Whether your business is building on a vacant lot, renovating an office, or building out rental space, you and your contractor will need to learn about building permit rules. Aside from minor repairs, you will need a building permit and submit to a building inspection for almost every project.
The steps you will need to take to comply with building permit rules will vary depending on where your building is located. Moreover, you may need to comply with overlapping sets of building permit rules. For example:
- State building permit rules may require that you hire a licensed architect to design the space and a licensed contractor to build it.
- County building permit rules may require that you submit your plans for approval before you begin construction and obtain a building inspection before a certificate of occupancy can be issued.
- City building permit rules may set the fire codes, construction waste disposal rules, and energy efficiency standards your project must meet.
Without complying with all these rules, your building project might fail a building inspection. As a result, you might be prohibited from using the building until it meets building codes and passes an inspection.
Here is a brief overview of what you should know about building permit rules for your construction project:
What Projects Require a Permit?
The projects that require a building permit vary depending on the jurisdiction. However, building permit rules usually use a few different criteria to determine the structures that require a building permit:
- Size: For new construction, the square footage often determines whether the construction must be approved. This allows small buildings, such as an unattached garage, to be built without a permit in many jurisdictions.
- Use: If a building is not intended for residential occupancy, it might not be subject to building permit rules. Jurisdictions using these rules might require a guest house or studio to be approved while a storage shed or greenhouse of the same size might not require approval.
- Location: If a building is considered an “outbuilding” that is not attached to the residence — such as a barn — it might not require a building permit. Location might be determined by distance — such as more than 150 feet from the residence — or by structure —whether it shares the same foundation. In the case of a large building, a foundation engineer might need to design a separate foundation for the outbuilding.
Bear in mind that city and county ordinances may use a combination of factors in determining whether a building permit is required. For example, building permit rules may require authorization for all residential buildings and outbuildings larger than 200 square feet.
Moreover, building permits are usually required for renovation projects. Specifically, building permit rules usually require that you receive approval for any construction or renovation project that requires electrical work, plumbing work, heating or air conditioning work, or structural work.
You should always consult your local building and construction office to determine if a building permit is required for your construction project.
What Projects May Be Exempt from Building Permit Rules?
There are no universal rules, because each city and county defines its own building codes. However, there are a few projects that are usually exempt from requirements for a building permit. However, be sure to check with your local city or county government to determine whether your local ordinances differ. Some examples include:
- Paving projects: Residential driveways, patios, and walkways usually do not require a building permit unless they are larger than a size specified by building codes. This means that you usually do not need a building permit for a parking pad for a single RV, but might need one if you hire asphalt contractors to lay a parking pad for multiple vehicles.
- Temporary structures: Small temporary structures, such as party tents, usually do not require building permits. However, you might be subject to inspections and permitting for large temporary structures.
- Small animal enclosures: Chicken coops, dog houses, and other animal enclosures smaller than a size specified in the local building codes usually do not require a building permit.
Who Can Apply for a Building Permit?
A homeowner can apply for a building permit. However, most homeowners have their general construction contractor apply for the building permit on their behalf.
The reason is that building permit rules usually require that the application include drawings that show the new construction as well as the existing structure. Since the general contractor will need these drawings to manage the project, the general contractor has everything needed to apply.
Moreover, some cities and counties require that the application describe the additional load that will be placed on utilities as a result of the construction. This calculation depends on the electrical, plumbing, and sewer work to be done during the project. Since the general contractor must either perform or sub-contract with specialists for this work, the general contractor is usually in the best position to provide these calculations.
For example, for a residential roofing replacement, an application for a building permit would need to include drawings of the existing roof, drawings of the new roof, and calculations about any additional or replacement fans that might impact the electrical system.
How Are Building Permits Approved?
Applications are reviewed by the government office in charge of building and construction services. The drawings are examined to make sure the changes meet building codes. If the changes do not meet building codes, the application will be rejected so that the plans can be changed.
Before a building permit is issued, the building and construction services office will also need to know who is responsible for building the project. If the project is being built by the homeowner, the homeowners are usually required to sign a certificate saying that no employees will be used and that the homeowner is exempt from workers’ compensation laws.
If the project is being built by a contractor or construction company, the builder must file a certificate of compliance with workers’ compensation laws. This means that if a worker is injured on the project described in the building permit, the builder will be responsible for compensating the employee for the on-the-job injury through the builder’s workers’ compensation insurer. While states vary in how they handle workers’ compensation claims, this process is usually automatic with a work injury compensation lawyer only needed when the workers’ compensation insurer denies coverage or places unsupported limits on the injured worker’s claim.
What Happens After a Building Permit is Issued?
Building permits usually require construction to begin within a prescribed time period after the permit is approved. For example, some jurisdictions require construction to commence 180 days after the building and construction services office issues a building permit.
This means that the builder must be prepared to begin ordering building materials and scheduling construction delivery relatively soon after building permit approval. As much as half of the world’s steel is used for buildings and infrastructure, so during a construction boom, materials may be difficult to come by.
Moreover, the builder must schedule the workers needed to be the construction project so that building begins before the deadline expires. However, this deadline applies to the beginning of construction, not its completion. As long as the work begins before the deadline, the builder has complied with the building permit rules.
What if the Project Changes?
If a project changes outside of the scope described in the permit, a new permit will be needed. This means that superficial changes, like paint colors and materials, would not require a new permit. However, major changes that affect the structure, such as adding new features or altering dimensions, would require a new permit.
The new permit may simply be a modification of the existing permit, with minimal wait times and fees. It could also be an entirely new permit that replaces the previously issued permit. The difference usually comes from the scope of the changes and your local building codes.
For example, if the project identified in the permit filed by your commercial roofing service was for a replacement roof and your project changes to include sunlight, you might be able to obtain a modified permit to include the sunlight. On the other hand, if your original permit was issued for a bedroom addition and your project changes to include a bathroom, the additional plumbing and electrical work may require an entirely new building permit.
Who is Responsible If a Contractor Damages Your Home?
In addition to workers’ compensation insurance, contractors are usually required to carry liability insurance. This covers damage to your property caused by the contractor or the contractor’s workers.
For example, suppose a contractor knocks over your fence while delivering construction materials to your home. The contractor’s liability insurance would cover the cost of fence repairs so you do not need to pay for them.
Liability insurance usually does not cover damage caused by subcontractors, however. Thus, subcontractors hired by the general contractor will need to have their own liability insurance.
Thus, suppose a contractor hires a forklift contractor to unload construction materials, and the forklift contractor knocks down your fence. The contractor’s liability insurer will likely deny a claim for fence repairs since the subcontractor was responsible for the damage. In this case, the forklift contractor’s liability insurance would be responsible for paying the claim.
What Does a Safety Inspector Do?
During your construction project, your contractor may receive a visit from a safety inspector. This is not for your benefit. Rather, it is for the construction workers’ benefit.
Under occupational safety regulations, construction companies are responsible for keeping their employees safe by implementing safety measures and inspections required by law. However, local workplace safety regulators also conduct random inspections to make sure the construction company is complying with the safety laws. This is the role of the safety inspector.
However, the construction company is usually highly motivated to comply with local workplace safety rules. Failure to comply can be punished with fines and any worker injured due to a deliberate safety violation can hire a construction accident attorney to sue the worker’s employer.
What Does the Building Inspector Do?
As construction nears completion, you or your contractor will schedule a building inspection with the office that issued the building permit. During this inspection, the building inspector will check the job to make sure the design and construction meet building codes. The inspector will also determine if the final project matches the terms of the building permit.
If the project passes inspection, the building inspector will issue a certificate of occupancy or other certification indicting that the building meets code. If the project fails inspection, the building inspector will identify exactly which aspects of the project have failed to meet code. The inspect may offer a few options upon a failed inspection:
- Fix the non-compliant aspects of the job on the spot: This is often possible for small problems.
- Start over again to bring the job into compliance: This might occur if the materials are not compliant and must be replaced with different materials.
Usually, the easiest way to deal with a failed inspection is to make the requested changes and schedule another building inspection. If, however, you want to challenge the inspection, your contractor may need to hire a small business administrative attorney to help them through the administrative appeal process.
What Happens if Construction is Defective?
Have you ever wondered what a “bonded” contractor is? A bond is like an insurance policy. If the contractor’s work is defective, the bond issuer (usually an insurance company) pays for repairs to fix the defective construction. However, unlike an insurance policy, the contractor is required to repay the bond.
The contractor’s bond protects homeowners by paying for repairs without forcing homeowners to file and win a lawsuit against the contractor. Moreover, since the contractor must repay the bond, it provides an incentive for the contractor to exercise care when building your project.
If the defect is not discovered until after the project is over, the contractor may also be liable for damages that result from the defect. For example, if a visitor to your home receives an electrical shock because of faulty work provided by your contractor, your guest’s premises liability attorney could file a lawsuit against the contractor.
Alternatively, the guest could file a lawsuit against you, and your homeowner’s insurance carrier would bring the contractor into the lawsuit as the responsible party. In either case, the contractor would ultimately be liable for any damages that resulted from the contractor’s defective work.
Building permit rules can be complicated. If you hire a contractor to handle your building project, your contractor will also apply for a building permit and ensure that the project meets code and passes inspection. Moreover, the contractor will be liable for any property damage caused during construction or for defective work discovered after the project has been completed.
If you are doing the project on your own, you will need to gather the information needed for the building permit application and familiarize yourself with the process of applying for the permit. After you build the project to code, you will schedule a building inspection and make any changes requested so your project can be certified. While this pathway can be more challenging, it can also give you more control over your project.