Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.
Building permits are a requirement in almost every city and county in the U.S., but there are some areas where you won’t need one. You may be wondering – mainly if you live in a rural area – if starting a construction project without a building permit is possible. Do you really need one?
You do need building permits in rural areas before starting construction projects if your county requires you to have one. Some rural areas may have weak enforcement of the building code, but you still need one for your safety. Plus, there may be consequences if you’re caught building without one.
Although many construction and remodeling projects require a building permit, there are also some instances when you won’t need it. Stick around because we will go through all the details you need to know about building permits, including why you need one in rural areas.
Why Do You Need Building Permits?
In most cities and counties, a building permit is required to start working on a construction project. As the name suggests, a building permit is an official document issued by a local government that allows an entity to build or remodel a building.
It’s a way for the local government to ensure every property within their jurisdiction complies with the local standard, zoning, safety, and uniformity. It’s also a way for the city or county to preserve the value of properties within their jurisdiction.
Buildings need different specifications, depending on where you will build them. Basically, properties with building permits are built according to local safety regulations and building codes set by the city or county. Building permits ensure the building is appropriate for its intended use and poses no threat to the residents or neighborhood.
Aside from compliance, building permits also make it easier for you to sell a property to another buyer later on. Since a building permit ensures the property (or the building itself) complies with the local standard, you shouldn’t have any issues when selling it.
Although selling a property without a building permit is still possible, it will be challenging unless the buyer is only interested in the land. It’s more likely the buyer will get rid of the building, significantly reducing the value of your property.
When Do You Need a Building Permit?
You need a building permit every time you build a new structure within a city or county that requires it. It’s a way to regulate the buildings within their jurisdiction and ensure compliance with the city code.
Building permits also aim to address most regional issues that may not be present in other cities or counties. For example, the building code for Florida will be very different from the building code in Maine because it must ensure every building in the state complies with the safety regulations related to high humidity and heat.
Remodeling projects also require a building permit to ensure renovation plans meet the building code for the city or county. However, there are some remodeling projects you can work on without securing a building permit.
As mentioned, the building codes for different cities and counties will greatly vary. But to help you understand whether you need to secure a building permit or not, here are the most common examples of when you will need one:
- Any adjustment on your walls: Whether you’re adding, removing, or changing the walls of a building, you will need to secure a building permit because it’s a major construction that may affect the building’s integrity.
- Repurposing a room: Every room in a building or house with a building permit complies with local standards. So, if you want to convert your garage into a living room, you must also secure a building permit.
- Repiping a building or house: This renovation is a massive project, often dealing with the overall structure. Whether it’s a minor repair or a total replacement of the pipes, you will need to secure a building permit.
- Replacing the roof: Building permits are in place to ensure the house complies with all the safety regulations in the city or county, including the materials that you will use for a new roof.
- Demolish or rebuild a portion of your house: When you build a house, it is approved based on its design. If you want to demolish, rebuild, or build a new portion of a house, you must secure a building permit.
Again, these are just the most common instances when you will need a building permit, not an extensive list. In general, for any major adjustment you want done to your house that affects the structural integrity and the safety of the residents, you will need a building permit.
Some cities or counties will require you to secure special systems permits before making adjustments to electrical, plumbing, and mechanical systems. These permits are required on top of the building permit that you need to secure. Again, not all cities or counties will require you to have one, so it would be best to contact your municipality for it.
Some renovations won’t require a building permit, such as the following:
- Repainting portions of the house or the whole house for beautification.
- Installation of additional cabinets in any room of the house.
- Repaving your driveway as long as it stays within the approved specifications.
- Installing floor coverings that won’t affect the structural integrity of the building.
- Erecting a small fence for markings, as long as it doesn’t affect the neighbors.
These are all minor renovations that you can start working on without securing a building permit because they won’t pose a risk to the residents or affect the uniformity or building codes. However, some highly regulated cities or counties may require you to secure a building permit, even for the slightest renovations you plan to make.
Do You Need Building Permits in Rural Areas?
The need for a building permit depends on the city or county where the building is, and it also applies in most rural areas. However, these places don’t have as much enforcement for the building code as other larger cities.
In fact, there are rural areas where you can build houses even without a building permit — the local government won’t even require you to have one. If this is the case in your area, you don’t have to worry about securing a building permit or any other document to start the construction.
However, in some rural areas where permits are required, you may still come across people who might encourage you to skip the building permit process because the enforcement is weak. It could be tempting to skip this step and save a few hundred dollars, but several risks are associated with it.
If you’re in an area that issues building permits, be sure to secure one. Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to skip over the process. Some of the risks involved in not securing a building permit include the following:
- Building safety: Some people think building permits are only a way for the city or county to generate more income for the local government. The truth is it’s a way to ensure that their residents are safe within their homes, and it’s appropriate for the regional issues present in the area, such as the climate.
- Special systems compliance: People may argue that special systems permits are a hassle when building houses, but it also ensures that you’re safe within your home. The local government is familiar with all the issues that may arise in the region, making it crucial for anyone to follow their safety protocols.
- Nuisance property: Houses without building permits are outside the zoning specifications of a city or county, making it a nuisance property. Any property that the local government considers a nuisance property can cause adverse effects on the other houses in the neighborhood.
- Reselling of the property: It’s possible to resell a house that doesn’t have a building permit, but in most cases, the buyer will only be interested in the land where the property is in, which significantly reduces its sale price.
So, even if it’s possible to build a structure in rural areas without a building permit, the risks aren’t worth the amount that you can save. If you feel the urge to skip getting a building permit, you will want to think twice about this.
Some areas won’t require a building permit, but that’s uncommon. In most cases, rural areas require every construction or remodeling project to have a building permit, but the enforcement is weak. Still, it would be best to secure a building permit in these areas to ensure that your house follows the standards.
Although it can cost quite a lot, especially if you’re only working on a small-scale project, it still ensures your house follows the building codes for the county. And the risks associated with not having a building permit aren’t worth the money you save by not obtaining one.
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