Whether you think of building permits as a checkpoint for public harmony or a bureaucratic nuisance, they’re a vital part of the construction process. Official approval in the form of a building permit ensures that your real estate remains legal to sell. 

Does your project need permits? It depends on your local codes — city and state. Put broadly, construction projects that could impact public and personal safety require permits. Types of permit-required construction include structural, electrical, plumbing, and mechanical. Each can merit its own permit and series of inspections.

Good general contractors know when and how to pull permits, and, like Pro.com, will take care of them for you. Typically the person who pulls the permit is responsible for following construction codes. When in doubt, contact your city’s building department to be sure if you need one or not, and continue reading below for more information on building permits.

What is a building permit?

Put simply, a building permit is official approval from your district to proceed with a construction project. It shows that your plans comply with local building codes and meets minimum safety and construction standards dealing with land use, zoning, and structural integrity, as well as sanitation, water, sewage, fire resistance, and electricity. A permit proves compliance, rendering your home both legal and resellable. 

When do you need a permit? 

A general building permit plus special system permits are required for big projects:

  • New construction
  • Altering or adding to a house, garage, or driveway
  • Major internal work (e.g., electrical, gas, plumbing)

Codes vary widely between cities, counties, and states, reflecting both regional safety priorities as well as a given department’s need to generate revenue. Codes also are liable to change from year to year. 

You’ll have to look to local government publications for the final word, but here are some broad-stroke divides between plans that do and do not require permits. 

ProjectRequires a permitMay not require a permit
Structural changes, installing skylights, altering the shape or pitch

Replacing roofing materials with similar ones
Deck and yard
Tall decks and retaining walls

Low decks and retaining walls, painting, landscaping and hardscaping that doesn’t involve plumbing or electricity

Fireplace and HVAC

Installing new fireplaces, woodburning stoves, inserts, furnaces, and air conditioners

Chimney cleaning

Garage or shed

Enlarging, converting, or building garages or carports

One-story detached buildings without plumbing or electricity, installing floors and cabinets

Windows and doors

Installing exterior doors and windows that require new openings

Replacing windows and doors using existing jambs

Pool or spa

Installing in-ground pools and spas

Installing prefabricated, above-ground pools below a certain water capacity

Why do you need a permit? (And what happens if you start work without one?)

It’s illegal to build without a permit where required. Because the permitting process ensures your construction is up to code, sidestepping it could leave you with an out-of-code building. 

If the city finds out, either by way of a building inspector or a neighbor who notices construction and makes a call, you could be hit with an ugly fee. 

If unpermitted construction is still underway, they could increase permitting fees, shut down construction, or even demand that work be torn down. 

One ominous example: The City of Seattle simply states that, “If you build without a permit, you may be fined $500 per day.” Permits are expensive, but you’ll save money in the long run by staying above the board. 

What other permits might you need when building a new home or remodeling your existing home?

If your project requires any permit, it will require a general building permit. But, depending on its scale, it could also require special system permits. Electrical permits, mechanical permits (for HVAC systems), plumbing permits, and concrete permits are a few of the most common. 

Other permits are unique to your area and reflect regional issues. For example, where the danger of fire is high, you’ll find more codes around fire resistance. 

Who is responsible for pulling permits? 

General contractors can pull permits for you, or at the least guide you through the process. If you’re paying your contractor by the hour, you could save some money by applying yourself with your local building department. 

If possible, leave the permit process in your contractor’s hands. The company will file the permit under their name, meaning they are responsible for the construction being up to code. 

No matter who takes responsibility for filing, it’s good to be aware of the application’s requirements. This can include getting a site plan approved through review, corrections, and revisions, obtaining a permit to begin construction, scheduling inspections throughout the process, and getting final approval for the completed work. 

How much can permits cost? 

Building permits range between a few hundred dollars for simple projects, to thousands for large-scale projects. The cost of your permit is based on several factors: 

  • The size and complexity of your project
  • The value of the work you are doing
  • Additional permits required for your project
  • How long it takes inspectors to review your application and plans as well as the construction site

The value of the project dictates the cost of permits. You’ll often find permit pricing tiers based on the value of work. Application and inspection fees for a custom home can cost twice as much as those for a registered plan. (The difference is $4,000 vs. $2,500 in Seattle’s King County.)

The sheer size of the project also comes into play: the more square feet to be inspected, the larger the bill. These are general guidelines — permitting fees, much like permitting requirements, vary between municipalities.

How long are permits typically valid? 

This will vary by jurisdiction, but it’s a temporary document. Typically, work should start within six months of receiving a permit and conclude within a year. You can extend or renew your permit for a fee if you need more time.

How long does it take to get approved? What affects that wait time? 

If your application is complete and your plans to code, you can expect to receive building permits within a couple weeks to a few months. If your plans require revision, or if you have special codes to work through (for example, a historical designation) that timeline could stretch significantly longer.

The general state of your local building office will also dictate the time it takes for your permit to come through. Barring any issues on the project or office level, most residential projects can expect permitting within two to three weeks.

Related Articles:

8 Important Questions To Ask About Building Permits
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8 Important Questions To Ask About Building Permits
There's a good reason that building permits exist - the make sure that what you build is up to par with building requirements. Building without one could lead to a catastrophe. Learn what questions to ask to make sure you understand when permits are necessary for your home projects.
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About the Author:

Pro.com is a full-service home remodeling and construction general contractor serving the greater Seattle, Denver, Phoenix, San Francisco, San Jose and San Diego area. Home improvement is hard, and we make it easier for you every step of the way. That starts by understanding your goals, whether it’s making a space more livable, expanding your home, repairing damage, adding room for relatives, or something completely different. We’ll work with you to ensure you’re happy with the project from start to finish.