Basement finishing and construction permits

The basement of the house we just moved into was never finished, so we have started the process of selecting a contractor to do the work for us. The question of getting construction permits has come up, and I need the experience and advice of my fellow Dopers, since I have none in this area. (FYI, I am in Cobb County, Georgia.)

Apparently, permits from the local government are nominally required for this type of work, but the contractors we’ve spoken to say that most people do not bother: the process adds time and expense (several thousand dollars) to the project, and as long as you have a reputable contractor who will build to code, there is little downside to avoiding the permit process.

What say you?

Claiming it adds several thousand dollars sounds crazy - when we remodeled our basement the permits were under $500 IIRC. You can call your county building dept. to find out.

Unless the contractors are claiming having a permit makes them do extra work that they wouldn’t normally do, which means that they aren’t following code after all.

Finishing a basement means a lot of electrical work, and heating too (?). And plumbing if you’re doing a bathroom. I’d personally steer clear of a contractor who wants to skip the permitting process for a job as big as that.

ETA: Remember, the permitting process exists in part to protect the taxpayer from unscrupulous contractors. So the person most likely to be “harmed” by the process is the one asking you to bypass it.

I have had contractors do smaller jobs, like replacing the toilet & vanity in a bathroom, without pulling a permit. But those are smaller jobs where the plumbing going on is pretty minimal, and I was reasonably confident I could see for myself if they did an adequate job.

I fixed up our basement in 2011. I hired a contractor to do the walls, ceiling, and floors, while I did all the plumbing, electric, HVAC, and painting. It turned out very nice.

Even though my county requires permits to be taken out, I didn’t bother. OTOH, I did a ton or research beforehand on the proper way to install walls and floors, and I instructed my contractor on exactly how I wanted it done (including the type of materials). I am well-versed in plumbing and electric, so I had no problem doing those tasks myself.

So while it worked out well for me, I consider my case to be atypical. Unless you are (also) very well-versed in the construction details of fixing up a basement, I would recommend pulling permits.

Concur. Don’t let a contractor tell you if you need or should get a permit. Call the appropriate agency that handles it and ask them. Contractors don’t like getting permits because they also usually generate inspections, in my experience.

My county government has a cut-off for projects that’s something like “if it costs less than $10,000, you don’t need a permit, over that, you do.” I don’t care for that myself, because it doesn’t take into account critical things that just happen to not cost a lot of money. I need to have my main water shutoff valve replaced, which may cost less than $500, but it’s the MAIN WATER SHUTOFF VALVE, and I’d really rather have that shit inspected after the work is done, but noooooooo.

I want to add:

Even if permits are pulled, do not automatically go along with whatever the contractor recommends. My contractor was a very good and honest guy, but if I had left the construction process up to him I would probably be having moisture problems at this point. Before I started the project I spent months doing online research to determine the best way to install floors and walls. I went out and purchased the materials myself, and then told him exactly how I wanted them installed.

PM me if you want to know the materials and processes I used. Keep in mind, however, that your situation may be different, and may call for different materials. Again, do your research.

Addendum, after reading Crafter_Man’s post - when we did our basement, at one of the required permit inspections, the inspector told the contractor that he had to put in plastic sheeting as a moisture barrier. The contractor tried to charge me extra for that, but backed down when I pointed out the contract said “work will be done in accordance with all applicable building codes.” So he had to eat the cost to add the barrier, because the inspector caught it.

There are semi-legitimate reasons why pulling a permit is annoying - like having to pause the work while you’re waiting for an inspector to come out. But a contractor offering “I will give you a $5,000 discount if you don’t make me get a permit” is basically saying “I expect to be able to save $5,000 in shortcuts that an inspector would catch and make me fix.”

In a lot of districts the permit cost is a % of the estimated project cost. This is why they have a floor on projects that need a permit it literally isn’t worth their time. Unless you have a very expensive basement plan several thousand dollars seems excessive just for permits. On the other hand if it also includes hiring architects and engineers to create drawings of the plan then it seems reasonable.

I would make sure you have the arch and engineers look over your project I have found most contractors can’t handle design work. For instance had a guy start framing out my deck that was planned for diagonal deck boards using typical spacing not accounting for the fact the diagonal boards would exceed their maximum support distance. Once I caught it he had to tear it all out and that was a small project that didn’t require a permit but my deck would have been wobbly as hell. If you’re just going to be dead normal then they can build it but if you’re going to customize then you’ll need someone to check the math.

A couple thousand is the total additional cost that was cited, including the cost of the permits, the contractor’s time to get them, and the delays likely to be caused waiting for inspections. It does not include the additional taxes the county is likely to charge us after we have the work done, another claimed downside of getting permits.

Yeah, I don’t have that kind of experience, and since we want to have this completed in the next four or five months, I can’t imagine being able to do enough research to argue with a contractor who’s been doing this kind of work for years.

That was not the offer, and the contractor seemed perfectly happy to deal with permitting, but wanted $2,000 (on a $50,000 project) to cover the fees and his time in managing the process, including the need for drawings, which he otherwise wouldn’t do.

When I had a deck put on the back of a house, I assumed my guy would need a permit. When I didn’t see it mentioned on his estimate, I asked, and he told me it had been a couple of years since he’d had someone ask that he get a permit. I acquiesced and all went well.

He told me he’d be happy to get one and the cost to me would be around $200.

Ok, I don’t know what the permit fees are, but that’s less unreasonable than my original assumption, especially if it includes drawings that he wouldn’t otherwise produce.

To be fair (and admittedly nitpicky ;)), you said “several” thousand in the OP, which made me think 5-6k, not 2k.

Having said that, given my own experiences, I’d see the $2k as money well spent.

If it’s a $50,000 job, I’d spend the $2,000 to get a permit. That’s a very reasonable price if it includes preparing the plans for the permit. A good contractor will do things to code regardless, but even they can make mistakes. And most likely he or she will be using subs for some of the work, so they are even a bit more removed. Also, if you do work without permits, you might be required to disclose that if and when you sell the house.

Ask the contractor, or call you local building department, if they have an “over the counter” process for getting a permit for the scope of work you are doing. If there is no structural work involved, chances are good you can do that and it will minimize the time it takes to get the permit.

The other advantage to having a set of plans is that the plans become the basis for the scope of work. Look at them carefully, ask lots of questions and make sure the plans reflect what you want to do.

Sorry, I should have been more precise.

Well, $50,000 was his quote; we’re hoping to spend about $35,000. :smiley:

Very good points. I was hoping to see actual plans before the work started.

OK, I’ll level with you.

Legally, without knowing the specific laws of Cobb County or your municipality, you’ll be required to get a permit. As someone who follows the law, that’s what you should do.

However, the main purpose of the permitting process is NOT to make sure your house is safe. You’re finishing a basement, not building a high rise. They will almost certainly not inspect the work and they most likely won’t even require any type of plan beyond ‘putting up drywall and putting down flooring’ as long as your contractor is licensed. (The last permit I got took five minutes, with half of that time being how long it took to run the credit card and the work being done line said “Putting metal roof on house.” Their real concern was how much it was going to cost. Electrical work they might be a bit more concerned about, but even then they might not bother inspecting.) Any even vaguely reputable contractor should be able to easily finish a basement with no problems. The purpose in this case of the permitting process is to up your assessment at the tax office. They will send a slip to your local taxing authority that now says your finished square footing is 500 square feet or whatever larger which ups their equation for your house value and ups your property taxes. So… if I were an immoral person or someone who thought the government had enough money, then… well, I don’t want to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. I will say that I am one of those filthy liberals and I always do get the permit and I always do watch my taxes creep up, but that’s the price of sharing community services that benefit everyone.

Electrical (and plumbing) work will almost certainly be inspected, along with any structural work. I say “almost” in the sense of never say never. I can’t imagine new electrical or plumbing work not being inspected, but I suppose it’s possible.

Basically what senoy says. Our city requires permits for ridiculously small things - like replacing a single step. But then doesn’t require the for bigger projects - like replacing a roof. So if you want to adhere to the law, it can be complicated figuring out which permits you need. And the costs can add up.

More significantly, the various inspections and paperwork CAN be viewed as a hassle, potentially complicating a project’s timeline. I’m also leery about inviting a city inspector into my house - wondering if they will see something OTHER THAN THE PROJECT that they will say needs to be fixed.

Finally, generally permits are required for remodeling, but not for redecorating. If you want to ease your conscience, you can play with those definitions.

We did a bunch of work on our house. Whether we pulled a permit or not depended on the specifics of each instance.

I’ve found here that it depends on how busy they are and who your contractor is. If it’s a licensed electrician that they know, they don’t bother although they do require the diagrams. I’ve never had plumbing work inspected at all and based on the plumbing that’s in my house, the previous owners didn’t either, although who knows if they bothered with a permit.

I have found though that literally anything that you’re doing yourself, they want to inspect thoroughly and often and occasionally unreasonably (Don’t get me started on building a 7x10 play fort for the kids… three months of permitting process with incredibly detailed blueprints. We ended up in a fight about the walls being 2x3s since it wasn’t to code and the ceiling heights not being high enough. The trap door rope ladder about gave them a conniption. I said that it was a freaking playhouse where the kids go up and pretend they’re pirates, not a hurricane shelter.)

It would also help if you told us what rooms you expected to have in the basement. There is a different code for rec rooms, bathrooms and bedrooms. You might be required to provide egress to the outside. If a bathroom is installed, you might need a back-flow preventer for the sewer line. Basements can be very tricky when you use them for living space.

I think this is a YMMV situation. My experience was very different from yours. When we finished our basement, the plumbing was inspected (twice), the electrical was inspected, the walls, new windows, and insulation were all inspected. And the inspector did catch something that needed to be fixed.

It is required (here, at least) that any deck more than 30" off the ground requires a permit. Most people don’t do it, and our contractor really didn’t want to do it, but we insisted.

For the OP. GET THE PERMITS, and make sure the inspections are done. When you sell your house, the buyer, if he is smart, will ask about any work done and will check to see if permits were pulled, inspections made, and that it was closed out. I, for one, would not buy a home where the permits were not in place for any work that required it. If I did, I would be assuming a liability and become the owner of the issue whenever I in turn sold the house. When we bought our present home, there was a permit that had not been closed out by the county. Getting that done was a condition of sale for us.