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When are permits required for a remodeling project?

The most common legal issue renovations bring up involves permitting. Property owners are often confused by the web of requirements for getting permits, or whether a permit is even necessary for a certain project.

In the end, the more complicated the renovations are going to be, the more likely it is that one or more permits will be required. Renovation plans, or even just a simple project, may require a permit if they include any of the following types of work:

  • Construction of a new structure or addition.
  • Demolition of all or a substantial part of a structure.
  • Installation of a swimming pool.
  • Installation of new electrical circuits, gas lines, or plumbing lines.
  • Modifications that may affect sewer lines or impact utilities.

While permitting may be inconvenient or costly, permits generally serve a few purposes that benefit everybody, including:

  • Compliance with zoning ordinances, land use restrictions, and other local laws.
  • Safety of current and future residents, or tenants, of the home.
  • Public safety.
  • Ensuring that utility systems, such as plumbing, electrical, or gas, meet certain standards.

Contacting your local building department is the best way to find out what projects may require permitting. Additionally, local licensed contractors can typically be relied on to know when permits may be required for a certain project because failing to get a permit can jeopardize their license.

What types of permits apply to remodeling projects?

The required permits generally depend on both the laws in your city, county and state, and the nature of your planned renovations. Many cities and counties issue different permits based on the specializations involved in the work. Additional permits may be required if temporarily blocking off the street or sidewalk will be necessary. Common permits include:

  • Building.
  • Electrical.
  • Plumbing.
  • Mechanical.
  • Solar.
  • HVAC.

Construction of a room addition or significant remodeling may require a permit that specifically addresses structural concerns and other systems. Renovations that affect multiple systems, like adding a bathroom where new walls, plumbing, and electrical work will be done, may require separate permits that focus on each part of the work.

What state and local laws apply to my home renovation?

Most laws and regulations that affect home renovation projects are at the local level, such as city building codes and zoning ordinances. These laws can get very detailed about how property owners may use land and how contractors must perform home renovations. Some state laws set minimum standards for specific parts of a home or a renovation project. The details of conducting inspections and issuing permits, however, are usually left to local governments.

If you are considering doing a renovation or repair yourself, you may want to check with your local building department, or research whether a permit is necessary. Often, for minor repairs, a permit may not be required.

What can a homeowner renovate without a permit?

While local rules will vary, homeowners can typically hire contractors to perform minor repairs or make cosmetic improvements without permits. Examples might include:

  • Simple repairs to existing utility systems, such as plumbing, electrical, or HVAC.
  • Installation of new carpeting, countertops, paneling, or trim.
  • Placement of wallpaper.
  • Installation or repairing fencing.
  • Interior or exterior painting, although exterior painting may be subject to HOA rules.

Is my contractor required to get the permit, or am I?

Because contractors tend to be much more knowledgeable about local permitting processes, it is usually customary for them to obtain permits on a homeowner's behalf. This process is known as "pulling permits." An experienced contractor may be able to draft an application, file it, and advocate for the permit before local government officials. Keep in mind, however, that there may be an added cost or fee for pulling permits.

A Construction Contract, Home Improvement Contract, or Remodeling Contract can include provisions that define the contractor's role in obtaining permits.

What can I do if I fail an inspection?

When renovations require a permit, the city or county will likely send an inspector to see if the renovations are in compliance with your permit. This might occur while your project is still underway so the inspector can see work that may later be hidden behind walls, or otherwise inaccessible. The inspection however, may not happen until after the work is complete. If you fail the inspection, you may have a couple options on how to move forward.

Correct the problem: A failed inspection often results in the inspector giving you an opportunity to correct whatever problems or defects they find. They might even tell you exactly what needs to happen in order to pass the inspection. It is smart to include in your contract that the contractor must make any changes required by a city or county inspector.

Appeal the decision: If you disagree with the inspector's conclusions, you may have the right to file an appeal with a supervisor or other official. Sometimes, however, the cost in time, energy and expenses needed to fight it far exceed the price of the contractor making the requested changes. If you are unsure how to proceed, you may want to speak with a Rocket Lawyer network attorney for affordable legal advice.

The most common step after a failed inspection is for the contractor to perform additional work to correct the problems identified in the inspection. The inspector will then return to look at everything again, and will either approve the changes or explain what is still wrong.

Ideally, the contractor should do the work to correct the problems since you hired them to perform code-compliant renovations. A Performance Bond can provide assurance that a contractor does acceptable work.

Licensing for contractors varies by state and profession. Every state requires licenses for specialized jobs like electricians, plumbers, or engineers. General contractors, however, may not be required to hold a license in every state, nor are contractors who perform services like roofing, framing, or painting.

Many of the consequences for hiring an unlicensed contractor fall on the contractor, who would be violating the law by performing work without a required license. However, if you, as a homeowner, hire an unlicensed contractor in a state that requires them to be licensed, you may end up facing legal consequences. For example, if the unlicensed contractor does not carry workers' compensation insurance, the homeowner could be liable for injuries suffered by an employee of the contractor. In addition, HOA rules might require homeowners to use licensed contractors and could impose penalties for using unlicensed ones.

That said, in some states, if an unlicensed contractor performs inadequate work, they have no legal recourse if a client does not pay them. Homeowners might even be able to sue to recover money paid to an unlicensed contractor. These options can help soften the blow if you end up with an unlicensed contractor and the project does not go as planned.

Consumer protection laws at both the state and federal levels guard against dishonest tactics by contractors and others. The Federal Trade Commission, for example, has rules about false or misleading advertising, such as if a contractor misrepresents their credentials, experience, or expertise. Most states have similar laws.

Can I renovate my home in an HOA?

One function of an HOA is to maintain the visual aesthetic of a neighborhood, complex, or building. An HOA's covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CCRs) often give it broad powers to regulate how homeowners may decorate their homes, as well as the types of renovations or improvements that they may make. HOAs often have significant discretion over whether to allow renovations.

An HOA's authority almost always covers exterior renovations. If an HOA manages a condominium or apartment building, it might also have authority over certain interior renovations, too. For example, an HOA for a condo building might require a homeowner to obtain approval before installing new bathroom tiles or replacing a washing machine because these particular renovations could lead to water leaks that would affect other residents.

The HOA approval process typically begins with an application submitted to the HOA or a committee appointed by the HOA. The application may include a detailed description of the planned renovations, the project's timeline, and the potential impact on other HOA members. It will likely ask for the name, contact information, and credentials of all contractors involved in the project.

The HOA or committee might review applications during open meetings or behind closed doors. They could take anywhere from two weeks to a month or longer to make a decision. The applicant might have an opportunity to present their case or to appeal an unfavorable decision. The only legal requirement that is certain to apply is that the HOA must follow its own CCRs and other written rules or procedures.

To learn more about your legal obligations when it comes to home renovations, reach out to a Rocket Lawyer network attorney.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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