Ask the Architect

Do we need a permit?

Posted

Q. We just bought an old house and started to fix it up so we can move in. It needs a lot of work, like insulation, the walls have cracks and some need to be taken down, all the plumbing, tile — it’s a long list. We got a notice on the door that we’re working without a permit, even though we’re doing it ourselves. Friends of ours are doing the same in another town, and no one said anything. A contractor told us it was OK to do this work, so why is this happening? We need to live in our new home and get the work done right away.

A. You should discuss the repairs with your building department and explain your situation. They’re there to assure public safety and can advise you on which items, like wall removal, require their review and which things, like direct kitchen replacement or cosmetic work, may be fine to do without a permit. Different municipalities have different rules, making the whole process confusing.

Just because a contractor did work in one community without a permit doesn’t mean it applies the same way everywhere. One community even requires permits for floor sanding. Plumbing replacement in old houses usually leads to replacing old galvanized piping or work that no longer is safe or code-compliant, leading to a plumbing permit. Plumbing permits most often follow or are referenced to a building permit.

The problem is lack of communication or consistency. I watch each car ahead of me go around a pothole, swerving to avoid it, and think to myself, if we can avoid potholes, why wouldn’t we? Permits are like potholes. You want to avoid them on the road you travel to your destination, but that doesn’t make them go away, and when you hit a pothole or find out you needed a permit, which you almost always do, it can be jarring.

You got advice from the wrong person, but it was just what you wanted to hear. Too often, people get away without proper plan review or inspections, and assume that they’ll always be able to skirt the potholes in life. In a previous column, a contractor told the customer that he never needs a permit, and if it becomes a problem, “just get an architect to make a plan and pay the extra hundred bucks for getting caught.”

Since I regularly see workmanship that violates the codes (laws), and has to be corrected, that extra hundred bucks can be more than 10 times the amount, but the contractor is gone and you’ve driven right into that pothole. Coupled with little or no community outreach through newsletters or direct mail, building departments don’t inform the public, but instead only enforce the regulations most people never investigate before starting work, hence one of the objectives of this column. The vicious, and avoidable, cycle continues, raising revenue for government, and project costs and frustration for homeowners.

© 2019 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to yourhousedr@aol.com, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.