Explain construction permits to me

We’re having significant renovations done to our house. I’m curious as to who “is on the hook” if work that requires a permit is done without a permit. Obviously not having the required inspections is a disadvanage to me, but I’m curious if there is a legal issue here (and whether the legal issue would be mine or the contractor’s). For what its worth I want to have the work permitted (I was once on the bad end of a real estate deal where the seler disclosed that all improvements to the property that required permits had been performed with a permit - they had not, and the work was did not meet code).

At any rate, this has been my experience:

Contractor 1: (installing new front doors): Do you want me to quote it with a permit or without? (A permit was required).

Contractor 2: Just prior to signing the contract, I asked if his costs included any necessary permits. He indicated they did not, and when I asked him if the work required a permit per code he said yes, and that would be another $400 (and additionally, if a permit was applied for, the city would likely request architectural/engineering plans, which would cost another $600-$800 to draft).

I’m not sure if I’m going with contractor #2 as he seemed inclined to proceed without permits/inspections. When I told him this was a strike against him he indicated there was no way he could make our schedule/budget with the permits, so he left them out.

At any rate, can a municipality assess penalties in situations like these? And who would be on the hook? I would not have known a permit was required, except that I had asked.

It may differ from one municipality to the next. In mine, if you apply for a permit after work has started, there is a penalty equal to the cost of the permit, i.e. the permit ends up costing you twice as much.

If the work being done (without a permit) is something that affects the taxable value of your property (e.g. you are adding square footage), then the city may come after you for backtaxes at a later date if they find out about it.

And in some localities, you may be required to remove un-permitted structures or additions. We had a case here where a local business added a second floor to their entire building. The town later made them remove it.

Municipalities can and do assess penalties. The neighbor across the alley from me built a garage that pushed too far into the alley, he did the work without a permit. The city made him take it down at his expense.

You could also be opening yourself up to other liabilities. We had some hurricane damage at our house from flooding. One of the first things the insurance adjuster checked was whether our basement remodeling had been permitted (it had). I assume that if it had not, we might not have been able to make an insurance claim.

I just had a deck replaced from the original almost 40 years old to new decking. The project required permits and afterwards I was glad I got them. A county inspector came out to verify that the contractors had dug beneath the frost line, and that the anchors to the house were up to code. The permit was about $100 bucks and I think you will be glad later if you pay that now. Also… get miss utility involved, for peace of mind.

When house shopping, we always asked if there had been renovations done, then checked with the city to see if permits were pulled and marked as complete. If not, then no offer on the house, particularly for electrical/mechanical work. Our present place had permitted work done, but some of it had not had the final inspection done. We required the owners to get it taken care of as part of the offer. Work that we have done has been permitted where required. I can just imagine someone falling off our deck and suing and the insurance company saying “no permit, you’re fucked”. It’s worth the peace of mind, for me.

I know people locally who had fences put up and not had the city sign off on the plan first. When someone complained about the fences being too close to the sidewalk or too tall, the city came out and ordered the homeowners to tear them down.

Also, if the city finds out you are doing unpermitted work while it is still going on, they can red-tag the job and work has to stop immediately until the permits are in place.

The basement of my house had been re-done without permits into “livable” space*, and we were in fact using it for that. When we were having permitted work done on the upstairs, they always had to close that area off and lock it when the inspectors came around and call it “storage space”. I’m not sure what the inspectors would have made us do if they had seen the space as it was really used.

Later, we had the downstairs re-done with permits and inspections. We had to lie on the pre-demo drawings and leave out the plumbing, for example. Fortunately, they don’t inspect houses before demo.

*This is very common in San Francisco, anyway, and lots of houses are listed as having living space that is “unwarranted.”

Over here we have to get planning permission for some work, but most minor work is exempt. For example I had a new front door and no permission required; a small extension (the rules are complicated); a conservatory at the rear less than three metres, would not need consent.

Gas and electrical work in general has to be carried out by a registered tradesman, but I could put an extension onto my ring main without problems.

In general, converting a loft or basement to living space would require planning consent, and strict rules about height, windows, ventilation etc apply.

I had a deck put on the back of a house ten years ago. I asked the contractor about permits and such, and he told me that nobody would be able to see work going on (sweet, discrete little house). He offered to get a permit, but suggested I save my money.

All went well, and I sold the house five years ago without consequence.

It’s crazy that you would even think of hiring a contractor that would not pull permits. Not to mention incredibly stupid. If he’s willing to break the law and jeopardize his builders license, what else is he going to do?

fisha, licensed contractor who always pulls permits, because she likes staying in business.

In retrospect, I see your point. Then again, this is a rural area and I think his POV is typical geographically. A few friends who know a bit about construction gave the deck high marks, and I got my investment back when I sold the house.

My comments were not directed specifically at you, your post just snuck in.

There are different requirements for different areas. Rural, suburban, historical districts, etc. There are also different requirements for the type of job. You may not have been required to pull a permit so that’s a different situation and ok in my book.

However, when one is required, and the contractor weasels out on getting one, you need to ask why. Bad reputation with inspectors? Not licensed? Shouldn’t be money, because that cost can be passed on to you.

I have done handyman work (frankly, it was more of a hassle than a bankable living so I dropped it) and I have been a licensed contractor. Whether or not you pull permits depends upon where you live, in my experience.

When I would do work in the city, I would always pull permits. It just saved time and if the person had bad relations with a neighbor, it covers your six if they call the city. Out of the 50-60 jobs I did, I had a single inspector come out and check things out (he was called by a neighbor looking to stir up BS. I knew the guy from when I was working at a job with his brother, so he was cool about things, although he did check our paperwork.)

When I did jobs in rural areas, however, I can say now that I pulled two out of maybe 80 jobs. The county had six inspectors to cover an entire county larger than New Jersey (this was out West) so the chances of one showing up at job were negligible. Two people specifically requested that I do it and I did it.

One complained about the costs…but hey, they wanted it.

Most of the time guys I knew who got caught by inspectors would get a ticket and told to pull a permit. If they gave teh inspector ANY static, he or she shut down the job. I know of two people who were ARRESTED when they got a little too rowdy with the inspector.

My view: If you live in the city, just pull the permits. It will save you time and inconvenience. If you live in a semi-rural or rural area which isn’t experiencing a lot of growth (which isn’t undergoing a lot of growth as that’s when inspectors are out looking for scalps) then roll the dice.

But make certain that you hire a contractor who comes well recommended if you decide NOT to go the legal route.

If the cost is passed onto the customer it can make the cost too high and the customer opts out of you doing the job.

I’m a licensed electrician and I see that all the time. Technically installing ceiling fan in a room requires a permit. The electricians labor might be 200 bucks for the few hours it takes plus 50 in materials(assuming the home owner is providing the fan). So without a permit it would be a 250 dollar job that the electrician can schedule whenever is convenient for him and the home owner. If he needs to get a permit there is added time scheduling the inspector and coordinating him doing the inspection, with some towns requiring the electrician be on cite for the inspection. Add in a hundred dollar permit and you’re now looking at a 500 dollar job. If he quotes 500 bucks to install a ceiling fan and the next guy says if we don’t pull a permit I can do it for 250 bucks the customer is going to opt for the job at half the cost.

I don’t advertise and pretty much only do electrical work for friends and family because I find it’s cut throat trade that’s not worth trying to compete in. I stick to my specialty wells and water pumps. Most towns I work in sign off on my permits without ever looking at my work.

In my experience the number one reason licensed contractors don’t pull permits is logistics and paperwork. It’s a pain to get inspections in a timely many and it often results in stopping work at each stage in order to wait for an inspection. If you’re putting a addition on a house you’re schedule is limited by a building inspector, a plumbing inspector and a electrical inspector.

All that said. The cost of not getting an inspection is almost always going to be on the home owner. The city has little means to pursue contractors from out of town and the home owner has a house in the city that the city has domain over, using that they have more ability to leverage fines and get paid than chasing down contractors in small claims court. The city might run a contractor that doesn’t pay for permits out of town but they aren’t going to be bothered with chasing them outside their borders.

If you are having major work done I think it would be stupid not to get a permit unless you like the idea of having the job done twice at three times the cost. I’ve seen entire homes torn down for being built without permits.

In Portland, the city issues permit books for small jobs. The electrician just peels one off and sticks it on the panel cover, showing that he did some work. I think it adds about $15 to the job cost, IIRC. Major jobs require a full-on permit, which can be expensive.

And they get exactly what they pay for. Life is too short, and I’m too busy, to be messing around with homeowners like this. Additionally, these are the types of homeowners who get super pissy when their cut rate guy does a cut rate job.

In my experience, that’s a minor part of running the job, or the business. Part of the gig. OSHA, employee requirements, insurance audits, rrp compliance, workers comp, homeowner expectation management. Those things are way more of a pain in the ass and time wasters.

Exactly. I think the reason why I get grumpy about this topic is homeowners don’t think, or are cheap, they go with the guy who convinces them not to pull a permit, it ends badly, then they show hate and bad mouth ALL contractors. Nah, you were the idiot.

And it’s not like this is rocket surgery. Pretty much every.single.guide to remodeling insists on this.


They can remember the bit about always getting three estimates, but can’t remember the bit about having the contractor pull the permits.

Yeah, it’s a cost, but a very small percentage of the tens of thousands of dollars you’re investing into your home. And if you’re like most people, your home is your biggest investment. Don’t fuck it up.

(I know all inspections are not equal, and sometimes they can be worse than useless, but that’s rare. At least everybody is going through the motions.)

I’d pull a permit to enlarge the footprint of my house, but interior remodeling is somethng I might do my self, or I keep a close eye on whoever does it. I do everything at least to code. I think having a reliable contractor is important. I do live in a isolated rural area, not much going on here…:slight_smile:

Two relevant permit related stories:

We have a customer (we’ve done work for before) who is a realtor. He attempted to do a remodel on a house he bought, intending to rent it out. The remodel was enclosing a sun-porch/3 season room to be a fully tempered space-- a job that in our county would require a permit. This guy pinches pennies until they scream, so he finds some fly-by-night guy to do the work, but apparently a nosy neighbor sees the work going on and reports him. County inspector comes out and tells him he has to stop and get permit (work almost complete at this point). Of course, Mr. Fly-by-night is not licensed, so he CAN’T pull a permit, so Mr. Penny Pincher calls us. We pull the permit (double fees because the work was already completed), inspector comes out and says he’ll let us go on the inside work (customer had pictures of the insulation that was put in), but he wants us to strip the siding to make sure the nailing pattern on the sheathing is adequate and the window flashing was properly installed. We quote Mr. Penny Pincher a price to do the work, which he thinks is too high. We tell him we are happy to sub it out to someone else as long as they are licensed (because we pulled the permit, we have to do the work or have a licensed sub-contractor do it). As it happens, he called me today asking me to schedule the county inspection as he had someone else complete the required work. Dollars to donuts this person wasn’t licensed… if not I will NOT be calling for an inspection of work that we did not do. Mr. Penny Pincher’s stubborn refusal to not follow the rules is going to end up costing him a lot more in the long run.

2nd case, also currently ongoing— investor we’ve worked with before bought foreclosed house to fix and flip. He was told the basement had flooded so the drywall had been torn out down to the studs. He hired someone to come in (before us) to put the basement back together, including a new HVAC system. This guy tells our investor that permits are not required because your he was just fixing damage to an existing, approved structure (which isn’t true, not sure if he was lying or just incompetent). He installed the HVAC (which would have required a permit in any case, since it wasn’t pre-existing), put up drywall, ran wires for electric outlets. Anyhow, for various reasons our investor friend ends up firing this contractor because he’s not happy with the work, hires us to finish. We come in, tell him he needs a permit because he wants to put a bedroom in this basement and that requires an emergency egress. So when we go to county to get a permit for the window, we find out that this house is not listed as having a finished basement! So the previous owner had finished it off without a permit. So now we have to take everything back down to studs, redo the plumbing and electric (which wasn’t done properly and would never have passed inspection), insulate the walls, and rehang the drywall. Basically, undid all the work the previous guy did. Yes, our price to finish a basement was higher, but not as high as doing it TWICE.

TLDR version: Homeowner should take it upon themselves to know if a permit is required (don’t take the contractors word for it). If a potential contractor even suggests doing the work without a permit if one is required, they should walk away. While the homeowners in these two cases aren’t “in trouble” so to speak, they have both spent more money than they ought to have been. Permit costs are just a fraction of the total job costs. A legit contractor will not hesitate to “jump through the hoops”, its just part of the job. As someone mentioned upthread, if they’re willing to cut corners before the job even starts, what lies down the road?

Oh, and to directly answer the question in the OP:

If you do work that requires a permit without getting one, consequences can range from double permit fees (best case) to being required to undo the work (worst case). In either case, its the homeowner, not the contractor, that will bear those costs.