When do I need a permit?


Permits are typically handled at the county- or city-level as opposed to licensure which is handled at the state level.

Our firm has had hundreds, if not thousands, of contacts with local permit offices, building inspectors and OSHA inspectors.  If you have good intent and have a good attitude, you will not have an issue with these organizations.  In fact, if you are open and honest with them, they will help you make sure your project is built safely and to code.

As an example, we were on a project where we were a subcontractor.  Someone had called OSHA anonymously for a site inspection and so with no notice two OSHA inspectors arrived.  I (Joe Crane) wasn’t usually on this site but was on this particular day.  The two OSHA inspectors were friendly and professional and had a standard script for inspections and interviews with employees.  The OSHA inspectors brought several discrepancies to my attention such as we didn’t have a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) on a pallet of hazardous chemicals and we had an eye wash station that was not set up.

They told me they would be there for another 1-2 hours; and, told me that if I had these items remedied before they left, they would note our compliance in their report and/or not show those deficiencies.  I had our guys set up the eye wash station including adding water to the tank.  I went to the UPS Store and printed off the MSDS sheets.  I went back to the OSHA inspectors a few times for clarification on a few other deficiencies.

Before they left, they gave me some free books and also told me that I can call and ask for an inspection on hazardous work that would not raise any penalties if any deficiencies were found.  (I did call them back later to the same job to inspect an excavation that had some unique aspects and there opinion on how to make it safe was invaluable).  A few weeks after their visit, I received a notice in the mail that I had a fine of $500 even though it said I was extremely cooperative.  I spoke to other subcontractors on site and more than one had received fines over $10,000.

Have a great attitude with the people in these organizations.  They want you to do the job correctly and safely.  They don’t want the headache of returning multiple times, dinging you for violations and putting up with aggressive contractors and owners.

The Building permit

Unless your build only involves specialty work, which is rare, you will need a building permit. This permit will advise the municipality that work is going to be performed, provides a matrix for a series of inspections (detailed below) and ensures that the build is up-to-code, safe and documented.

In most cases, a licensed contractor will need to pull the building permit. There are exceptions which we detailed in our article entitled, “When do I need a licensed contractor?”

A Building Permit will take from 2-8 weeks depending on how busy the Permit Office is. If the reviewer at the Permit Office finds errors in the drawings and specifications (which almost always happens), the drawings will need to be fixed by the architect and resubmitted. If the changes to the drawings are simple, a re-review can take as little as a day to a few weeks.

If you’re in a hurry, don’t be tempted to cheat and start work before the permit comes back. A demolition permit can usually be issued within 24-48 hours. This will allow you or your contractor to get the site demoed and ready for new work while your Building Permit is being processed.

Specialty Permits

Even with the Building Permit, any work that needs to be done by a skilled trade that affects the public safety will need a seperate permit. That permit will need to be pulled by a contractor with that specific experience. These specialty permits are typically some of the following:

  1. Fire Sprinkler and Alarm

  2. Radon, Lead and Asbestos Mitigation

  3. Natural Gas and Oil

  4. Electrical

  5. Plumbing

  6. HVAC

  7. Elevator


Any work that is covered up requires an inspection. For instance, all of the following would need inspections:

  1. If you are pouring concrete, an inspector will want to verify that the reinforcing bar (rebar) has been properly placed.

  2. If you are installing plumbing or electrical and it will be buried, cast into concrete or placed behind a wall, it will need an inspection. Depending on the municipality, the inspector that would inspect the plumbing and rebar that are being covered up under the same concrete slab may or may not be the same person.

  3. If you are installing new walls, even partition walls that are not load bearing, the municipality will want to inspect the framing and insulation. The framing and insulation may or may not be allowed to occur at the same time.

  4. For plumbing, electrical and air conditioning (HVAC), two inspections will occur. There will be a rough-in inspection that ensure the covered up parts are installed correctly. There will then be the final inspection which will verify that the end pieces are installed correctly (i.e., switches, lights, sinks, toilets, etc.)

Closing out a permit

Once a job is complete (or extremely close to completion), a final inspection is done. All of the electrical, plumbing, HVAC and other specialty licenses must be closed out prior to this final inspection. The inspector will verify that the build meets all applicable codes and will verify that it was done to whatever ADA codes are applicable.

After the final inspection, a Certificate of Occupancy (usually called a “C of O” and spelled “CoO”) will be issued. Most of the time a business license cannot be issued and other DPOR licenses (such as beauty shops, car repair shops, etc.) will not be granted until a CoO is given.

There have been times when we have had a final inspection and some box was not ticked in the computer to authorize the CoO. It usually just takes a phone call or visit to the Permit Office to remedy the situation.

General Advice

Before you hire a contractor or decide to self-perform work, call your local permit office as the owner (better yet, go see them). They will have the latest information.

Another reason to call them as the owner is to verify what the permitting will require. If your contractor, whether accidentally or to shave corners, doesn’t properly permit the job, the value of your build, repair or remodel may not count towards the value of the property if the right permits were not pulled. Take the few minutes and talk with the permit office yourself.

Almost every city and county these days has all the permits that have been pulled on a property in an online database. Some require registration but we have never seen a database that requires payment. If a permit has been pulled, verify that it has been done so. Also, if you are buying a property, verify that all additions had their permits pulled.

Make sure you or your contractor are following up on the status. We always get permits faster when we check on the progress on a weekly basis.

Consider getting a demolition permit if you’re on a tight schedule. Under certain circumstances, an owner can pull a permit while they are pricing out the job with contractors.