Why Building Permits Are Important
Very often the question comes up “Do I need a building permit for this?”. It’s a great question, but sometimes not clear why it’s being asked.
Some people ask the question because they are hoping that the contractor will agree to do a cash deal and they know that won’t happen if there is a permit. Please be aware that cash deals are extremely risky for the homeowner and we hope that isn’t the motivation for asking the question. We don’t recommend ever going down that path.
Another reason that people ask the question is that they are concerned that if the city knows about improvements they’ve made to their home, their property taxes will increase. We’re not tax experts, but our experience says this is not the case. Taxes are based on an aggregate assessment of the area using the real estate values, so unless every home in your neighborhood does something to dramatically raise the value, a renovation will not typically have a significant impact on your property tax.
The last reason that we think people ask the question is that they are concerned about the cost of the permit, and all the work to get one, which either costs the homeowner a lot of time, or the contractor a lot of time which increases the cost of the renovation. This is a legitimate concern, but in our opinion, the cost is well worth it if the renovation is one that does require a permit.
So, when is a permit required, and what value does it provide to the homeowner? In general, if you are making a structural change, (e.g., taking out a wall, adding a doorway into a load-bearing wall, changing your roofline, etc.), you need a permit. If you are making a cosmetic change, (e.g., changing your flooring, painting, taking off the paneling from that horrible renovation someone did in the seventies and installing drywall, etc.), you do not need a permit. Changing a tap and toilet? Nope no permit needed. You are good to go (no pun intended). Relocating a sink or toilet? Yep, you need a plumbing permit (issued by the same department as a building permit). Electrical permits are a little different and I will come back to those later.
The value to the homeowner of having a permit is twofold. First, a qualified inspector is going to look at the work being done in your home. Over the years we have seen some pretty awful stuff that people have done (just watch HGTV). An inspector should catch those things and ensure that the integrity of your house is not compromised. Secondly, when it comes time to sell your home, you will have the necessary documentation to show that your renovations were done properly. These two things combined, in our opinion, make doing it right with a permit the best way to go.
Bear in mind, in the City of Ottawa, the responsibility for obtaining a Building Permit falls to the homeowner and not the contractor. That being said, we, and any good contractor, not only feel you should get a permit for the reasons listed above, we will also do the legwork required to get the permit to save you the headache of dealing with the bureaucracy. It is something we do on a regular basis and just like our relationship with our sub trades, we tend to get to know the people at the city which makes for an easier venture through the process than someone who may be unfamiliar with the forms and paperwork required.
When you get a permit, the City sends an inspector at certain critical points during construction to make sure the work is done according to building code. This ensures that the renovation is being done according to rules developed by some very smart engineers so that the renovation is both durable and safe to use. The inspectors check the way the work was done and if there are issues, the inspector has a choice of ‘failing’ the inspection, which may stop the work, or allowing work to proceed and checking on the issues when they return for the next inspection.
I bet you are wondering just how often they show up. Here are the typical times they check on a job. The number of inspections will be determined by the scope of the renovation.
Excavation– to see if the hole was dug deep enough and if the ground will support the load that is being placed on it.
Footings– to check if they are sized correctly and if any required reinforcement steel is present
Foundation– again to check size and also proper protection against moisture penetration (Of course if you are only doing an internal renovation none of these inspections are needed)
Framing– did the contractor put all the right wood, with the right sizes and proper supports in all the right places. If there are engineer reports * they will also ensure that the work complies with the requirements indicated by the engineers. (e.g., steel beams, floor structures, and roof trusses).
Mechanical– HVAC (Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning), and plumbing. Are the drains sloped properly, will the venting allow the drains to function smoothly, are the pipes sealed, and will the furnace/AC deliver enough air.
This is referred to as the ‘rough in’ inspection where they check the ‘bones’ of the system. They check again later to make sure all the fixtures are installed correctly.
Electrical– This inspection is not done by the City but by the ESA (Electrical Safety Authority) which require their own permit separate from the building permit and conduct their own inspections. Typically the Electrician will take care of getting the permit and arrange the inspections. Like the Mechanical there are two phases, the rough in and the final.
Insulation– is there enough installed and has it been sealed properly. Is the exterior wrap done effectively?
Final Electrical- are all the fixtures installed correctly, have the connections at the panel been done properly, is everything grounded
Final Building Inspection– is the flooring in, is the hardware installed, is the siding (brick, stucco etc.) installed, are the plumbing fixtures installed. Essentially what they are looking for at this time is “Is the house safe and ready to live in?” If so, they will issue an ‘occupancy permit’. To be clear, unless it is a new house this does not mean you cannot live there before this is issued, most times we do all the work while you are still living at home; it simply is a confirmation that the work is complete and the inspector does not need to return.
The inspections are well worth your peace of mind knowing that everything has been checked and that an independent, qualified person has verified the work of your contractor. As a side note, this also makes your insurance company very happy. Under certain circumstances if you do renovations without a permit and inspections you could have issues and no one wants to go there.
* A quick note about engineer reports. During the application for the building permit the City may require engineer reports on specific areas of construction. As your contractor we will tell you in advance when they are required and when they might ask for one. Steel beam sizes, floor framing, roof trusses, type of ground support, special connection details are just some of the types of things that need an engineer. Also, when on site the inspector can, at their discretion, ask for an engineer report if they feel it is warranted. We usually know when there is a risk for this in advance and will either already have the report done or arrange for it at the time.
As you can see, Building Permits add considerable peace of mind to you during and after your renovation project. They add work to your contractor, but you should always obtain one if you are undertaking a renovation where a permit would apply.