September 12, 2014 in Real Estate

Dear Real Estate Adviser,
We’re wondering if we need permits for minor work we want to do in our backyard. That is, if we were to pull up the outside boards that serve as both a patio and a walkway to our pool area and replace them with a simple concrete walkway, do we have to go through the city? We live near the Tampa Bay area in Florida.
— Tim L.

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Dear Tim,
In a surprising number of communities, you actually do need a planning department permit to build what’s called an “interior” walkway on the exterior of the house. Why? Well, since short private walkways should be among the lowest priorities in residences since they typically don’t involve utilities, public foot traffic, safety issues or other special considerations, the answer in most cases is “revenue enhancement.”

But the good news for you, Tim, is that in your unincorporated town, which is governed by a county permitting authority, codes are not as strict. Had you lived in an area where there are special drainage restrictions, a protected nearby aquifer or other environmental issues, you’d likely need a plan review and permit. I once interviewed a property owner, by the way, who was forced to delay construction for months due to a fruitless search for tiny endangered fairy shrimp that dwell in small vernal pools after, ahem, being “deposited” there by birds. I kid you not.

Your town seems kind of laid back about it

Back to you. Says your town’s website: “Not every little project requires a county building permit. If someone is … laying brick pavers for a walkway, that’s not really something that requires the county to get involved.” Note that it says nothing about pouring concrete. But if I were you, I’d adopt a very liberal interpretation of that “not every little project” statement for your planned walkway.

Other towns are really strict

Laws do vary greatly around the United States. Chicago says “grade-level, noncombustible walkways and patios” are exempt, meaning concrete (but not wood) is OK. Meanwhile, in the quaint city of Muskego, Wisconsin, you are required to get a permit for a private concrete walkway. However, the majority of municipalities say that interior concrete walks that aren’t more than 30 inches above grade or above a basement (not much of an issue in Florida) or other lower floors are good to go sans permit. If you decide to go nuts and pour a companion concrete patio, your city doesn’t seem to be asking for a permit for that either.

Check with the owner’s association

But if you’re a member of a homeowners association, it wouldn’t hurt to check with HOA bylaws about such things. If anything, you are improving your property with a material that’s not prone to Florida mold like that wooded version you currently sport. Assuming you or your contractor does a professional job, an inspector for the next potential buyer of the home is very unlikely to question the permit status of a simple concrete walkway job anyway.

Good luck in your home improvement projects!

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