What Happens If I Don’t Get a Permit for My Home Remodel?
Tempted to bypass the permit process to save time, money and the hassle of dealing with city officials? Don't. It's not worth the risk.
Not so fast.
Before you even consider breaking ground, you need to contact your city’s building department and apply for a building permit. “If the project requires it, it needs to be obtained,” says Chuck Khiel, vice president of FRED Home Improvement, based in greater Washington, D.C.
Khiel calls a permit “a safeguard for everybody.” Not only do permits protect you legally and financially, they also help keep you physically safe, because the project is inspected regularly by pros who ensure all code requirements are met and maintained. That includes city codes as well as codes for each portion of the project, such as plumbing and electrical.
Does My Project Require a Permit?
Check with your jurisdiction to see what permits are required, Khiel says. In general, anticipate that any time you’re moving walls, reworking your plumbing or electrical, adding on to an existing structure, building an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) or converting a space from one type of room to another (like turning your garage into a home office, school room or gym), you’ll need a permit.
Be aware this is by no means an exhaustive list. Many other projects require permits as well.
Fortunately, while the list of projects that require permits is quite long, so is the list of projects that do not require permits. Again, it varies from city to city, but here are some examples of common home DIY projects that can often be done sans permit:
- Replacing a bathtub or a sink (as long as you are putting it in the same place);
- Changing a light fixture;
- Cosmetic updates to a kitchen or bathroom;
- Installing/replacing flooring;
- Interior or exterior painting;
- Installing cabinets or closet shelving;
- Replacing faucets;
- Installing gutters or storm windows;
- Replacing siding.
A good rule of thumb? Ask, or review your local policies online. Because, as the saying goes, better to be safe than sorry.
What Will Happen if I Skip the Permit Process?
Trust us here. If you try to circumvent your jurisdiction’s permit protocols, you will be sorry. How so? If your city building inspector learns you added a new master bedroom suite without applying for the necessary permits, you will likely face a host of potential consequences, such as:
- Paying a fine. The amount will depend on the scope of the project, the specific violation and the jurisdiction, but Khiel says some fines are steep. “It can easily be into the thousands,” he says. If a contractor is involved, the contractor and the homeowner can be fined for the same violation. Some jurisdictions will even fine you by the day.
- Demolishing the project. Yes, it is true. In some situations, it is well within the rights of your city’s inspection department to tell you to take down that unpermitted project, Khiel says. However, they also might have mercy on you and insist that you halt the project until the permits are obtained. Either way, this involves wasted time and money that could have been easily saved by applying for the permits in the first place.
- Difficulty selling your property. Maybe you got lucky and got away with not pulling a permit. But guess what happens years later when you decide to sell your house? A seller is required by law to disclose to potential buyers any remodeling/renovations done to the home. Constructing a major addition without permits could scare off some interested buyers. And you might be required by law to retroactively obtain permits to proceed with the sale, with the cost coming out of your pocket.
- Voiding your homeowner’s insurance. All might be fine and dandy with that unpermitted ADU in your backyard until a wind storm comes along and a tree damages the roof. Your lack of a permit is all your insurance company needs to deny your claim. This consequence may apply to any work done without a permit, from someone getting injured on your property to electrical fires and beyond.
How Will the City Know if I Don’t Have a Permit?
Don’t assume the authorities won’t find out about your project. Sometimes all it takes is for them to be in the right place at the right time, like in your neighborhood the day you’re framing the expansion to your kitchen.
“If a building inspector sees the work as they are driving by … they can put a big red stop work order on the front door and escort everyone off the property,” says Khiel. Permits, he said, must be posted and visible.
Neighbors sometimes report unpermitted projects, too, particularly if the project annoys them or blocks their view. And do not ask your contractor to work without a permit; an honest contractor won’t want to be involved in such a project. If you do happen to come across one who’s OK with it, that’s a sign you need a different contractor.