In most areas of the country, there are local building departments that administer construction permits. These permits are part of a process to ensure that construction follows appropriate rules and guidelines. These guidelines are in place to make sure the construction is safe for the workers and for the occupants that will live in the house.
Most regions of the United States adhere to the Residential Building Code, as issued by the International Code Council. This code is updated every three years to keep current with changes in building techniques, improvements in safety, and energy usage. Contrary to complaints about the code, it was established to maintain a minimum standard for construction for the safety of the public. The code is available online if you would like to research specific issues relating to residential construction.
Most building departments do not care what color you paint your house or about your new countertops or the shingles you replace, with a few exceptions to certain areas. They are primarily interested in the safety and usage of the home, for you and future occupants.
House repairs that DO NOT require a permit
Here are some home repairs that usually do not require a permit:
- Re-painting (inside or outside)
- New roof covering (this means shingles, metal roof, tiles, etc.) although some jurisdictions have prohibitions against wooden shingles for wildfire purposes
- Changing light fixtures or plumbing fixtures
- Installing a replacement air-conditioning system
- Kitchen remodeling, unless you are moving around a lot of receptacles and installing new wiring circuits
- Replacing doors or windows (although some windows must be of a certain size for emergency exit purposes)
- Adding insulation to your attic
- Replacing flooring.
House repairs that DO require a permit
Here is a list of home repairs that usually require a permit:
- Electrical work, which requires adding or eliminating electrical circuits
- Installation of a new natural gas service line (like changing from an electric water heater to a gas water heater)
- Relocation of plumbing fixtures which requires installation of new sewer drain plumbing and vents
- Installing a generator
- Relocation of sewer or plumbing lines on the exterior of the house
- Installation of an in-ground swimming pool
- Installation of a fence
- ANY building addition beyond the existing footprint of the house
- Construction of an unattached storage shed, garage, carport, or outdoor kitchen/gazebo.
- Any work which affects the structure of the house, like removing a wall, installing a beam, or relocating structural members or supports.
- Any time the cumulative total work reaches or exceeds approximately half the value of the house (which can be hard to imagine without at least some of the above work).
It is important to note that building codes require these extensive remodels to fit in with current policies, regardless of when the house was built.
Neither of the above lists is all-inclusive or exhaustive – meaning there are many, many more things that could be added to both lists. The best course of action is to contact the building permit office in your area, tell them what you want to do, and ask if you need a permit.
Obtaining a permit will add a little cost to the total project (usually a few hundred dollars) and may slow progress, but ensures the work is done to an accepted and proven standard.
A final recommendation – be very cautious of any contractor that hesitates to work on your project because it will require a permit.