Is Getting A Permit Worth It?

This is the first in a weekly series about working with contractors.  I welcome your questions about your own relationships with contractors and suggestions about future articles.

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked by clients and prospective clients is whether we really need to get a permit for the project.  The homeowner is usually asking about the risks and penalties of being caught.  But I think the more important consideration is the benefits of permitting home improvement work and the downstream risks of not doing so.

Almost anytime I get a question such as this, I have a very recent “horror” story about a homeowner who has recently become a client because they didn’t get a previous project permitted.  Here’s a recent one that cost the client $15,000 in re-work to fix a poorly done, unlicensed plumbing and HVAC work.

Our client called because he wanted to remodel his basement.  After we talked about what he wanted to do I asked if there were other problems we needed to fix.  Our client told me about a very slow drain in the basement sink (slow after being snaked twice) and an odor coming from the basement shower drain.  He also complained about always being cold on the first floor.  I learned he had remodeled the basement as well as the portions of the first floor and switched from hot water heat to forced air only 3 years ago.  He was so unhappy with the basement that he wanted to remodel it again plus he wanted several details on the first floor revised.

His previous contractor came recommended by a work colleague.  He understood, at the start of the job, that the work had been permitted.  Only later – at the end of the project — did he discover that the contractor had failed to get a permit and also used unlicensed plumbers, electricians and HVAC tradesmen for the project.

Upon investigating, we found that waste from the basement toilet was flowing toward the shower drain instead of into the waste stack.  In addition, none of the plumbing fixtures in the basement except for the original washing machine was properly vented.  There were no air returns on either the basement or first floor levels so the HVAC equipment wasn’t cooling or heating properly.

If the work had been permitted, it’s likely that none of these problems would have occurred:

  • Plumbing Problems:  If a licensed plumber had been involved, the flow and venting would have been correct.  Plus, an inspector would have confirmed that the work was performed correctly.
  • HVAC:  Code would require adequate air returns and an inspector would have confirmed that the work was performed correctly.
  • Style and Scope of Work:  Without a permit, the contractor could get away with verbally describing the work to be done.  He didn’t have to produce drawings of the work.  The process of making and reviewing drawings might have been sufficient to ensure that the scope and style met the client’s needs.

How much more would it have cost to get a permit for the previous work?  The answer is at least $1,000 and maybe as much as $8,000 including both the cost of the permit and the time for the contractor to develop and submit plans and permitting documents.  The reason for the big spread is that it’s hard to estimate how much the drawings would have cost.  However, the $15,000 in re-work was only to fix the plumbing and HVAC problems.  The additional work to remodel the basement and to modify details on the first floor was an additional $40,000.  All of this could have been saved if it was done correctly the first time.

The permitting process while at times cumbersome is almost always in the client’s interest.  Developing detailed drawings requires a thoughtful design process and complete specification of work to be done.  And no matter how much confidence you have in your contractors or how highly regarded they are by others, it’s invaluable to have an independent set of eye reviewing that the work performed meets building codes.

Are there ever times when it’s not to a homeowner’s advantage?  I’ve spoken with homeowners who want to add a bedroom to the basement but don’t want to spend the extra money to meet egress requirements.  Meeting egress might mean replacing a window in a basement bedroom with a larger window that opens fully and enlarging the window well.  My argument to the homeowner is that the egress requirement is based on safety.  If there is a fire and their child or guest cannot get out or be saved because the fireman can’t get through the window, it’s not money worth saving.  But there are a few other examples that are less clear: such as requiring a railing on a stairway designed to prevent a child’s head from slipping through (in a home where there are no children).  Another example might be finishing an attic where the headroom doesn’t meet the headroom requirement.  On the other hand, I can design very open-feeling railings that still meet code and the addition of a dormer to meet code will greatly increase a homeowner’s enjoyment of the attic room.

So in summary, yes getting a permit can add costs and time to the job.  However, it’s usually money well spent — if only for piece of mind.

Next Friday I’ll talk about 10 questions to ask when selecting a remodeling contractor.

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