Building Permits – Fun Stuff!

Trust me, I get it… A blog post about building permits isn’t exactly riveting reading material. But that doesn’t mean it’s not an important topic for anyone engaged in a real estate transaction. So, pour yourself an adult beverage, just to make it fun, and let’s get through it.

Most people have at least some idea of what building permits are about. Municipalities require them for all sorts of things, and for understandable reasons. They want to make sure that improvements to property are done the right way. Inspectors want to confirm that renovations and repairs are structurally sound, and completed in a way so as not to cause harm to either the permit-puller or a neighbor. They want to prevent fires and leaks, and maintain architectural standards. And, let’s face it, they want to get paid for doing these things.

Do You Need a Permit?

So, all of that said, how do you know what repairs or renovations require a permit? I recently stopped in to visit the City of West Palm Beach’s permitting office, and I posed that very simple question. Turns out, the answer is far less simple. A special shout-out to Chris at the permitting office for teaching me things I didn’t know.

Condominiums in the City of West Palm Beach fall under a specific category, as it pertains to permitting.  It’s quite a bit different than single-family homes. The owner of a single-family home can, in many cases, pull a permit as an “Owner/Builder” for work done around the house.  Such is not the case in downtown West Palm Beach condos. Only a licensed contractor may pull a permit for work done in the condominiums here. The reason is simple enough: If you do something goofy to the interior of your condo, you can potentially affect the person living next door to you. The city doesn’t want weekend warriors doing that type of work. So, if you’re going to change out a water heater, or the flooring in your 6th floor condo, make sure you hire a licensed professional to pull the permit for you before work commences.

So, getting back to my initial question… What are some home revisions that require permitting? Here are some bullet points:

  • Replacement or repair work having value under $1,000 doesn’t require a permit in West Palm Beach, providing that the work will not adversely affect structural integrity, fire ratings, or the ingress or egress requirements of the city.
  • Painting, wallpapering, cabinetry, and counter tops can all be done without a permit, provided no electric or plumbing work is entailed.
  • Carpeting your floors doesn’t require a permit, but laying tile might. Laying hard flooring, such as tile, natural wood, or laminate, does require a permit if you have neighbors beside or below you.
  • Simple electrical fixes around the house, such as replacing outlets and switches don’t require permitting.  (Work must be deemed to be on the “load side” of the electrical source.)
  • Portable heaters and air conditioners can be “installed” without permits.
  • You can repair a leaky pipe or a drain without a permit, but you most likely can’t replace it. If a pipe that runs from under your sink back into the wall needs to be removed and replaced, even with an identical part, that is considered new work and a permit is required.
  • Attending to emergencies can be done without first pulling a permit.  However, in most cases, you’re required to apply for one as early as the next business day.

In the end, if you’re unsure whether the work you’d like done is supposed to be permitted, best to call the city and ask. If what you’re planning to do could potentially cause a wall to collapse, flood the guy beneath you, or burn the place to the ground, they’re going to tell you that you need to pull one.

Permitting can undoubtedly be a pain in the tail to have to deal with. It can cause delays, it comes with some expense, and the work you have done is subject to the scrutiny of a city inspector. If defects are found, you’ll have to bring your contractor back out to make adjustments.  But all of that is better than attempting to skirt the process. Renovating without pulling permits can absolutely come back to haunt you, in a number of different ways. But we’ll get into that in a subsequent blog post… This was fun enough for one day!