Should you pull permits even though they're not needed?

Jake

Well-known member
Oct 30, 2023
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I was on Reddit early and ran across an interesting question from a general contractor. He wants to know when others decide to go ahead and pull permits, but mainly for work that doesn't usually involve major changes, like with structural, electrical, or plumbing. The contractor was doing a renovation for a kitchen, replacing cabinets, countertops and such, of course without any major systems. His neighbor came over and was inquiring about permits needed for said work. The contractor said no permits were required for the work he was doing and had done, as local regulations allow such work.
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But, he was still left wondering if it'd still be a good idea to obtain the permits to avoid any kind of confrontations. Would you still apply for a permit if nothing major was being done? So the question is, how do you handle permit inquiries for the smaller projects, and do you just apply for permits to avoid any issues coming up later? You can read the redditors question here - r/Contractor
 
Location
Pennsylvania, United States
This is kind of similar to this topic here about another kitchen remodel:

The best thing you can do is check with your local city or township's building codes and permit requirements. If the regulations say the work doesn't need a permit, the contractor should be fine to go unpermitted. But it depends on the work being done. Check if a permit is required even if it's small work, like a kitchen remodel or cosmetic updates. Rules and regulations will vary by area.

If the work has anything to do with structural, electrical, plumbing and or mechanical work, you likely will need to obtain a permit. You may also need a permit if you do any tasks that change the use of a space, or anything that could impact the safety of the structure. The good news is, that permits are usually not required for replacing cabinets or countertops. They are only required if the installations have an affect on the buildings structural integrity or utility systems.

It may be best to just obtain a permit just to be on the safe side. This way you avoid any possible legal issues or challenges with neighbors in the future. Even small work needs to comply with local standards and regulations. Getting permitted for this work, also helps provide a peace of mind and documentation for future property transactions.
 
Even though there might be rules stating that permits are not required for minor works in your house, it's essential to check with your local building department or authorities. Sometimes, what might seem like minor work could still require a permit based on specific regulations or the nature of the project. It's better to become certain to avoid any potential issues or legal complications.
 
Interesting.
Further questions....
Would we accept a permit when it's not required for the work?
How would we charge that?
Inspections?

We can guide contractors to resources available, but if a permit isn't required, I don't even think we'd review the project.
 
Interesting.
Further questions....
Would we accept a permit when it's not required for the work?
How would we charge that?
Inspections?

We can guide contractors to resources available, but if a permit isn't required, I don't even think we'd review the project.

In the federal government, issuing permits for activities that we don't actually have the legal authority to regulate is ostensibly verboten. However, there are sometimes gray areas and jurisdictional questions can be a matter of interpretation by permitting staff. We'll sometimes encounter project proponents who want us to take jurisdiction and process permit applications for them even though there's weak (or no) evidence that regulated activities are occurring.

I'd say there are two circumstances that may lead federal permitting staff (USACE Regulatory in particular) to give the go-ahead to these types of permit requests:

1) Some associated processes (e.g., Endangered Species Act compliance) are often more streamlined when there's a federal permit action compared to when the applicant has to work with other agencies on their own (e.g., for ephemeral streams post-Sackett). Accepting an application with a less-than-certain jurisdictional basis can be a way of "working with"/ helping an applicant in these situations even though we should probably just inform the applicant that no permit is required and move on.

2) As permitting agencies, the amount of workload we're carrying - and therefore the amount of budget that's justified - is often measured in terms of the number of permits we process. Likewise, annual appraisals for staff are generally based on number/efficiency of permits issued. Because of this, some agency staff (definitely not everyone) might feel inclined to "work with" applicants who request permits, even though their permit applications may have a questionable jurisdictional basis.

@Emily C, good follow up questions. I suppose if a contractor really wanted to obtain a permit from your office (e.g., to feel some sense of protection from nosey neighbors), they'd probably just have to say they were going to move some electrical wiring by a few inches or something, right? It doesn't seem like finding a basis in building code for needing a permit would be all that difficult, if that's what the contractor really wanted to do. Just like in my world, I agree you probably shouldn't/wouldn't review a project for a permit where one isn't strictly required under the law, but a motivated contractor could probably figure out a reason for needing to get permitted, don't you think?

Usually the problem is people not getting permits in situations where they need them and not the other way around, so what we're discussing here really is a peculiar exception to the rule. Still, interesting to think about how permitting staff should respond if ever dealing with contractors who make it standard practice to always seek permits (e.g., maybe with profit motive in mind, if permitting is a line item for them), regardless of the legal basis for needing that documentation.
 
If you are 100% sure permit(s) are not needed, I would say you no. Why would you waste time, money and effort? However, I would definitely confirm with the city's building & safety whether a permit is needed or not needed for this type of work. For example, remodeling a kitchen without a permit and then getting code complied and forced to obtain a permit is not fun.
 
So although they may be pricey, it is usually recommended as it avoids a possible issue with the department and with reinforcement code. Also in any case when it comes to finalizing the permit and it is not needed, one can always not finalize (as it’s not needed) or can cancel it if anything. If one does proceed with the permit, if in the future something changes where a permit is needed, it is better to be safe and secure in the permit process than to risk an issue as changes happen constantly on an annual basis for different circumstances.
 
I would say no, but of course check with your juridiction's building department first to confirm that a permit isn't needed. In my experience, if I receive an application for a permit for something that doesn't need permitting, we will let the applicant know that a permit isn't needed and to save their money.
 
In some jurisdictions they may have code and permit restrictions related to development codes, i.e. exterior paint colors, historical remodels, etc.
If you are not in one of these areas the building department may be willing to take your money for a permit, but if you obtained a permit for work that does not need it, what will you call inspections for?
Inspections are assigned for areas that must be inspected, i.e. plumbing, electrical, mechanical, structural and architectural. Architectural does not include finishes, floor coverings or decor but does include things like adding or removing walls, insulation even certain types of materials or repairs. Its best to find out what items your jurisdiction classifies as necessary for a permit before making a decision on whether one is needed or not. And don't forget your HOA restrictions!
 
So although they may be pricey, it is usually recommended as it avoids a possible issue with the department and with reinforcement code. Also in any case when it comes to finalizing the permit and it is not needed, one can always not finalize (as it’s not needed) or can cancel it if anything. If one does proceed with the permit, if in the future something changes where a permit is needed, it is better to be safe and secure in the permit process than to risk an issue as changes happen constantly on an annual basis for different circumstances.

Good point, Chris. I can easily imagine projects where the contractor doesn't think they'll need to get permitted but where the job is complex enough that they're not 100% sure about that fact. Or maybe they know the scope of work could change at some point down the road (e.g., after they see what's behind the kitchen cabinets they're removing) and they want to be prepared to engage the building department and perform regulated work.

Like you said, safer to have the building department involved in the review process early on and make sure you don't miss something - even if you finalize as "no permit needed" in the end - rather than risk unexpected delays or a violation after work begins.
 
Thanks for all the answers guys. This topic blew up, so cool! :)
I would say no, but of course check with your juridiction's building department first to confirm that a permit isn't needed. In my experience, if I receive an application for a permit for something that doesn't need permitting, we will let the applicant know that a permit isn't needed and to save their money.
Yeah I think it's best to reach out to your local building department or even permitting office and ask them. Most places differ.
So although they may be pricey, it is usually recommended as it avoids a possible issue with the department and with reinforcement code. Also in any case when it comes to finalizing the permit and it is not needed, one can always not finalize (as it’s not needed) or can cancel it if anything. If one does proceed with the permit, if in the future something changes where a permit is needed, it is better to be safe and secure in the permit process than to risk an issue as changes happen constantly on an annual basis for different circumstances.
Yeah I'm in agreement there. It's worth it to pay for it, because if you don't, the price when caught unpermitted could be even more costly than those initial fees.
 
I always tell my clients, if a permit is not needed, the jurisdiction will not issue one even if you apply. As others have said, you just need to ask to find out. As minor as a project might seem, that jurisdiction may require the permit. And, if you get caught doing unpermitted work, you may be imposed significant fines and a stop work order.
 
Why put yourself through the time and expense of reaching for a permit that's unnecessary? It's a frustrating process at best, and I can't imagine volunteering for it. It's a shame that the neighbor decided to be nosy, but I wouldn't let that change how I ran my jobs.
 
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