Is a permit really needed? Note: we are not legal advisors, and this should be in no way interpreted to be legal advice. Contact your own legal advisors to know what your legal exposure or potential exposure would be should you decide to be your own GC or contractor.
You’re not doing a complete renovation, maybe just installing a new outlet, or changing a ceiling light fixture or a ceiling fan. Is a permit really needed to do the job? The answer is, yes… and no… it depends. It depends on what the city, county, or state you live in requires for repairs, additions, or remodels. That said, there are some general rules to live by.
In general, if you are building a new or adding on or making modifications or repairs to a building, structure, electrical system, or plumbing system a permit is required. Well, that covers just about everything you might say. And you would be correct. So yes, most projects that are repairing, building, or adding to these systems or a building/ structure will require a permit to be pulled before the project starts.
There are a few projects that may be exempt from permits, a good way to find those is to go to your local governing municipality’s website and go to the building department to see if they list exempt projects. For example, painting, flat concrete not related to foundations or driveways, and fencing (under 7 feet in height) are exempt in the localities of Davis and Woodland California where we operate at the time of this writing.
The communities in which I serve as a contractor, both are now requiring permits for things that even 5 years ago might have been able to be done without a permit. Things like installing a ceiling fan where a light fixture was before. Installing an outlet, even if it is within 6 inches of an old one. Replacing can CFL lighting with new energy-efficient LED recessed lighting, even when being installed in the same location. In some cases, what would seem to be a simple modification of saying kitchen cabinets, can trigger the need for a permit, and in order to satisfy that permit, certain upgrades to either electrical or plumbing systems will need to be made. This can make what again start out as a very straightforward project idea and can turn into a much larger remodeling project. How does this happen?
Please keep in mind the saying, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” Often times people think that the contractor makes up these things in order to make the project bigger and therefore cost more. In my experience, this isn’t the case. The contractor, if licensed, Local building permit inspection card is required by law to know and follow the local building authority’s requirements for permitting projects and satisfying those permits. But why do the local building authorities require these projects be permitted in the first place?
The answer is safety. By having uniform codes and code compliance, we get standards. These standards create consistency and safety in buildings. It gives society a standard by which it can measure if a job was done well. It gives insurance companies a standard with which they can run actuarial numbers for the chances that an insurance policy will need to pay claims and determine premium costs.
So why do you want to make sure that any work on your property that requires a permit has a permit? Well for starters, it is the law. Secondly, for insurance reasons. Pretend you are having your kitchen remodeled. The contractor wraps up the project, you pay them the final check, and they drive off into the sunset. You look back over your brand new kitchen and say to yourself, that was the best money I have ever spent! I got everything I wanted and it is perfect! A week goes by, a month, and three years go by.
Everything is great. Then one day, about 6 years down the line something terrible happens. Your laundry room that is right next to your remodeled kitchen catches fire! The laundry room and the kitchen go up in smoke! You’re doing the paperwork and filling out the forms, and you happen to mention to the claims adjuster that you’re so upset that your kitchen has been destroyed, after all the time you spent designing and picking out all the perfect features during that recent remodel.
The adjuster asks, “It was permitted wasn’t it?” And that is when you remember that during the entire remodeling process there was never once an inspection that you were told about by your contractor. You find the old business card for that contractor, and when you call, they no longer answer that number. The claims adjuster says not to worry, he can find out by making a simple phone call. Would you believe it! The work for the kitchen was never permitted or inspected. The claims adjuster delivers to you the bad news, the only part of fire that will be covered is the laundry room. The cost of the kitchen will not be covered in the claim because it was not permitted work in the first place. If you’re lucky, you might get the amount it would be to restore the room to the original plans of the home. Lastly, having your repairs and remodels permitted and inspected help keep contractors from taking shortcuts. Making sure they do the work correctly by an independent third party is good for everyone.
Why do you want to get your project permitted? So that you know that it has been done to the industry building standards, to be sure your home meets the requirements of your local building authority, to ultimately make sure that in the event of a disaster; your home will still be covered fully under your homeowner’s insurance policy. In most cases our homes are our largest wealth assets, we don’t want people to take short cuts or cut corners when they do work for us, this includes making sure that work done is properly permitted when necessary.
So who is responsible for pulling the permits? Under California state law, the General Contractor or Specialty contractor, whichever is the primary contractor for the project is required to pull the permits and to make sure they are satisfied (inspected and signed off). This means, that if you as a homeowner decide to be your own GC on the project, the responsibility and legal obligation is yours to get the permits and to have them satisfied in the allowed time. Even if you hire subcontractors or specialty trades to do the work.
There are many other legal factors to consider as well of being your own GC, we’ll cover those in a future post. If you don’t do this, and there is a catastrophic loss, not only may your insurance not cover your damages, you may even put yourself in legal jeopardy if someone is injured or killed due to things not being done properly or being permitted.
In the end, it really isn’t worth the risk of spending all the money to do the project, and not have the work permitted. Does it more time and expense to the project, yes, but it helps to protect you, your family and your assets.