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Do I Need a Permit to Do That?

It's springtime, folks are getting their tax returns and they are thinking about home improvements, to include renovations. Whether you're thinking remodeling or reconstruction, renovating your home can be an exciting undertaking, but it is important to slow down and make sure you check all the boxes before you proceed with your project so you know you can actually do what you set out to accomplish.

That's exactly what happened to us. Nearly 15 years ago, I found this beautiful home in Alexandria and fell in love the minute I walked in during an open house. It is an old rambler built in 1953 with one bathroom, two bedrooms, a majestic stone fireplace and this fantastic archway that separates the living room from the bedrooms. It reminded me of my grandmother's house. When I was considering my options during that time, there was no other house that matched those grandma features.

The house is in a neighborhood I absolutely love, but it could benefit from another bathroom or two, larger bedrooms, a master suite and a more open concept. And as a realtor, you can imagine I see some gorgeously updated homes all the time. So I asked an architect to draw up some plans. A few weeks later we sat down and I was feeling the love with this new design. He kept what my family has loved so much about this house, but drew a home that is more functionally relevant. With a thumbs up from all, we said let's do this.

Shortly thereafter, I got a call from the architect. Keeping in mind the house was built in 1953 and not subject to the zoning regulations and codes we see today, he rightfully checked in with the folks at the county, and we discovered the second floor we want to add doesn't fit today's zoning restrictions. You see, my house is offset 19 feet from the street. That was no problem in 1953. But today, the code says it must be 30 feet from the street. To allow the new second floor, we had to request special permission, otherwise we'd have a second floor with a setback to adhere to the 30 foot restriction. Having a great architect, we were granted the special permission earlier this week and we can begin construction in a few weeks once the permits are issued.

Why Do We Need Zoning and Permits to Renovate Our Own Property?

Zoning regulations, building permits and code primarily exist to protect the health and safety of the home's residents, so while it might be inconvenient to apply for a building permit or check in with zoning or follow code, it is worth it in the long run. At some point you may decide to sell your home and you don't want your sale to be stalled because you didn't properly permit. But how do you know if you need a building permit for the project you are planning? Keep reading!

1. Do I need a permit for the project I am about to start? A few general guidelines can give you an idea of whether you will need a building permit. In most cases, you will need a permit for any modifications you would like to make to your existing home. These include electrical, sewer or plumbing updates and mechanical installations. They also include changes to the roof line, the addition of fireplaces and the expansion of pre-existing windows. If you are changing any of these items, your licensed contractor will update to the current code. On the other hand, there are some situations when a permit is usually not required. Cosmetic changes, such as new flooring, trim or paint, typically do not require a permit. Other types of modifications, such as building a deck, replacing the siding on your home, or building a new fence or retaining wall, may or may not require a permit depending on your location. So check. 2. Why do we have building codes? Building codes are put in place to protect the home's residents as well as the community at large. One commonly cited example of a building code applies to stair railings. Stair railings are required to have sturdy hand holds to help occupants traverse them. In general, railings are also not permitted to have any gaps that are larger than 4 inches. This regulation was put in place in order to prevent small children from getting stuck while trying to climb through the gaps. Another improvement where we see a lot of updating in Alexandria's older homes is in electrical panels. Your licensed electrician will update to current code.

Building codes can also help make the community safe and clean for everyone. Examples of this include environmental efficiency regulations. 3. Is a building permit my responsibility or my contractor's? If you choose to hire a contractor, make sure you discuss with the contractor who will be pulling the building permits. In some areas, you have to be a licensed general contractor to pull building permits, but in many other jurisdictions you are able to pull building permits for your own private residence. 4. How can I find out if I need a permit? Check with your local jurisdiction. Different counties and cities have different laws surrounding building permits and building codes. In general, urban areas are more strictly regulated while the requirements in rural areas tend to be more lax. Make sure you check the most up-to-date versions of all the guidelines. For example, requirements for energy efficiency have changed drastically over the past decade, causing building codes to adjust accordingly. If you plan to do the renovations yourself, make sure you are up to date on the local building codes and guidelines. If you're hiring a contractor, check references and do your due diligence to make sure the contractor is reputable and follows appropriate local codes.

If you are renovating this year, share your experiences and before and after photos on our Facebook page! It's always fun to see what folks are doing and how they are transforming their homes!

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