20

I see a lot of cases of major 'fixer upper' homes or general home improvement done in an area where the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) requires permits and only offers them to licensed pros. How is this the case? I ask because I wonder if I'm missing something. (Of course it is case by case. For example, one person doing electrical may be working with a licensed electrician to do so, whereas another may be outright doing it themselves illegally. Same goes for structural modifications and remodeling.)

From what I can tell, many people are doing work that requires a permit & license without either. Aside from doing unsafe work, what risks are they taking in doing so? I'd think the risks would be high but the prevalence of this suggests it is not. Part of that could also be, many of the people illegally doing maintenance/upgrades are trying to save a buck, or are doing it on homes that are in such bad shape to begin with that their DIY improvements can only bring good things in quality of life and resale value there.

For more context, consider the answers to Does a homeowner need a permit for electrical work in Massachusetts? It is clear that in some places permits & licenses are required for relatively simple work, and also clear that there are people who don't respect those requirements and would rather risk paying a fine than a pro.

And in another related question, Pros and Cons of buildings permits the risks are made clear, along with reasoning why someone would ignore permit requirements.

closed as too broad by mmathis, isherwood, JPhi1618, Daniel Griscom, Machavity Jan 23 '18 at 13:55

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 2
    I'd love to know if I'm mistaken, but I've always heard that in my area (Texas) there are many situations where a licensed contractor would have to pull a permit, but if a homeowner does the work themselves they don't have to. But then again, I know there are other jobs that require a permit no matter what. I guess, to clarify, what major DIY job do you think needs a special permit to complete? I think a lot of DIY is done without touching major electric or plumbing systems. – JPhi1618 Jan 18 '18 at 17:08
  • 1
    I don't think there's a definitive answer to this. Some people are likely working illegally (intentionally or not). Some areas allow homeowners to do work, as long as it's inspected. Risks also vary from none, to extreme. It really depends on the type and scale of the work, and the location (location as in geographic) where the work is done. – Tester101 Jan 18 '18 at 17:12
  • 10
    Just don't stack raw materials outside and no one will notice; worked for me for about 50 years. – blacksmith37 Jan 18 '18 at 17:15
  • 2
    VTC as too broad. There are too many municipalities with too many codes and licensing requirements and permitting requirements to provide a single answer that isn't just "it depends". – mmathis Jan 18 '18 at 18:09
  • 9
    In my state (Oregon) a home owner can do everything no license required. Permits are required for structural, plumbing & electrical changes but not maintenance (replacing outlets, switches & fixtures) are all considered maintenance. – Ed Beal Jan 18 '18 at 18:09
14

Short answer: Inspectors can't be everywhere, see everything, and probably have enough other work.


I speak as municipal inspector for a smaller city in the Midwestern US.

For you average DIYer who is working on their own, owner-occupied home, I don't lose too much sleep if they extend a branch circuit on the weekend. Even I have moved my washer and dryer over 10 feet and installed new supply line on the weekend, which would be permit-required work in my city.

Also, owner-occupied residential work that requires a permit does not require a license even though I may require a licensed contractor in a rental or commercial.

I empathize with and understand homeowners for not wanting to pay tens of dollars more to do a 10 dollar job. Or understand their plain ignorance about building codes.

DIY work that requires a permit happens all the time. I can't be everywhere, I don't work the weekends, we do have some executive discretion, and I just don't want to be up in everyone's business. The actual permitted work is usually enough to keep my department busy. But I treat everyone fairly, if someone calls the unpermitted work in, I will show up.

However, the hardline is usually at commercial properties and non-owner occupied residences—that is, rentals. When you start doing work that needs to be permitted and licensed and it is not just yourself that is being put at immediate risk, I tend to be hard-nosed.

The risks owners take in doing unpermitted work is wide and varying. From the obvious burning/flooding of their home risk if they don't do it right to more inconvenient problems like slow drains.

Monetarily, if you are caught doing unpermitted work in my city, it will simply result in a stop order until you get the permit—the first time. On the second offense, the fee is doubled. And if you are really persistent, a letter from the city prosecutor with court costs looming.

It is not uncommon for banks and prospective owners to call the building department to look up old permits on work done. Doing unpermitted work could impact your resale value of your home.

And as @blacksmith37 aptly put it, if don't leave any trace of your work outside, no one will know! You don't have to let an inspector into your home to show all the laws you have been breaking!

But if you are caught, be nice, maybe play dumb and you may just get a slap on the wrist.

  • Accepting this answer because as an inspector and someone with 'skin in the game' on both sides, this answer seems the most authoritative (given the broad scope of the Q). It's also pretty comprehensive, though it doesn't mention any risks related to insurance - @RomaH have you encountered/seen any issues with insurance related to this? – cr0 Jan 19 '18 at 15:04
  • 1
    For me I look to this if an inspector is required than fine - inspect my work. If my work is faulty - I am sure eager to know where and how. Just because someone is a DIY'er does not mean they are inept, nor does being a 'pro' mean they are skilled. I have seen both work done by a 'pro' and a diy'er that I thought 'you have got to be kidding me'. That is why sites like this that help people follow codes and rules are great. However nothing can replace a positive attitude of being determined to do it right. Cheaper to do it right the first time than it is to do it right the second time. – Ken Jan 19 '18 at 21:28
  • The attitude of the local inspector can vary wildly. Even if you are very sneaky your neighbor may be observant and may be carrying a grudge about your loud music from a few years back. I have dealt with both strict and easy going inspectors and they both are usually very helpful when you are honest with them and potentially irritable when you try to get over on them. I learned most of the code I know from inspectors.I am currently selling my parent's house and I have to remove a kitchen in the rental unit because my parents did not get a permit for it back in the seventies. – Peter Roscoe Jan 29 '18 at 5:00
24

I will give you an honest answer and could care less about the upvotes/downvotes. Just my experience flipping houses in many US areas and even some overseas over 25 years.

  1. First every municipality will have a detailed list of things they require a permit for.

    • almost all places require you to pull a permit for electrical
    • if you pull an electrical permit some places will allow you to do some electrical work. This may or may not include you needing to pass a local electrical permit exam. I have done so numerous times.
    • when applying for a permit most places will take in a percentage (often capped) of the renovations to help offset the costs for their inspection process.
  2. If you are doing a lot of work talk to your inspector. If you can actually get the inspector at your city hall (or where ever) please talk to him. Give him an overview of what you may do. And here is why. 80% of the inspectors are GREAT guys that will help you out and downright give you great advice through the inspection/permit process. They will tell you that you don't need to pull permits for certain things and give you hints how to pass quicker for other things. The other 20% of the inspectors... WOW. They have their buddy Johnny the Electrician and if you don't use Johnny then your guy better be perfect (and perfect means whatever the inspector wants). Johnny will charge 50% more. The same goes for all trades. Or you get the inspector who wants everything permitted - yes I have had an inspector ask me to pull a permit for putting in carpet no kidding. My point is know what you are dealing with. If I am dealing with a shady inspector, no way in hell I am pulling permits unless it is for something I know I need to. That is just the truth. We may just skip certain renovations because of this.

  3. Don't let #2 fool you I am a pro-permit person. But permits and passing permits mean nothing. I can pretty much have any architect write something up and install a beam or whatever and most inspectors will just sign off on anything. Sure there are inspectors that know their crap... but I am talking about the majority. Pulling a permit doesn't ensure that the job is done right. It just ensures that someone looked at it. I have bought many houses that passed "inspections" that were not done to code, took these to the city and had no recourse. In one case the city made me repull permits (costing over 5k) because their inspectors passed them incorrectly. Anyway sued city and they paid for the work done in the end but took 6 months so I was eating mortgage. My point is here the permit is just another check, not the all being/knowing check.

  4. When talking electrical. I will pull a permit if I have a licensed electrician doing work, if I am doing work licensed in the area, or if the work is major. I will not pull permits for switching out outlets (some cities ask you to pull permits for this - I do not ask as once you ask, you are pulling a permit), I will not pull a permit for adding an extra outlet or two to an existing circuit (yes I follow load standards), and will not pull a permit for switching out aluminum for copper.

  5. When talking infrastructure... I will pull permit if I am making a modification that is substantial or will impact the house listing - adding bathrooms, bedrooms, square footage. I used to pull for foundation work... But I found that some cities had practices and outdated information that were making my repairs worse and more costly. I have trusted pros doing this work for me and trust their opinions more than an inspector who is getting his info from the local foundation guy (who wants all the business so often does unwarranted things at a house and acts like his way is the only way to meet code). On the other end, I am not pulling a permit to enclose a closet, to shorten or modifying non-loadbearing walls, just not happening.

What are the risks? Well none really if you do the work correctly. If you are afraid work is done incorrectly you could be liable for failings but really when houses are sold they are sold as is. Almost impossible to sue a former house owner. Probably the biggest risk is that when selling the house you did work that shows up on the comp sheet and word gets back to city (this is not common). City then could come out and ask for permits. But the city would have to prove that YOU (not previous owners) made the changes unless they are for unpermitted space.

Also a good home inspector should be able to see bad work and then the work would have to be redone. If substantial you would have to pull permits as home inspector may ask city for them.

To conclude, someone could write a book about your question in the US. I have had so many inspectors tell me "you don't want to pull a permit for that". I have had so many inspectors tell me to pull permits for the dumbest crap. (funny example - had to pull permit for changing out tile in kitchen. Inspector comes out. He is new and just some random dude with a sheet to checkmark. He goes through some other stuff we were doing, he asks if tile was done, one of my guys thought he was talking about the bathroom which was done, my guy says yes, he inspects kitchen tile which is about 40 years old, says good, checked, done). Any homeowner getting work done on their house for roof, electric, plumbing, or major infrastructure should get a permit to help protect themselves.

Edit: Since it has tag DIY vs pro. In most areas the only times you would need a pro is an architect for load bearing changes or new space or electrical. For plumbing it is 50/50 in my area at least. For everything else you can do it yourself. If you do not have experience for some projects or do not have a reputation, please count on your inspector to treat you different. Some are nice and helpful, other will nitpick your work until you get a pro. But when pulling permits if it isn't electrical or major architectural I would assume you don't need a pro and even for those I mentioned you can ask city if you can do it yourself. (example - often I have taken out a load bearing wall. If I well over engineer the cross beam needed many inspectors tell me not to worry about architect sign-off. It is a strategy I use often - pay $75 more for beam plus better beam better for future owners and save $300 on architect)

  • I'm not familiar with the phrase, "pull a permit." Does that simply mean "obtain a permit"? – Tashus Jan 19 '18 at 17:29
  • Yes, thats what it means. – Nate Jan 19 '18 at 18:31
  • 1
    A really good answer that is based in reality of the real world! Generally basic things can be DIY'er (install a ceiling fan) is electrical but not many people are going to call a pro or get a permit. A little common sense - add to the structure get the permit. Pull out a wall.. better make sure it is not load bearing and if it is get that engineer and permit and if you don't know - get an engineer. – Ken Jan 19 '18 at 21:37
12

I see several misconceptions, and a general sense of authoritarianism (the government being a "big brother" there to protect citizens from their own mistakes, prohibiting by default, only reluctantly authorizing).

in an area where permits (only offered to licensed pros) are required.

outright doing it themselves illegally

First, permits are required pretty much everywhere. There are very few "no permit required, do what you want" areas. "This job doesn't need a permit!" is a common refrain, but it is often not true.

Second, I've never heard of a case where a homeowner couldn't pull a permit and do the work themselves. I could imagine that if the AHJ learned through several rounds of inspections that the homeowner was utterly incompetent and refused counsel to that effect, an AHJ could stop issuing them permits anymore... but I suspect that would require a hearing and action by a city council or other court of competent jurisdiction.

And in many areas, commercial work (including rental units) needs to be done professionally, but this can be done by in-house staff if they are qualified.

many people are doing work that requires a permit & license without either. Aside from doing unsafe work

"Lacking a license" and "unsafe work" are orthagonal: they have nothing to do with each other. Almost all use of backstabs is by professionals. I am not licensed and I have fixed a great deal of truly horrible work done by licensed professionals.

This is because professionals are on the clock, rewarded to work quickly. They also have an entire career to build up shortcuts and bad habits, with no force to correct them. They also have an industry working hard to shill shortcuts and bad habits, like backstabs and aluminum branch circuit wire. Some operate their whole careers in a narrow field of practice (e.g. flinging Romex in houses under construction) and don't have an earthly idea what to do when they touch 3-phase, a multi-horse motor, a solar array, or an institutional service-water HVAC system.

Whereas a careful hobbyist who is thorough in his research can get everything correct and work with excellence and flair. He has time, and he certainly has "skin in the game".

risk paying a fine

I have never heard of that penalty. The penalty I have heard of is that you have to rip out the unauthorized work, pull a proper permit, and redo it.

  • The fine is the enforcement mechanism for not following through. I've seen it for setback encroachment. – isherwood Jan 18 '18 at 18:27
  • 3
    Good answer too. I too have never heard of paying fines - unless the person has violated a stop order or has blatantly ignored other city interaction. I have been caught not-permitting many times. I play dumb rip out what I need to, act very nice to inspector. Yes it cost me money but the couple times times the $200 in drywall repair per is far far far far far lower than the savings I made from pulling useless permits or working around a shady inspector. – DMoore Jan 18 '18 at 18:33
  • 1
    "Second, I've never heard of a case where a homeowner couldn't pull a permit and do the work themselves." there are AHJs in northeast USA that require a license for all electrical or plumbing permits, and all work in those fields requires a permit, therefore homeowners can't legally pull a permit and do the work themselves unless they are licensed in those fields. – cr0 Jan 18 '18 at 19:38
  • 1
    @cr0 -- Are we talking hyper-urban AHJs here, or something closer to what's seen in most of the rest of the US? – ThreePhaseEel Jan 18 '18 at 23:21
  • 1
    @wallyk yes they can do these things with out a 'professional' - however there are limits into what is legally allowed. Natural gas being more restrictive. For a gas line I would recommend people don't try to do it unless they actually are a professional. Checking for voltage on a pipe is not something a DIY'er would ordinarily know to do. The gas co will not turn the gas on unless gas lines are inspected & tested, so the permit needs to be pulled. Permitting is one thing, who does the work another thing & inspecting another. – Ken Jan 20 '18 at 0:51

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.