When Do You Need a Permit for Your Garage Project?


When I started my garage renovation, a building permit was the last thing on my mind.

When I was talking with a neighbor about some projects around the house. He mentioned that he was getting a permit for the pool he was installing.

Which got me thinking…do I need a permit to drywall my garage? What other garage projects would I need to get permits for?

The answers are a lot harder to find than you’d expect.

There’s a lot of general advice on the Internet. It’s usually from random people in forums that may be giving you the wrong information. So I did some research and this is what I found out.

In general, you’ll need a permit if you want to do any of the following:

  • Structural changes
  • Plumbing work
  • Electrical work
  • Adding new structures to your property (sheds, garages, swimming pools, etc.)
  • Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) work
  • Replacing windows or garage doors

Some things are usually exempt from needing a permit:

  • Painting
  • Adding a ceiling fan
  • Repairing your driveway or patio
  • Replacing cabinets or countertops
  • Replacing carpeting or adding hardwood floors

These lists aren’t exhaustive by any means, but they should give you an idea of the kinds of things that will require building permits.

As much as I’d like there to be a “one size fits all” answer, there isn’t one in this case. It’ll differ from town to town and I highly recommend checking with your local municipality’s building permit office before you start any work on your house.

So let’s start with some background on building permits, their cost and how long they take to get. Then let’s talk a bit about a couple of the more common garage renovation projects and why you need to do a little research with your city permit offices before you start.

Finally, we’ll cover some of the risks if you don’t get a building permit when you need one. Then at the end of this article, I’ll give some links to help get you started.

Why Are Building Permits Needed?

Building permits ensure that the construction work meets a basic level of structural, electrical and plumbing safety standards.

More importantly, building permits place the responsibility, and liability for the work itself on the person who pulls the permit. If no permit is pulled, that liability shifts to the homeowner – even if you’ve hired someone else to do the work for you.

Homeowners are often in the dark about what permits are required for the work they want done and who’s responsible for obtaining them. Short answer: you are.

Jim Cory, Proremodeler.com,

That liability is important, especially if you ever plan on selling your house. We’ll get into that more below in the section “What happens if you don’t get a permit.”

Depending on where you live, you may not need a permit unless you’re doing major structural work or adding electrical or plumbing to your garage. On the other hand, you may need a building permit for anything over a certain dollar figure.

How Much do Building Permits Cost?

The cost of a building permit can vary a lot depending on where you live and what type of work is being done.

Simple permits can cost as little as around $25. HomeAdvisor.com lists the national average at just over $1000, but that covers all building permits – jobs both big and small.

My city uses a “cost of renovation” calculation for determining the building permit’s cost. It’s based on the 2018 International Residential Code (IRC) that you can see below.

2018 IRC building codes - recommended permit fees

For smaller jobs, the fee is $24, which covers renovations up to a total cost of $500. The permit fee increases up to as much as $18K for a half-a-million-dollars worth of renovation expenses.

Oh…the custom garage I could build with $500K. 🙂

The important point is that building permits aren’t a huge expense, relative to the cost of the garage renovation.

They’re cheap enough so that homeowners will pay the permit fees and still have enough money left over to actually do the renovation.

Remember, the building permit is designed to give the homeowner the piece of mind that any work on the house has been done safely and up to code.

How Long are Building Permits Valid?

It usually takes 5-10 business days for the permit application process. Most building permits are valid for six months (180 days) from the time that they’re issued.

That doesn’t mean that the work has to be completed in that time, but the city wants to make sure that the work is progressing. That usually means an inspection.

At least in my municipality, you’ve got 180 days from the time that you pull the building permit to schedule an inspection. The type of  inspection depends on the type of work being done. For example, you may need an electrical inspection when you’re adding new outlets and a structural inspection if you’re adding a new wall.

Once you pass the inspection, if there’s more work to be done, you’ve usually got an additional 180 days to complete it.

What Happens If You Don’t Get a Permit?

Building permits are a matter or public record. That means anyone can pull a building permit just by typing an address into a website or making a quick phone call. A building inspector who’s looking at another house in your neighborhood or even a nosy neighbor can tip the city off that you’ve done work without a permit.

That’s why I always recommend giving your local building office a quick phone call or email to find out. They’re there to help make sure you’ve got everything you need. The people I spoke to at my office were super-helpful and even gave me some quick tips on ways that I could make the process easier.

Let me give you three scenarios that this could end up being a big (and expensive) deal.

You could lose your home insurance

I couldn’t find any record of claims being denied because a homeowner didn’t have the correct permits. But i did find a couple of cases where the insurance agency paid the claim and then immediately cancelled the policy.

Insurance companies are in the business of managing risk. If a homeowner willfully ignores permit requirements, or doesn’t hire a reputable contractor who pulls the permits themselves, they’re taking unnecessary risks with their homes. They’re probably going to end up costing the insurance agency more money later on as well.

You could be fined

If the city finds out that you did work without a permit, you’ll usually have to pay a fine.

How much?

The initial fine is usually a $200-$500 plus the cost of the permit itself. They also tack on an additional fine per day until the work is brought into compliance.

You’ll have to re-do the work

In addition to the fines, you’ll also have to rip out the work and start over so that it can be inspected. That just doubled the cost of your renovation project…in addition to the fines.

You may not be able to sell the house

Here’s the big one.

Doing work without a permit may not come back to haunt you for years after the renovation. One of the big reasons why we do home improvement projects is to try to increase the resale value of our homes. If the buyer, or worse the home inspector, go looking for building permits and don’t find them, that could send them running to the next house on their list. (Check out my article on Does a finished garage increases your home’s value?)

Basically, if you have any thoughts of EVER selling your house, you should make sure that you have the appropriate building permits.

Common Garage Projects That May Need Permits

Not every garage upgrade needs a permit, but many do. In this section we’ll look at some of the more common large projects in more detail.

Do I Need a Permit to Replace My Garage Door?

In most cities, yes. Most states leave the regulations up to the individual cities. However most major cities will require you to pull a permit before replacing your garage door.

In some states like Florida, the state goes a bit further. Because of the risk of hurricane damage to your garage door, they want to make sure that any modification or replacement of “impact resistant doors” are up to code to keep you and your family safe.

It’s worth noting that if you’re just repairing your garage door, you don’t normally need a permit for that.

Do I Need a Permit to Drywall My Garage?

This is a tricky one, so it’s especially important to check with your local building permit office. Depending on the construction of your garage, you may not need a permit.

Of course, making any structural changes to your garage walls will require a permit. But if you have exposed wall studs in your garage and simply want to add drywall on top, you may not need one.

Do I Need a Permit to Add Plumbing to My Garage?

Even if you’re just adding a toilet to your garage, you’re definitely going to need to pull a permit.

According to Fine Homebuilding, a good rule of thumb is that any new plumbing pipes that you need to install will require a permit. With water damage making up a large portion of insurance claims, your homeowner’s insurance company will want to make sure that the addition is done correctly.

Similar to replacing your garage door above, you won’t need to get a permit if you only want to replace a broken toilet or sink.

Do I Need a Permit to Convert My Garage to Living Space?

Definitely! Any living space needs to comply with regulations for ventilation, heating\cooling, and fire safety, so it checks all of the boxes that we just covered.

However, since you’re converting your garage to living space, there are other requirements as well.

For example, one quick way to tell that a converted garage is NOT up to code is if you have to step down into the room when coming from the main house. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) directives require that the concrete slab be raised to help prevent flooding (pdf source).

Because there are so many different aspects to a garage conversion, this will be one of the most expensive permits needed.

Do I Need a Permit to Build a Garage?

Custom built garages are common with people who have enough land to put them on. In general, you’ll need a building permit if you want to build a garage as well.

Because you’re building an entirely new structure, expect to have to jump through some additional hoops. You may need to provide construction plans before you’re able to apply for a building permit.

If you need some additional parking spaces, but don’t want to go through the permit process, carports may be the way to go. I talk about some of their pros and cons in this article.

Conclusion

As a new homeowner, there’s a lot that I’m learning every day. I thought I’d only need a permit if I was doing something major like adding a swimming pool.

I’m really glad I looked into getting a building permit before I started any work on my garage. It actually changed the plan for my garage slightly, which ended up saving me money in the long run.

Not only that, but this research gave me a much better idea of what I can and can’t do to my house without a permit and inspection. I hope it helps you in your garage renovation project too!

If you don’t want to go through the permit process, there are several other ways you can add that finishing touch to your garage. I recommend checking out my article How to Finish Your Garage Walls for some more ideas.

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