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Building Permits: Why they are important

Too often, we come across situations where homeowners do not realize the importance of applying for building permits when completing a renovation. Either they haven’t been educated by their contractor or they just don’t know the rules regarding building codes and regulations.

As contractors, it’s unreasonable for us to assume that all of our clients and potential clients know the building code or even the process associated with it. That’s where we come in. It’s our job to educate and protect our clients, not only with the trustworthiness we provide as a contracting firm, but also with making sure the building and renovation process is legal. We put great effort into making sure we use quality materials, planning and laying out a project, communicating with our clients throughout a renovation, and also into making sure all of our work meets or exceeds state and federal building codes.

There are a couple of reasons contractors try to convince their clients that no permits are required for work. First, pulling a permit costs money. Let’s face it, nothing is free. There is a cost associated with everything, even piece of mind! Permits not only ensure things remain legal, but they provide a certain piece of mind for both contractors and homeowners. Work is inspected over several visits to ensure that it is being done properly and if something needs correction, it is addressed immediately so that a project can proceed forward. The cost of the permit covers the various expenses incurred by local building departments; paperwork filing, visits of the building officials, and questions handled by the building officials. In addition, permits are recorded on the property card for the location of the work which leaves a very beneficial paper trail when either selling a property or purchasing a new one. Pulling a permit properly requires your contractor to disclose all of the work being completed, provide their license information as well as their liability and workman’s compensation insurance information, provide any drawings or engineer’s reports for additions or structural work, and provide the amount of the renovation which the total permit cost is ultimately based off of. All of this information is crucial in protecting both the client and the contractor, but it ultimately adds another cost to the renovation.

The second reason that permits may not be pulled is that permits tend to add time to a renovation. It’s no surprise that people generally don’t like having a portion of their house torn apart. We often get asked how long a typical remodel takes and we are honest with our clients regarding our timeline. Our typical bathroom remodels take about 3 – 4 weeks while our kitchens usually take 4 or 5. As we go through and explain the various phases of a project such as demolition, rough framing, rough electrical and plumbing, insulation, sheetrock, cabinet and counter installation, finish trim installation, and paint, we make sure to always mention that we factor in time to schedule the inspections. In some towns, there might be a 3-4 week lead time on inspection scheduling which, if not planned for, can lead to some serious lag time in a project. In most towns however, the lead time is typically a couple of days. A good contractor will do their best to plan ahead with their schedule and factor time in for those inspections. We typically plan our jobs out as far as we can and discuss with all parties involved in our project what the timeline is and when the dates of inspection will be. Inevitably, there can be delays and those are handled which typically results in a change in the inspection schedule, but our jobs are all run efficiently even with the permit schedule factored in. Unfortunately, we see too many instances where contractors don’t want the hassle of the added time on a project and they avoid the permitting process. By doing this, it allows them to cruise along without having the work inspected, but leaves the homeowner vulnerable.

In addition to not delaying the project, the third reason permits aren’t pulled is because the contractor doing the work is not licensed or insured. We frequently see situations where the price of the job is incredibly low compared to other bids for a project. If your contractor is not licensed or insured, their overhead is going to be very low which will allow them to place low bids on projects. Think about your car or home, imagine all of the money you would save if you didn’t have to have insurance on them! Well, that temptation spills into the world of home renovation and remodeling and in order to low bid projects, contractors may not carry the appropriate license or insurances required to be a legal outfit. If they do carry some form, it may not be correct based on the scope of work they typically cover. Bottom line is, if they don’t carry a license or insurance, then they can’t pull permits! The building departments would not allow these contractors to do the work in an effort to protect the residents of the town. If they can’t or don’t pull permits, then they don’t have to add in extra costs for the permit, worry about scheduling inspections, or even worry about following the building codes. In addition, dishonest contractors may not be hiring licensed plumbers, electricians, or other contractors to do work on a project, or they may even be doing the plumbing or electrical themselves. If this is the case, they cannot pull a permit for the job because the permit would not be approved since a licensed professional is required to do the work.

We are also seeing mortgage companies getting stricter on writing loans for mortgages where it is determined that work was done without a permit. Loans can be granted for buildings with illegal work that was done, but the appraisers are required by law to note any illegal work and adjust the property value accordingly. In addition to this, with the surge of remodeling and renovation television programs, homeowners are becoming more educated as to what is required for renovations. When looking to purchase a home, more and more people are looking at the property cards and searching for records of building permits. If they are not finding anything on record, especially for projects recently done, they may move on to the next house. The permits are there to protect not only the person living in the house currently, but the people in the process of either selling or purchasing a home. The permits truly are an invaluable aspect of home ownership.

The dangers of not having permits

If the work on your home is not being inspected, who is to say that it is done correctly and meets the current code regulations? Nobody. If the contractor doing the work doesn’t care enough to do things legally regarding permits, who is to say that they care enough to do the work the right way? On almost every job we do, we inevitably find something done the wrong way by the previous contractor. We have seen some scary things over the years. Live wires hidden in the walls, spliced wires buried in ceilings, arcing electrical wires actively charring wood almost to the point of a fire, plumbing drain lines run without traps or vents, inadequately sized drain lines, cracked pipes patched with epoxy, windows and exterior doors installed incorrectly, structural “modifications” to ceilings that where the weight above has caused the structure to sag, additions built with inadequate and undersized lumber, the list goes on and on. We worked on a project where we opened a ceiling above a kitchen to run new drain lines for some bathrooms above and found that the majority of the ceiling joists which were 2x10s were notched to allow for plumbing drain lines to be run. The notches were made in such a way that the 2x10s were no longer the equivalent to 2x10s. They had been cut so much and in the wrong way that they were reduced to the structural integrity of a 2x4. The ceiling had sagged so much due to the weakened wood that we needed to reframe the entire ceiling with custom cut joists to eliminate the sag in the floor. With the weight of two bathrooms above it, the ceiling was straining to support the weight. The plumbing drains were run so poorly that an incredible amount of work had to be done to the drain lines. We made sure that everything was safe and the work was inspected and signed off on. I looked at the previous records for the property and there were absolutely no records for the two bathrooms above which had been previously remodeled.

In a similar situation, we were hired to gut and remodel two bathrooms in a house and upon removing the sheetrock ceiling, we found that the previous contractor had cut all of the old roof rafters above the bathrooms to make space for a higher bathroom ceiling height. The main ridge beam of the house was floating in place and barely being held up by any supporting structure. It was amazing that the roof did not fail with the weigh loads of some of the past winters. Since the attic portion above these bathrooms was completely sealed off from any other attic space, this damage could not be seen or detected not only by us, but by the home inspector that the homeowners hired when purchasing the home. Looking back at the records, we found no permits pulled for the work being done and we had to correct the issue in the attic space before covering it up. This added significant cost to the project total, but it had to be done. We had to re-support the main carrying ridge beam and re-frame the rafters down to the exterior walls. Had the previous homeowner’s contractor pulled permits, none of that destruction to the roof structure would have occurred and the new homeowners would not have been left holding the bill.

Projects that typically require building permits are projects that alter the use of a room or space, demolishing load bearing walls, applying a new roof or altering the roof line of a structure, installing new electrical wiring or circuits, installing fences, demolition of structures, construction or alterations of decks, sewer line work, plumbing work that adds supply lines or drain lines, construction of additions, general remodeling where plumbing, electrical, and insulation work is involved, building a garage or carport, replacing windows with both new construction or replacement windows, replacing doors, HVAC work, replacing water heaters, and installing siding on the exterior of a home. Permits aren’t typically required for painting projects, floor refinishing or installation, replacing countertops, or installing landscaping. However, the best and most thorough way to see if your next remodeling project requires a permit is to call the local building department for verification.

What can you do to protect yourself?

Trust your contractor. Have open discussions with them about the remodeling process. One of the main things we try to provide is trustworthiness. It is unbelievable how often we hear that our clients had a hard time trusting their previous contractor. We made the vow to ourselves and our clients a long time ago that we were going to be a company built off integrity, trustworthiness, and quality craftsmanship. Our mission states that we strive to provide superior work while developing and maintaining strong and positive relationships with our clients. Let’s be honest here. You can’t have a strong or positive relationship with anyone if you don’t trust them and as a contracting firm, we can’t provide superior work unless we truly care about our clients and have integrity in the work we do. Those things are absolutely crucial in a positive remodeling experience. Use your initial experiences with your contractor as a gauge. Do you get a good feeling from that person? Were they on time? Did they call you back? Have they explained the process thoroughly along with the materials they will be using? If you find someone you can trust, they will be open with you regarding the remodeling process, including permitting.

Another thing you can do is call your local building department to get a clear understanding of what a permit is required for. You can visit your local building departments website to get a list of what projects require a permit. Print that list and ask your contractor if they are going to be pulling a permit. If they say no, question them and ask why. If they persist, then call your building department and tell them what you are being told in an effort to get clarification.

You can also research your contractor online. Websites like Angie’s List or Houzz provide a great database of different contractors. Look for a contractor with several reviews with high ratings. A successful, legal outfit is going to follow the right channels to make sure a project is above board and legal. If you can’t find much online about your contractor, call the local building department to see if they have much experience with that contractor.