If you’re building a new house or undertaking a major renovation project, you’re probably familiar with the concept of building permits. This type of authorization form is often needed before a construction project can begin. Moving, demolishing or converting a structure also may require a building permit — its purpose is to ensure the project adheres to safe building practices and local codes and regulations.

What is a building permit?

A building permit is a document issued by a local government when an individual or company wants to build a new structure, or engage in construction on an existing structure for expansion or repair.

When you file an application for a building permit, the corresponding government agency reviews the application to make sure the proposed changes comply with all federal, state and local zoning laws, land use standards and construction ordinances. Building permits also allow officials to ensure the proposed project complies with accessibility standards and any other applicable legal requirements.

While each municipality has its own unique set of laws, the permit issuer will typically ensure the proposed construction does not cause problems with:

  • Structural integrity
  • Fire resistance
  • Proper exiting
  • Health concerns
  • Water and sewer lines
  • Extension of electrical service
  • Industrial waste

The applicant may also need to obtain permits to cover other aspects of the construction, including electrical, mechanical, plumbing, concrete or development.

Obtaining a building permit for your project typically means that a code-enforcement inspector from your local municipality will visit the project site to ensure the work complies with all building codes and standards. In many places, if you do not go through the process of obtaining a building permit, you will face fines. And if you have major work done on your home without obtaining the necessary permits, not only are you violating the law, but you may also run into difficulties when you’re ready to sell.

When a building permit is needed

Whether or not a project requires a building permit varies based on the project and the local zoning and construction laws. New-construction builds will almost always need permitting, but not all projects require one.

Simple or purely cosmetic home improvement projects, for example, can often be done by a contractor without going through the permitting process. In cases where the project includes additions or significant changes to a building’s structure or mechanical systems, though, a permit will usually be required.

Typical situations when a building permit is required include:

  • Constructing a new home or business on a vacant lot
  • Building a garage, barn, large shed or other similar structure on a residential lot where a home already exists
  • Adding a large swimming pool (usually over 5,000 gallons) to a residential lot
  • Enclosing a property in a fence over six feet high
  • Expanding an existing home or business
  • Demolishing an existing home or business
  • Moving a fully constructed home, business or other large building to a vacant lot
  • Adding large commercial or industrial signs to a property
  • Adding plumbing or electricity to a home or business
  • Installing a fireplace in a home or business
  • Adding a deck or porch to a home
  • Adding or removing walls from a home or business
  • Finishing a basement
  • Large excavation projects
  • Adding new windows to a home or business when it is necessary to change the size of the frames

If your project requires permitting, be aware that building permits are not free. The fee you’ll need to pay can range significantly based on a variety of factors, including the location of the project and the project itself. Building permit fees can range from as little as $50 to $2,000 or more.

In cases where work is being completed by a contractor, the application will typically be handled by the professionals. However, if you are doing work on your own, it is your responsibility to find out whether a permit is needed and file an application if it is.

Bottom line

Building permits allow local governments to ensure that construction and renovation work is completed in accordance with federal, state and local codes and ordinances. Not all projects require a permit; whether or not you need one can depend on the location, size and scope of the work being done. If you’re not sure whether your project requires a permit or not, consult with your contractor or ask your local department of buildings.