The old proverb “Measure twice, cut once” reminds us that we need to make sure we know what we’re doing before we get started on anything we can’t undo. That’s a good thing to keep in mind as you start a new building or demolition project. And, part of that preparation involves getting the permits you need.
Building permits, right? That’s often what we think of when we hear the word “permits.” But if you’re demolishing a structure—even if you’re going to rebuild in that same location—you may need a demolition permit as well. And it’s best to find out before the demolition starts.
A demolition permit is a legal document that grants the permission to demolish a structure. In builders’ lingo, it’s commonly called a “demo permit”. One is usually needed for any separate structure that would require a building permit to build, even if the structure you want to demolish didn’t have a building permit in the first place. If you want to demolish a house as well as a detached garage, you’ll probably need a permit for each. It’s wisest to check your local area’s codes to determine if you need a permit—and how many you might need.
What is Home Demolition?
If your home has suffered extensive water or fire damage or has significant cracking in its foundation, you may need to have it demolished. But you might also demolish a structure because you want to build something else in its place. Or perhaps you’re just tired of having that old barn falling apart on your property.
Demolition or Alteration?
Not every change to a structure on your property is “demolition,” even if it involves removing part of that structure. City ordinances generally distinguish between demolition and a major alteration.
Demolition is the removal of all the exterior walls and the entire superstructure, all the way down to the subflooring, the lowest level of flooring that serves as the base for the finished floor. It can also include changing, removing, or abandoning the whole existing perimeter of a structure’s foundation.
Major alteration, however, can include adding a story or expanding the foundation significantly – building up or building out, or both. In the process, a major alteration may include removing 50% or more of the exterior walls.
But because some of the exterior wall of the structure remains unchanged, it is not considered total demolition. If your major alteration becomes a demolition along the way, you will likely need to apply for a demolition permit and may have an additional delay before you can proceed.
These definitions vary by city or county. So, it is worthwhile to check local building codes to determine what they consider a “wall” and how it is determined that all the exterior walls have been removed. In Pittsburgh, for instance, a demolition permit is required for both the total and the partial demolition of a building, but not if the demolition is only of the interior elements.
No Permit Required
Not every demolition requires a permit. You don’t need to get a demo permit for:
A permit is required for other demolitions:
The removal of a primary structure’s external walls and superstructure. But in Cook County, IL, a permit is required for the removal or disturbance of any “load-supporting or load-bearing structural member of the building.”
The demolition of an accessory structure (e.g., shed, garage, playhouse) if it is over a certain size, has a mechanical or utility system (e.g., electrical, plumbing, sewer), has a basement or similar foundation, or includes hazardous materials (e.g., asbestos). In Portland, structures 200 sq. ft. or larger require a permit
The removal of a significant part of a structure in order to make an addition to the structure
It is particularly the possibility of damage to utilities and the risks associated with hazardous materials that make it important to get a permit and to make sure that the work is carried out properly.
There are a number of other things to keep in mind as you prepare for your demolition project.
Some municipalities require a delay before the demolition project can proceed. In some cases, for instance in Boston, this is to give time for alternatives to demolition to proposed, especially in the case of historical buildings. In other cases, it is to allow other organizations—or your neighbors—to be notified.
Historic buildings have special requirements, which may include additional permits, delays, and the requirement that a certified deconstruction contractor carry out the demolition in order to preserve materials for reuse. Even if the structure has not been designated as an historical building, it may still be subject to these requirements due to its age.
In some municipalities, you not only need a permit from the city. You may need other permits, as well, some before you even apply for the demolition permit. In Boston, for example, you must have a demolition permit from the Fire Department. In addition, if hazardous materials are involved, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection also needs to give approval.
Before demolition can proceed, you may be required to have documentation relating to hazardous material (e.g., asbestos, lead paint), a demolition plan, and a plan for protection of other properties from your debris and dust.
After the demolition is complete, the soil must be ready for new construction. If a basement has been filled in, the soil will also need to be compacted and the area inspected, since construction is generally not allowed on top of disturbed soils, since they are prone to settling.
Utilities requirements vary from city to city. In many localities, a plumbing permit for a utility cap offs is needed.
Codes differ, but many localities require you to inform them about trees that you intend to preserve on the site and to have an inspection before the demolition work begins.
There is more to a demolition project than just the requirements of your municipality. A city code may require site control, including a plan to prevent hazardous material from affecting neighboring properties. But if you live in a community with a Homeowner’s Association, you will also want to make sure that your demolition does not violate their requirements. As a good neighbor, you may also want to inform the people who live next door, since your project will affect them.
How to Get a Demolition Permit – FAQs
It might seem that if you are the owner, you ought to be the one who applies for the demolition permit. And in some localities, that is indeed permitted. But not in all.
In Miami, for instance, “Only a Qualified Licensed Contractor may apply for this permit. A homeowner can not apply for this permit directly.” This ensures that the work will be done by an experienced contractor that won’t damage underground utilities, neighboring properties, etc.
The rules in Fairfax County, VA make that point. While the owner can obtain a permit himself, “it is strongly recommended a properly licensed contractor pull the permits as the responsible party so the county can better assist in gaining compliance for defective work.”
In some municipalities, such as Portland, “If you, the applicant, are not the owner of the property listed on the deed, you will need a completed intent to demolish form signed by all property owners. If you recently purchased the property, you will need to show proof of ownership.”
Where Can I Apply?
Many—but not all—localities allow applications to be filled out online. But even so, you may still need to go to the permit office to complete the application process.
What’s the Process?
- Determine the location of your property (e.g., are you within city limits?) so that you know which ordinances and regulations apply to your demolition project.
- Complete, collect, and submit all the required documents, including the application for a permit. (See the list of common requirements before, but note that your locality’s requirements may vary.)
- Pay for the permit(s).
- Undergo the plan review process, which may entail meeting with city staff to review your demolition plans. There may be a mandatory demolition delay.
- Receive your permit.
What Are the Application Requirements?
The requirements for a demolition permit vary from location to location. Among other things, you will likely need
A completed permit application form, which may include or be accompanied by a description of your plans, the estimated total cost of the project, the names and licenses of the contractors, a copy of the signed contract with the contractor.
A site plan – sometimes called a plot plan, site-area plan, site-related plan, or something like that—is a drawing that shows how you plan to change, alter, improve, or build on a piece of property. In this case, the site plan should allow the permit office to see what is currently on your property and how your demolition project is going to change that—and whether it meets the local rules and regulations.
A site plan may include an erosion control plan if the project is going to disturb the ground. It may also include a tree plan showing existing trees and indicating which are going to be removed and which will remain.
Some demolition projects also require a grading plan.
Other required permits (e.g., from the Fire Department; plumbing permits in cases where a sewer must be capped). Shut-off notices from utility companies may also be required. For example, they will want to be sure that water and natural gas lines are shut off at the street before plumbing is demolished.
A signed agreement to follow state building codes and city zoning laws.
Some municipalities, such as Boston, require payment of the total cost of the demolition in the form of a bond, an Irrevocable Letter of Credit, or a certified check. The bond—or other form of payment—is to ensure that the demolition is carried out safely and in keeping with the regulations. In most cases, it is refundable when the demolition is complete.
How Much Will a Demolition Permit Cost?
Fees for permits vary from location to location and may depend on whether the demolition is residential or commercial. In Fairfax County, VA, for instance, a full demolition permit costs $108.00 and requires a $1000 signature bond. In Cook County, IL, the permit for a residential demolition is $300 for the first structure and $150 for any additional structures. In Atlanta, the fee for a residential demolition is $650 per structure.
How Long Is My Permit Good For?
Many demolition permits are valid for 30 days. In some cases, though, as in Cook County, IL, a permit may be put on hold for up to a year—for instance, if a third party’s delay is keeping you from moving forward with your demolition project. During this hold, however, no demolition work may take place.
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