The Whys and Hows of Permits

Whether you’re doing a project yourself or hiring a contractor, getting the correct permits is an important step.

As a designer, Lenore has worked mainly with professionals who wouldn’t think of doing work without the necessary permits. However, Carmen’s experience buying her first home exposed her to the reality that not every homeowner understands the importance of getting a permit before you renovate.

Because of those two perspectives, this post addresses both the why and the how of permits.

Note that it’s hard to write a general post about permits because there are a lot of specific issues that vary by municipalities. Make sure that you find out what your municipality requires before doing any work. 

Why you need a permit

It protects you

Permits ensure the safety of your home renovation projects. While many homeowners see them as a hassle and an expense, they are an important part of the process. When you apply for a permit, you must submit the plans for your project, which will be checked for compliance with building codes, zoning by-laws and safety. It is MUCH cheaper to identify problems at this stage than any other stage.

Once each relevant stage of the work is completed, an inspector will come and make sure that the work has been done according to the approved plans.

As a homeowner, the building inspector is your friend. They physically inspect the work against the plans, and make sure the contractor has not missed anything or cut any corners.

Generally contractors are a great bunch who are invested in making quality repairs or additions to your home, and are as interested in building code compliance as the permit office. But there are some who are not as interested in the quality, and that is when homeowners can run into trouble – a building inspector will find that trouble early!

It’s the law

If you embark on a project that requires a permit and you don’t have one, it is illegal.

If work is done without a permit, you (or future homeowners) will be legally responsible for fixing the situation.

This can include ripping down the existing finishes, including drywall, tile, even cabinetry, so an inspector can see the work that was done, removing the improvements completely regardless of their compliance to code, fines, or even your home being condemned until the situation is rectified.

It can affect your resale

During Carmen’s house hunt in 2011, she put in an offer on a house that had been renovated by the seller and a friend of his who worked in the trades.

During the home inspection, the inspector discovered several questionable choices. Because the seller had not obtained permits for the work, the inspector advised Carmen of exactly the scenario above: that if she wanted to renovate in the future or fix some of these questionable choices, a building inspector might insist that she tear out all the previous work and replace it.

This is not an entirely uncommon experience for home buyers (and if you’re buying a home, check to see if previous work has a permit filed). Carmen withdrew her offer, and ultimately the house sold for $30K under asking.

Because the seller’s friend had advised that he save money on the permits, he lost a significantly larger amount of money, and also created a structure of dubious safety. A building inspector might have insisted that they change their plans, but ultimately it would have been to the benefit of all involved.

How to find out if you need a building permit

Permits are generally handled by your municipality. If you search for the name of your city with the phrase “do I need a permit” you should find information specific to your area.

But as a general guideline, there’s a good chance your project will need a permit if it might impact fire safety, structural integrity, or involves new plumbing/electrical, building a new building or addition or tearing down an old one.

Generally speaking if you are doing superficial changes like painting or redecorating or changing your exterior siding, you don’t need a permit. The same goes for repairs or same-type replacements to existing plumbing, but it is always worth checking. Here are the links for Kitchener and Waterloo.

In Ontario, there is an exception to the municipal permit rule: all electrical permits are handled by the Electrical Safety Authority who state: “Most electrical work requires a permit from the Electrical Safety Authority, which is not the same as a building permit.”

It is typical for the electrician to get this permit, and generally it is granted the same day.

How and when to apply for a permit

The time from application to obtaining the physical permit can vary but is usually within a month. Make sure when you are talking to or hiring a contractor you have a clear understanding of who is going to be drawing, reviewing and submitting the permit package.

If you are doing the work yourself you will need a qualified person to review and stamp permit drawings that have to do with structure prior to submitting them to the city.

Kitchener has an express permit process for smaller projects. From their website:

Every Tuesday from 2-5PM from May to August, receive your building permit on the spot for your home project!

(Some restrictions may apply).

Building permits are required for:

  • Decks
  • Garages/Carports
  • Sheds
  • Swimming Pools
  • Finishing Basements (excludes duplex)

To learn more about this Express Services, stop by the building division on the 5th floor at City Hall, or call

519-741-2433 for more information.

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They also have an online permit tool that allows you to apply for permits, keep track of their status, and request home inspections.

Timing, cost and requirements change from municipality to municipality, so make sure when you are looking up information it is for your region, not just your province/state.

Who’s responsibility is it?

Well, regardless of contracts and agreements, the short answer is you, the homeowner, are responsible for the work that is done on your home.
This doesn’t mean that you have to be the one to draw or submit the permit packages, only that you ensure prior to the work starting, that someone on your team is qualified, taking care of it, and that the permits are posted on site.

Good Housekeeping

Here are some tips to follow during your renovation to make sure no complications arise.
  • See the permits before work starts
  • Make sure the permits are posted and that you can see them from the sidewalk, because any passer-by who does not see the posted permit can call the city to find out if they were attained.  This is how many of the permit-less projects are brought to the attention of  the authorities.
  • Although it is the contractor’s job to call the inspector at the different stages, it is a good idea to make sure you know both when these calls SHOULD be made, and that they HAVE been made.

A Final Thought

Permits are often vilified and seen as a money grab or an unnecessary expense. It can feel annoying to have to deal with the submissions and the usual follow up questions or information requests from the permit office during the review time.

However they are there to make sure your neighbour doesn’t add a third story addition that is higher than the zoning by-law and overshadows your whole yard, that the back addition doesn’t fall off the back of your house, that there are fire separations and no electrical issues.

They are there to protect you, your financial investment in your property, and all the houses and buildings around you.

Permits let you move forward with confidence, first ensuring that your designs are safe and legal, and then ensuring that the work you paid for was the work that was promised.

Title photo by Leonard Nevaraz, licenced under cc 2.0

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