Getting permits for home improvement projects after the work is completed can be a hassle, but it’s still possible. Whether the work was done by the homeowner or a contractor who neglected to secure the proper permits, unpermitted construction work can negatively affect the value and safety of your home. That’s why you must secure a building permit, even if it’s after the work is done.
At Lamont Bros, we’ve remodeled hundreds of homes across the Portland area. Our team of experts has worked on plenty of homes where changes were made to the structure without a permit. Sometimes, this is an easy issue to solve. Other times, not so much.
This article discusses the process for obtaining a building permit for work already done on your home. After reading through it, you’ll be able to more accurately determine the process you should take to rectify any unpermitted work in your home. We’ll cover:
- Why you should get permits for completed work
- How to obtain retroactive permits
- Best practices for dealing with unpermitted home improvements
Why should you get permits for work that’s completed?
A Building permit is a document that authorizes construction work or changes to an existing structure. It ensures that a building meets all required construction codes. In turn, these construction codes regulate design and construction practices to ensure safety, structural integrity, and accessibility.
Legally, you should always get a proper building permit before the work. Remodeling your home without the proper permits isn’t just a bad idea, it’s illegal. In addition, there are a lot of hoops to jump through when getting permits for work that is already completed. It’s often a much trickier process, takes longer, and costs more.
Sometimes, the issues with the space are so glaring that it makes the home unsafe or unlivable. Other times, homeowners can go years living in a home with unpermitted improvements without issue. So why should you get a permit after the work is already done? Here are a few situations where it makes the most sense.
The unpermitted work creates a safety hazard
The first and most urgent reason to explore getting a building permit for unpermitted home improvements is if those changes to your home create an immediate safety hazard.
Such was the case for one of our clients at Lamont Bros. This family’s home had a second-story addition that did not meet structural code requirements. As a result, the home was not properly engineered to withstand an earthquake. Had there been a seismic event, it likely would have sustained severe damage or even collapsed. Fortunately, our team was able to reinforce the structure to prevent this from happening.
Other times, a home’s electrical wiring might have been done incorrectly, which increases the risk of electric shock or fire. Or perhaps the stairwell balusters are more than 4” apart, which creates a fall risk for small children.
Keep in mind that simply getting a permit at this point won’t be enough to solve the problem. Building permits are simply the documentation that proves a space was built according to the building safety code. If the work in your home doesn’t meet the safety code, you’ll have to repair these hazardous areas. However, to make sure these corrective measures are done properly this time, you should get a permit.
When the work is completed and documented properly, you can rest assured that the safety hazards have been resolved.
You plan to sell your home soon
Perhaps your home doesn’t present any substantial safety hazards at all, but it does contain some unpermitted work. Maybe you finished your basement and added several bedrooms and a bathroom. Or maybe you built an addition that gave your home a few hundred extra square feet. Unfortunately, unless you take out the proper permits for these changes, you can’t change registered the legal square footage or the number of bedrooms in the home.
While all these improvements add value to your home, not having the proper permits can seriously affect what you can sell it for. That’s why it’s important to retroactively pull any permits to get top-dollar for your home.
If you have a three-bedroom home and add two bedrooms without a permit, it’s still legally a three-bedroom home. Only after the changes are documented through the proper channels can you legally classify it as a five-bedroom home and raise the price accordingly. The same thing goes for legal living space. Unless you have permits documenting the space you add to your home, it doesn’t count towards the value.
You plan to do further renovations to your home
Let’s say you purchase a home with a finished basement. The problem is that the previous owners finished the basement themselves without obtaining the proper permits. You’d like to turn the basement into a separate ADU and rent it out to generate extra income.
Well, to make permitted changes to a space, the previous changes to that space must be properly documented. It’s common for tradesmen including electricians, plumbers, and HVAC technicians to refuse to work in a space that’s missing permits.
So until you obtain permits for the work already done in your home, you’ll have a hard time making any further permitted changes.
How to get a permit for completed work
If part of your home was built or worked on without documentation, there is a process for retroactively obtaining the permits. How easy this process is for you will depend on how well the space was constructed.
Just because part of a home was built without permits doesn’t mean it isn’t up to code. It’s very possible that the builder constructed everything properly but failed to document it. However, in other cases, unpermitted work is the first in a long list of issues with the space.
The best course of action depends on the state of the home and how urgently it needs a permit. In most cases, you won’t know until you begin the process whether the home requires changes or repairs to secure proper documentation.
Step 1: Figure out why there wasn’t a permit in the first place
The reason a builder or homeowner did not take out a building permit for their work often gives some clues as to the best way to retroactively secure permits. By identifying these motives, you can better understand the situation and what is required to fix it.
One of the most common reasons people don’t get permits for work is because they don’t know they need to. This is especially common among homeowners who do work on their own homes.
Chances are if they are unaware of the permitting requirements, they’re also unaware of the specific building code laws that apply to the work they do. For these types of jobs, it’s common to find improperly built work that redone.
Other cases of unpermitted work revolve around cost or time inconvenience. Permits can indeed cost a lot of money depending on the type of project. In 2022, some counties in Oregon projected wait times of up to 6 months for permits to be reviewed and approved.
However, if a homeowner or contractor knew permits were required and only avoided them due to convenience, their work is more likely to meet building code. Doing this simply hands off the cost of permits to whoever comes later and decides to do the right thing.
Another reason someone might elect not to pull permits for their work is if they know the work will not be up to code. This is usually the most challenging scenario to deal with retroactively because the previous builder intentionally avoided documentation to break the building code. Some people do this because they can’t get their design to work any other way.
For example, our team has seen projects where the homeowner couldn’t get the stairs to their basement to fit unless the stairs were steeper than code allowed. So, they built the stairs too steep and neglected to take out the proper permits because of it. Years later, a team of professional designers helped the same homeowners design the stairs so that they fit in the space and met the building code.
Contact an inspector for a courtesy inspection
Once you have some context regarding why the space is unpermitted, you should then contact an inspector. Many municipal code inspectors will perform courtesy inspections at little to no cost for homeowners who are concerned their home does not meet code. This doesn’t mean they will do it 100% of the time, but it may help to ask your local inspector to take a look if you have questions about your home’s permit history.
The benefit of calling an inspector to look at your home is that they are the foremost expert on permits and building codes. They’ll be able to look at any unpermitted construction work and identify what — if anything — needs to change in order to secure the proper permits.
The adage, “Better to ask for forgiveness than permission,” does not hold in this situation. Building inspectors are much more likely to accommodate you if you go to them asking for guidance rather than demanding a solution after the work has started. If an inspector catches any unpermitted changes on their own, the consequences may be more severe. Your home could get “red-flagged” for a code violation, which may result in a hefty monthly fine until you resolve the issue.
Create a set of design plans for the space
Whether you’ll be making changes to the space or not, you’ll need to submit a set of design plans to the permitting authorities. These plans provide documented proof that the space’s design meet code requirements.
Even if the space requires no changes to meet code, you’ll still need to submit designs to receive permit approval. However, if your space does not meet code, you’ll need to re-design some of the space.
In either case, your best option is to hire a professional designer to help you through the process of creating designs. Designers are usually well versed in building code requirements and can easily identify solutions to the problems in your home. They can also make it easier for you to work with inspectors and ensure that the space meets building code.
Apply for a retroactive permit
Once the designs for your unpermitted space meet building code, you can apply for a retroactive permit. You’ll need to submit all drawings and documentation of the space.
Retroactive building permits are special permits that are issued for structures which did not initially receive a building permit. It’s likely that you’ll have to make a few changes to the space, but the retroactive permit will still be valid as long you make those changes.
During the permitting process, an inspector will review the design plans and cross reference them against any applicable building code. After approval, the site must then be inspected to ensure that it matches the drawings. If the space requires any changes, the site inspection will happen after those changes have been made.
Make any required changes to the space
In most cases involving unpermitted work, the space requires at least some changes to receive building permit approval. Unless you’re one of the few who can skip straight to the final inspection, you’ll need to assess the work ahead of you.
If the changes are minor, you may want to hire a handyman or consider doing the work yourself. Tasks that fall into this category are low-risk and can be completed within a day. It might include installing a handrail or widening a doorway.
However, if the work is more substantial and requires re-designing some elements of the space, you should hire a professional contractor to help you do it. Cases like these are when it may make sense to hire a design-build firm like Lamont Bros. The required design work and construction process are both key parts of a successful retroactive permit. Having both your designer and contractor on the same team can help make the process more efficient.
What are some remodeling best practices when working with unpermitted work?
If you find yourself needing to obtain a building permit for unpermitted work on your home, there are a few industry practices that can help make the process easier for you. Here are a few to get you started.
Work with the Portland FIR program
In Portland, the Field Issuance Remodel program (FIR) is one of the best resources during a remodel. The FIR program assigns one city inspector to work with you throughout your entire project. This can be especially helpful when trying to retroactively permit construction work because having a single inspector throughout the process means you’ll get consistent feedback and guidance as you work towards your goal.
Homeowners who want to work with the FIR program will need to hire a FIR-certified contractor. You can choose from a list of Portland remodeling contractors who are certified to work with the FIR program.
Explore Grandfather Code Allowances
In some municipalities, building code accommodates work that existed before certain code requirements were in place. For example, your basement stairs might have been added before construction code regulations were enacted on the width and angle of staircases. If this is the case, you may be able to secure a grandfather allowance and not have to change the stairs to secure a permit since it existed before the laws were enacted.
The challenge in this case is that you’ll need to provide convincing evidence that the work was done prior to the enactment of any applicable code requirements.
However, it’s important to note that even if you get an exemption for areas of your home that don’t meet the code, there is a reason those laws exist. Having parts of your home not meet these codes — grandfather allowance or not — may put you or your family at risk, depending on the design.
Seek an Exemption Covenant
An exemption covenant is a document that describes exemptions to building code and attaches to your home’s title. It is intended to inform future owners of the home that exemptions were granted to allow the home to pass code requirements.
Generally, exemption covenants are granted when ceiling height or room dimensions come close but do not technically meet code requirements. This allows for these spaces to be designated as legal living spaces.
Want to learn more about the remodeling process?
By now, you should better understand the process of obtaining a building permit after work is already done. Keep up your research — to learn more about what construction professional is best suited to help you in your quest for retroactive permits, check out this article on the different types of remodeling professionals.
Do you think you’re ready to start the remodeling process on your home? If so, click the button below to schedule a free consultation with a member of our remodel design team. We’ll help you navigate the challenges of remodeling your home so you’ll never have to face it by yourself.