Dear Angie: We're planning a bathroom remodel. How important is it to have a building permit? — Michael S., Oakton, Va.
Answer: Regulations governing building permits vary, depending on where you live. But if you or your contractor does work without required permits, you can face fines, the need to redo work and problems when selling. This isn't an area where you want to beg forgiveness rather than ask permission.
Permits can also be a form of consumer protection. A contractor who won't pull required permits might lack appropriate licensing. That's something you should know before a project starts. Second, permits require a code-enforcement inspector to sign off on work at various stages, depending on the type of project. That provides assurance that the framing, plumbing, electrical or other work meets code. Also, a lack of required permits may affect your home's insurance coverage.
If local authorities discover work done without proper authorization, you may be fined and the contractor could face penalties. Also, you may end up paying twice for work because the code-enforcement department may require you to remove drywall to inspect work. Other work you already paid for may also have to be redone.
Unauthorized work may also be discovered when future buyers hire an inspector, who may seek records related to improvements. The seller may end up paying fines and having problems selling the home. "If people do things in the dark of night, then they do that at their own peril," says Don Surrena, a member of the National Association of Home Builders who spent 20 years as a code enforcement official.
But how do you know what projects require a permit? The easiest way is to contact your local building department and ask. Generally speaking, any improvement that changes the home's electrical, plumbing or structural systems requires a permit. This means adding on to the home or moving walls inside the existing structure, especially if the walls bear a load.
Our check of regulations in Fairfax County, Va., where you live, found that a permit is, indeed, required for bathroom remodeling, including interior alterations and new plumbing or electrical fixtures.
In most locations, the price of a permit is based on the estimated value of the project, says Christopher Jones, an attorney at Hellmuth & Johnson, a member of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, and a contributor to NARI's legal blog. A permit may cost from $100 to several thousand dollars.
"When one weighs the cost of a permit against the potential repercussions of doing work without one, it doesn't make sense to operate outside the law," says Jones.
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