Need a Building Permit?
This article originally published in the Chicago Tribune
Friday, Oct. 23, 2009
By Mike McClintock Special to Tribune Newspapers
October 23, 2009
It’s tough to whittle down a list of contractors for your major remodeling project unless they eliminate themselves by waving huge red flags. One of those flags is saying you don’t need a permit when you do. Another is when they tell you to go to the building department and get it yourself.
That’s terrible advice, unless you’re talking about a simple decorating project, or routine repairs and maintenance. You don’t need a building permit in those cases. But you probably need a permit if the project requires foundation work, like pouring piers for a deck, additions or alterations in the framing, like installing a sliding glass door, or changing the use of a space, like converting a garage to a spare bedroom. The contractor isn’t sure if you need a permit? That’s just another version of the same red flag. He should know.
Worse yet, some unscrupulous contractors want you to avoid the permit process altogether. They try to convince a homeowner that a building inspector will nitpick details, cause delays, and drive up job costs. It can happen. But when it does, it’s almost always because the contractor is cutting corners. For example, if the contractor simply nails deck joists in position, you may not know that codes call for metal hangers at each connection. And with no permit and no inspector, you’ll never know that your deck isn’t as strong as it should be. But the inspector knows the correct construction details. And the contractor knows the inspector will be checking the job. It’s a good deterrent that can keep contractors from cutting corners.
If an inspector catches a contractor cutting major corners, it’s likely that your project will get a lot of attention from that point on — backup checks that keep your project safe.
At the other end of the spectrum may be an electrical inspector who takes only a brief look at the new work. Why? Because he’s seen dozens of jobs by the same electrician, all done to the letter of the codes. It’s one advantage of hiring a highly-reputable contractor: there won’t be any hassles about codes or redos after inspections.
Advice about avoiding a permit also feeds on some homeowners’ desire to avoid an increase in real estate taxes. Without a permit there’s no change on the tax rolls noting that extra bathroom. But during a reassessment period an inspector might catch it and the bathroom can cause legal complications if you sell the house.
The worst scenario? The contractor says you don’t need a permit, even though you do, because he doesn’t have a license or insurance and can’t deal with the building department. On an addition and other big projects where a permit is obviously needed, a shady contractor may try to sell the idea that the paperwork is your job. It’s your house, your taxes, your local officials, after all. True, except getting the permit is the contractor’s job.
The National Association of the Remodeling Industry, NARI, a major trade group, says obtaining a permit is part of the service that a consumer should expect when they hire a contractor. And it saves homeowners time, money and stress. NARI supports its position with several key points:
- Contractors are more qualified than homeowners to answer questions about the project and the blueprints. And conversations with inspectors are likely to include lags, cross-section loads and other details expressed in the shorthand of construction. Most homeowners would be caught in the middle, transmitting questions from inspectors to contractors and back again — with who knows what lost in translation.
- If homeowners pull the permits, they will be responsible for the project (not the contractor) and have to answer to local building inspectors during inspections.
- Contractors can negotiate permit fees, a ticklish subject that homeowners aren’t likely to know about. As NARI puts it, “a good contractor will know how to get the permits for the least amount of money.” For example, a homeowner may tell the building department it’s a $100,000 remodeling project. But a contractor may say there will be plumbing, electrical, and structural inspections without mentioning the costs of new cabinets, appliances and more. firstname.lastname@example.org
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