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Do I Really Need A Building Permit?

Getting a building permit is seen to many homeowners as an unnecessary complication, a time waster or city money grab when planning a renovation. You've probably heard horror stories of renovations-gone-awry that go overbudget or get drawn out for years that may make you want to stick your head in the sand. Though not all home renovation requires a permit, here are six benefits to getting one when it calls for it:

1. Your neighbours can't rat on you. 

There is nothing worse than doing what you feel is harmless work on your home, only to be anonymously reported by a neighbourhood NIMBY, be scolded and slapped with fines and be forced to un-do the work. You can't get a permit after you begin work, that's even worse. It's like waving your arms saying yoo-hoo! I'm breaking the law over here! But come help me fix it! Just no. 

2. Permits ensure minimum standards. 

The Ontario Building Code Act and its regulations are minimum standards to follow. Cutting corners with permits and inspections means you can end up with work that is inadequate for fire protection, life safety, health, sustainability or durability. Your house is not just about you, it's about visitors and future owners too. You can tell yourself I don't need a railing on my stairs thankyouverymuch or I'm only going to punch a really small window through the wall except a child may visit your home and be injured, or a fire in your neighbour's house can spread to your house because you have too many unprotected openings. See? You can do better than the minimum. 

3. Avoid future real estate consequences when you go to sell.

Prospective home buyers can do a permit record search on your property and access any surveys or drawings on file. If the city doesn't list any permits for work that has clearly been done...aiiiiieee. Even getting home insurance on non-permitted work can get complicated.

4. Your designer and/or contractors are held to a higher standard of work.

When you hold a permit, you get backup. The city's building inspectors work for you! They provide extra sets of experienced eyes to check the drawings before you start and inspect at crucial stages during construction. Blindly trusting your contractor (or your FIL) to do things to code doesn't hold water because as the homeowner, you are ultimately liable for work done incorrectly and any impact to your home and your neighbour's home in the future. If you only need to do a little bit of work, you can always fast track your application.

5. It makes you take the time to plan your renovation and phase the work to fit your budget.

Taking some time with a qualified designer to draw out exactly what you want and can afford, being specific with the sizes of the spaces, how you plan to use them, materials and details, means not only will it turn out how you expect it to, but it also makes cost estimating for construction much more accurate.  Planning out the phases that work for you money-wise and time-wise means less stress and less uncertainty. 

6. It's the law!

This is not a benefit per se, but you'll be modelling good citizenship to your community. Whining they didn't get a permit, why should I? is like saying why do they get to litter but I have to put my trash in the garbage? Yeah, because that's what good citizens do. Laws protect us from doofuses.

Having said all that, not all renovation projects need a permit! Here are some of them:

  • installing a skylight between existing joists/rafters
  • decks under 0.6m off the ground (not attached to your house)
  • insulating (Toronto specific)
  • new cabinetry and built-ins
  • fences 
  • retaining walls under 1m high
  • new detached accessory buildings under 10 square meters (like sheds or treehouses)
  • upgrading your existing heating and ventilation system
  • refinishing your garage
  • refinishing your basement (not making it a dwelling)
  • re-roofing and re-cladding
  • replacing windows

PS: Feel free to share and tag a friend who's thinking of undertaking a home renovation (get to 'em early!).

~Deborah