Renovating your home often requires a permit, but where to begin? Here are the five W’s (actually six) you should ask yourself before your reno begins.

1. Why get a permit?

As more Canadians renovate their homes, many are forgetting the building permit, and are breaking the law in the process. More importantly, personal safety is at risk for your family and future owners of your home.

By completing work without the required permit, you may be subject to fines and lawsuits. You might be required to obtain a permit for the work retroactively, which can be costly if it means demolishing and redoing finished work.

When selling your home, a buyer can withdraw their offer before closing if you can’t produce the necessary permits. However, when selling real estate, it’s usually a case of ‘buyer beware’ – that is, sellers usually can’t be held responsible for work done to the home without a permit. So if you’re buying a renovated home, insist on getting copies of permits and invest in a good home inspector.

2. Who is responsible to get the permit?

As the homeowner, you are legally responsible for obtaining any building permits required. However, a good contractor will assume responsibility for submitting the permit and taking charge of what can be a very time-consuming process for the inexperienced. You will need to provide a letter of authorization for your renovator to apply for your permit.

3. When is a permit required?
Permit photo

Any reno with structural changes requires a Permit.

There are no set rules to determine when a permit is required. In very simple terms, a permit is required for any structural change or addition, but is not required for interior cosmetic changes such as paint, wallpaper, carpet, hardwood flooring or replacing a window or door of the same size. But it gets tricky – for example, a permit is generally not required to resurface your roof using similar materials, but is required if you’re changing your roofline.

Whether a permit is required or not depends on the type of project and falls into three categories: a) Projects that definitely require a permit b) May require a permit c) Likely do not require a permit

4. Where do you live?

Building codes and permit requirements vary by municipality so be sure to work with your local authorities. Here are guidelines issued by a few of the larger cities in Canada: Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver.

5. Which local departments must approve my plans?

Usually you should seek Planning department approvals then Building department approvals. In smaller communities the departments may be combined, but usually the two departments are autonomous.

The Planning department’s role is to manage growth in its community, shaping physical development while ensuring conformance to adopted general plans, zoning ordinances and planning codes. They are not concerned with the structural integrity of the building, but whether it conforms to the community bylaws and planning codes.

The Building department typically does not thoroughly review your plan until the planning department approves it. As in the Planning submittal stage, there are specific, itemized requirements for Building submittal, including a specific size and number of copies of plans, signatures required on plans, etc.  So work with a local contractor who is familiar with requirements of your municipality at each stage.

If you belong to a Homeowner’s Association (HOA), their role is to ensure architectural uniformity and conformance to community rules. In some cases, local Planning departments will cede design review responsibilities to the HOA, accepting its findings and decisions.

If you own a condo, permission may be required from the property manager for upgrades or renovations. Unauthorized work, even with approved permits, can result in the homeowner paying to revert the condo to its previous state.

6. What are the final steps to get the permit?

Before a permit is issued, your plans and drawings are reviewed by the municipality. Municipalities will try to approve simple projects quickly, sometimes in as little as 24 hours, while larger projects may require several weeks. For example, if you are planning a kitchen makeover, you will need to communicate the proposed scope, noting any electrical or plumbing modifications and any changes to walls or ceilings that might have structural ramifications.

After the work begins, a municipal inspector may visit your home to view the work-in-progress to ensure it is done in compliance with municipal requirements. There may also be separate electrical and plumbing inspections. It is your contractor’s responsibility to schedule inspections at the right time. For example, before concrete is poured, the underlying components of your foundation must be inspected, including footings, stem walls and retaining walls.

The first time you meet your inspector, ask for their advice and concerns regarding your project. At each subsequent inspection, develop a friendly rapport with your inspector by discussing revisions in an accommodating, not adversarial manner.

Before the final inspection, ask the inspector for a checklist of any documentation that will be required, which can help avoid surprises that may cost you time and money. After the final inspection takes place the municipality will issue the permit – and you can start to enjoy the fruits of your labour for years to come!

About our Survival Guide

Home renovations, whether upgrades, repairs or new construction, are a reality most homeowners face at some point in their lives. While there often seems to be an endless supply of independent contractors or companies available to do the work, finding the best one for the job can often pose a challenge. Although online resources exist for homeowners, there has yet to one that addresses the entire process from start to finish. So the experts at HomeStars have developed a comprehensive guide to help homeowners along every step of the way.

Read our earlier instalments: Getting Started on Your Renovation , Selecting the Right Contractor , The Contract

Stay tuned for our next instalments: 10 things to expect DURING the renovation, 5 things to expect AFTER your home reno

Posted by David Bounsall