You may have just discovered that some renovation projects require permits. As it turns out, you can’t just make any changes you want to your home without getting permission first. Yeah, we know it’s technically your property: you own it and you live there. But hey, them’s the laws! Whether or not you think that’s fair is a discussion for another time.

But one thing we can discuss is how to get the permission you need for your upcoming renovation project. You get this permission through building permits issued through your local government, which you’ll apply for in advance of construction day.

In this guide, we’ll explain how to find out which type of building permit you need, what types of projects you’ll need a permit for, if you even need any permits, approximate permit costs, and how long it takes to get permit approval. Hopefully, after reading this, you’ll have a little more clarity on the subject and feel ready to tackle this step of the renovation preparation.

How Do I Know If I Need A Permit Or Not?

While we do like to pride ourselves on being renovation experts, we don’t know everything about what permits you might need. And that’s because renovation permitting requirements differ on a local basis. 

This means that in order to find out exactly what type of permit you need to apply for, you’ll have to go to your city or county website. 

What permit you need for your renovation is going to be different from your friend who lives one county over, and different from your friend in another state. This is one thing that can make building permits confusing; it’s different everywhere.

But luckily, your county or city website should have a specific guide telling you, in detail, exactly what you need to know. That should be your first stop once you have a good idea of what your renovation project will entail.

For example, the San Francisco website looks like this:

If you live in a historical area, or a flood zone, or any unique space, your permit application and restrictions may be more in-depth.

How Do I Apply For A Permit?

Generally, your general contractor will agree to “pull” the appropriate permits, and then you will be responsible for the costs, but you can always file the application for the permits yourself. In either case, it is vital that you and your contractor make it very clear in your contract who is responsible for what to avoid potential problems or delays.

If you are obtaining the permits yourself, you will have to find and fill out the application for the particular permits your project requires. Again, they can all be found on your county’s building permit website.

Not only will your city or county website explain which types of projects require a permit, it will explain what you need to submit for that permit, how to submit it, and how long it will take to get.

For example, in Baltimore, you need to apply for a special permit that requires additional review for certain projects, like second-story additions, decks on rowhomes, and more. 

In Denver, you need to separately contact the Denver Water Department for a service line evaluation if your pipes are older than 50 years old or made of non-copper material.

In Boston, you’ll need to apply for a “long-form permit,” and you very well may need to visit the permitting office in person to finish the application. 

In Philadelphia, you can visit the Department of License and Inspections website. See our specific guidelines for Getting Permits in Philadelphia here. 

In every city or county, you’ll find specific instructions and/or rules. But in the majority of cases, you will be able to start your process through your local area’s building permitting website. 

We’d recommend talking to your licensed general contractor to get their thoughts on what types of permits you may need and what you’ll have to do to get them.

If they’re local to your area and have worked on similar projects before, they’ll probably have a good idea of the permitting requirements for you.

What Renovation Projects Do I Not Need A Building Permit For?

However, while building permitting laws do differ slightly depending on your exact location, they’re generally all created for the same reason: to keep people safe and comply with zoning codes. 

Therefore, there are some similarities between all areas that generally stay the same, and we’ll explain what those are below.

First, we’ll explain which projects you generally don’t need to apply for a permit for. Again, while it differs in every city and county in the U.S., there are some overarching trends that we can almost guarantee will be true where you live. 

You most likely don’t need a building permit for:

  • Finish work 
    • Cabinetry
    • Painting
    • Flooring
    • Carpeting
    • Soundproofing
    • Countertops
    • Sinks
  • Basic repair or replacement work
    • Door repair/replacement
    • Window repair/replacement
    • Roof repair/replacement
    • Gutter repair/replacement
    • Air-conditioning/HVAC repair
  • Carbon Monoxide or Smoke Detector Installation
  • Window awnings
  • Patio, walkway paving
  • Playhouses, playgrounds
  • Installing portable appliances
    • Washer/dryer
    • Refrigerator

What Renovation Projects Do I Need A Building Permit For?

On the other hand, there are some renovations that no matter where you live, you will almost always need a building permit to complete them. 

You most likely will need a building permit for:

  • Structural changes
    • New window/door creation 
    • Wall movement
    • Elevation changes
    • Additions
  • Adding an ADU
  • Substantial electrical work
  • Substantial mechanical work
  • Substantial plumbing work
  • Pool installation

Different Kinds Of Building Permits

Another thing to consider are different types of permits you may need when it comes to renovating. While the main type of permit you’ll apply for is a building permit, your city or county might also require electrical, plumbing or mechanical permits. 

  • Building permits: Your area may require a building permit for an addition, ADU, or substantial restructure of your home.
  • Electrical permits: Your area may require an electrical permit if you install a new outlet, run additional wiring in your home, or install a security alarm. 
  • Plumbing permits: Your area may require a plumbing permit if you are replacing sewers, changing out any water pipes, replacing a water heater, or moving plumbing fixtures to a different location.

You’ll most likely be able to find your city or county’s permit information, and whether you’ll need these specific types of permits, by googling your area and “building permit.”

How Much Does It Cost To Get A Permit?

Hopefully, you’re catching onto the trend by now. If you’re thinking that the cost varies depending on where you live, you’re correct! 

Building permit cost depends on many different factors, including: 

  • The size and age of your home
  • The complexity of the remodel
  • The value of the completed work
  • Inspection fees
  • Number of permits required

According to our RenoFi experts, permits can start as low as $100 for smaller projects and can exceed $5,000 for very large projects.

For example the national average permitting cost for installing a new water heater ranges from $20 - $85, while the average for a kitchen remodel ranges from $500 - $1,500. 

It’s important to account for permitting in your cost estimate early on before applying for any type of financing. While you can always use your project contingency to pay for unexpected permitting costs, you’re going to want to have that extra budget for other things.

How Long Does It Take To Get Permits?

The length of time it takes to get a permit for construction depends on several factors:

  1. Where you live: Every local government has a different process for submitting and approving building permits, and therefore will have a different timeframe of when you should expect to hear back from them.
  2. Special circumstances: The pandemic has put a lot of pressure on building permit departments, especially because in-person visits and inspections can be delayed. Make sure to account for potential pandemic delays in your area.
  3. Your readiness: Regardless of the building permit approval process timeline, you as a homeowner will not only need all of your construction plans, your contractor, and a signed contract ready before you get a permit, you’ll need to spend time filling out your county or city’s application, which can be lengthy. Applying for a permit is the final step in preparing to renovate, and it’s the final step for a reason. You need everything else ready. Make sure that you don’t wait until the last minute to get a permit without double-checking that you have all the proper application materials. 

In many areas, the approximate timeline to receive a building permit from your local jurisdiction once you’ve applied is two weeks. In some areas, the timeline is a lot shorter. 

In Naples, Florida, it will only take several business days to receive your building permit if you are approved. In Johnson County, Iowa, it may take between 5 to 10 business days to process. It all depends on your local government.

However, we’d recommend that you start your permitting process (ie. begin gathering materials) at least 3 months before beginning your renovation project. This way, waiting on a permit won’t be the thing that holds you up from your renovation start date.

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