When do I need a building permit?

This is a guide to deciding if a building permit is needed.

What is a building permit for?

Building permits are all about ensuring the safety, health and structural stability of a building. It is the process by which qualified / licensed people review and approve the construction, alteration, extension or renovation of a building structure.

When is a building permit required?

That is the ultimate question and it depends on where abouts in the world you are. In order to find a concise answer to that question you need to contact your local building authority and ask them if one is required.

Basically any alteration to a structure or construction of a new structure requires a permit. Here is a list of construction works that will require a building permit.

  • New home or commercial or industrial building.
  • Veranda / patio / porch / deck extension
  • Shed / lawn locker (check with council as some exemptions are permitted)
  • Demolition of any kind
  • Retaining walls (generally higher than 1 meter but check first)
  • Removing a structural wall (proof required by qualified person)
  • Replacing / removing a glass door or window. (affects energy efficiency)
  • Installing a roof mounted solar water heater
  • Building an open carport (Some exemptions do apply)

This is not an exhaustive list by any means but it is probably some of the most common questions I get.

Some things that don’t require a permit.

  • Painting inside and outside (changing the colour externally can affect energy efficiency so it’s better to check first)
  • Removing non load bearing walls.
  • Replacing floor coverings like with like.
  • Replacing roof sheeting like with like.
  • pergolas (sometimes do require a permit so check)

How do I know if I need a building permit or not

This is a really difficult question to answer in a general context as it is vastly different all over the world. Here in Australia, answering this question varies from state to state and sometimes from council to council. There is no clear cut explanation and the only thing you can do to protect yourself is to ask a professional.

Don’t just ask your mate because they are not the ones that will be prosecuted if they are wrong, you are! (don’t laugh it happens more often than you would think). Always ask a Building Certifier or your local council and diarise who you talked to, the date and time, and what their response was.

What are the consequences if I go ahead without a permit?

Again this varies depending on which part of the world you are in. It pays to get legal advice on this question.

I can offer you this advice to think about

If you decide to proceed without a building permit and one is required this is what is going to happen.

  1. You will be required to make application for a building permit even though you have already built it.
  2. You will be required to prove that the documentation meet all the acts and regulations applicable to the construction work.
  3. You will be required to show that all of the structural elements used in the construction complies with the codes.
    1. Every footing, column, wall, slab, floor frame, roof frame, etc. is structurally adequate.
    2. Every screw, bolt, framing anchor, stirrup, cleat, strap etc adequately ties down the structure
    3. Every cross brace, sheet brace, steel brace etc resists the wind loading on the structure.
  4. You will be required to prove that the structure does not adversely affect existing structures or neighbouring structures.
  5. And finally you will have to physically show that the structure was built in accordance with the approved documents. That means you may have to dig down to show the footings are correct or take off some roof sheeting to prove the roof frame complies etc.

And you must be a qualified, licensed person to produce this information. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the saying “I built it pretty good so it won’t fall down” or “It looks really strong so it will be ok”. Let me tell you from experience, It’s NOT ok.

Regardless of whether or not you think it is ok you have to prove that it’s ok and you have to be licensed to prove that it’s ok. There are many instances of projects that I have done where it is more economical to demolish the structure and rebuild it with the proper permits in place.

To reverse engineer a building (the process of proving that an existing structure meets the codes) is far more difficult and expensive than engineering it from the ground up. And that means all aspects of the structure not just the structural components.

And the final point on this subject is that a lack of permits will most likely hold up the sale of a property and can even allow a buyer to back out of the deal altogether. Everything goes along fine until you try to sell your property, then for the solicitors only to discover that permits for construction have not been issued. It needs to be rectified before the sale can go ahead. Now you are in a time squeeze because the sale of the property needs to happen in about 30 days or less and the permit documentation can take about 3 months to process.

What do I do if I have already built it?

By now I guess you would have gathered that this is not the ideal case scenario. As I have said, to get a permit for an existing building or structure is far more difficult than building it with permits in place.

So now all you can do is get a professional to have a look at it and advise you what to do. There advise can sometimes be hard to hear but you are just going to have to accept it and take it on the chin. I’m sorry that I can’t give you any better news than that but rest assured that now you are doing the right thing, the professionals you have engaged will give you the best course of action to take. And even though you think that your structure is ok, you will be required to make alterations to bring it up to code.

BBQ lounge

And my final thought on this subject is, give the professionals time to work. Again I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news but the documentation process takes time and your consultant has other clients also that may even be in the same position as you.

If you are caught in the time squeeze I mentioned in the previous subject, then you are going to have to ask the consultants about the timeframes associated with preparing the documents and ask for an extension of time on the contract of sale.

If you are thinking about selling your home but haven’t got a contract yet, I suggest you move fast and get these permits sorted before you have a sale. As I have said, getting permits takes time so don’t leave it until the last minute to take action. You could be bitterly disappointed.

So who do I talk to about getting a permit.

The best place to start is to talk to a Design Professional (Building Designer or Architect). A Design Professional knows what documentation is required for a building permit. They also know what other consultants you are going to need and most likely will have contacts for those consultants. In most cases, your first meeting with a Design Professional is free and you can get an indication of how much it’s going to cost and how long it is going to take.

I have another post about the subject of “How to choose a Design Professional”. To read the article click here.

Design Professionals Tools

Alternatively here are some other professionals you can talk to:

  • Engineer
  • Builder
  • Certifier
  • Council building permits department

So good luck with your building project. I hope I haven’t shattered your plans too much. Just talk to someone who is qualified to answer your questions and don’t leave it too late. The sooner the better.