owner is always at fault in terms of permits and the building department. So if you buy a home with issues you’ll be on the hook to fix it.

That means getting a permit for work that was done illegally, or incurring hefty fines. These fines can accrue at a rate of $1,000 a day.

Neglect the issue for just 1 year and you’ll have a lien for more than $365,000 against your property. That will have to be paid before you can sell the property.

Buyers and owners that find themselves in this situation are best off tackling it early and head on. As a new and unsuspecting owner working with local code enforcement may buy you 7 to 30 days to fix the situation. In other cases, a good real estate attorney may be able to negotiate down the sum you owe.


Building permits are serious. Never skimp on a permit. If you aren’t sure if you need one always ask. Fortunately, most homeowners won’t have to deal with getting permits for themselves.

There are third party professionals that will handle it for them. And in most cases, it is a relatively easy process to navigate. Just be sure you aren’t doing illegal work, and don’t buy properties unless they are inspected and have permits for all changes made.

Note: Here’s how we can help: 24hplans has team of highly trained, professional architects and drafters who can prepare any kind of site plan in the shortest amount of time possible, so that you can easily get obtain that building permit and get on with your project. Use the promotion code: 24hplans-20off to get a 20% discount off any package. — Please note this is a limited time offer, exclusive to the readers of our blog. This offer is not being advertised anywhere else.