You don’t always need a building permit when embarking on a home improvement project, especially if it could be described as a “cosmetic” change. It’s likely that your local building department won’t require a permit if you are planning a project that doesn’t involve structural remodeling, demolition, electrical work or replumbing. Permits generally are unnecessary for minor changes, such as house painting, carpet laying and replacing cabinets without electrical or plumbing connections.

However, you shouldn’t make assumptions about what is minor.You save time, money and headaches by checking with your local building department to learn what the regulations are regarding permits before you even hire a contractor. In general, the permitting process is intended to make sure that you aren’t the victim of poor construction work and that your home is habitable.

When you do need a building permit, the consequences of completing work without one can be quite serious. Avoiding the permit process — which usually involves building department inspections — can create extra costs, delays and worries for you and your contractor. Here are some of the potential consequences of forgoing a required permit:

Major fines

You may be fined, and the fine may cost several times the price of the missing permit.

Inspections after construction

If the building department hears about your remodeling project after completion, it may still require an inspection. To check for the adequacy of underlying plumbing, wiring and structure, the inspector may mandate removal of portions of the remodeling.

Zoning violations

You may need to completely remove a home addition if it somehow breaks regulations of the local zoning code.

Resale problems

If the property is never inspected, questions about the unpermitted construction may arise when you want to sell the property. Buyers often will make purchases contingent on obtaining the proper inspections.

Ignorance is No Defense

Not knowing about local zoning and building permit regulations likely won’t save you from the costly correction of problems. Homeowners shouldn’t rely on statements from friends or contractors who say that a permit isn’t necessary. Instead, gather information before the sawdust and anxiety start flying. And if a contractor pulls a permit for a project like re-roofing, make sure all required inspections have been performed as specified to satisfy the permit before signing off on the contractor’s work.

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