Along with vetting your chosen contractor and creating your Scope of Work, there are few tasks more important at the start of a home remodel than learning whether you’ll need a permit (or two, or three). Permit and building laws vary from state to state, but one thing is guaranteed: acquiring your permits will be a complex and potentially dull process. Be prepared for the process to take months, and require extensive research on the types of permits, the materials needed to apply for them (e.g., certain drawings, energy calculations) and the filing fees. Remember submitting your school or college application? You get the idea.
Pro tip: in New York, permit expediters can help you navigate through and speed up the paper-pushing process.
So it’s worth asking the question, why subject yourself to this hassle and frustration? Would it really be so bad to just pretend those pesky laws don’t exist (and hope that no one notices)?
Yes. It would. Why? Because doing so could lead to fines, massive costs such as having your new kitchen or addition ripped up, and possibly (depending on which state you’re in) even criminal penalties.
It makes NO sense to not get a permit.
Why do permits exist? What’s the point? As it turns out, they’re required by law for a reason: permits are a crucial tool for maintaining public health and safety by requiring that any construction work be done according to code – a code that was created to keep your house from falling down, and people from getting hurt.
When are permits necessary? In New York City, for example, if you’re doing a project that involves any plumbing, pointing (refinishing brick work), electrical work, home extensions, or swimming pools, you absolutely must get a permit. Permits are NOT required for cosmetic work (painting, plastering, flooring, replacing fixtures or a sink).
For more on the city’s permit requirements, click here.
Feel free to ask your contractor whether the work requires a permit, but it’s important to do the research yourself to determine what permits you need, and that they all get acquired. Remember, in New York, if your contractor fails to get the right permit, it’s you that gets fined, not the contractor.
If you’re really stymied as to whether something needs a permit, ask a registered engineer or architect for their opinion. If there’s any gray area, don’t listen to people that say, “oh I’ve never had to get a permit for work like this,” that doesn’t mean one isn’t required. Even putting in a toilet or putting up a fence MAY require a permit.
Pro tip: you can apply for most permits electronically.
You may ask, how will the authorities really know if I don’t have the right permits? After all, the Department of Housing doesn’t have armies of staffers inspecting every home in a 10-mile radius. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), one group of people will definitely know you’re remodeling: your neighbors. And a phone call is all it takes.
Plus, if you live in an apartment building, the condo or co-op board will be watching closely. And if you’re in a brownstone, anyone walking down the street could notice 1) that renovations are being done; and 2) that no permits are posted. The risks are simply too high.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), one group of people will definitely know you’re remodeling: your neighbors. And a phone call is all it takes.
Even if you do get away with cheating the permit system, you’ll have to pay the piper once you decide to sell. A seller’s attorney will notice any still-open permit, and an inspector could make you rip out insulation or plumbing. If the work is deemed illegal, you’ll have to legalize the work before selling the home.
Plus for condo or co-op dwellers, you could wind up with continuing liability long after your project is finished – if the work done in your unit causes problems in someone else’s home down the line, and you never got the proper permits, you could even wind up being sued.
When you take all of this into consideration, one thing becomes clear: you should get the right permits. And once your beautiful remodel is finished, be sure not to leave any permits open. Typically, the department of buildings will require that your work be inspected by a licensed inspector, who will close the permit if everything looks kosher.