Building Permits – Do You Need One?

Building Permits - Do You Need One?

Building? Renovating? Do you need a permit? How do you find out? Where do you go? What does it cost?

Here are a few of the facts for the state of North Carolina at this time. Updates happen in every industry. Do what you can to keep current and be sure to check with your state if you live outside NC.

The basics: if you intend to do over $30,000 in repairs, anyone can go to the city and get a “privilege license”. You are then a licensed contractor. Beware of people who show up to work on your home claiming to be licensed. All you need to do is go to the city and request a privilege license. Make sure your contractors are for real.

If you plan to do less than $5000 in repairs and it is not structural, you do not need a license. However, you may want to find out what is meant by “structural”. If,for example, you need to repair a single pillar under the house, that is structural. If you’re having a roof replaced and the boards also need replacing, that is structural. If the repair is structural, no matter the cost, you must have a permit.

Never pull a permit yourself – have the contractor or tradesmen (plumbers, electrician, etc.) pull the permits for the work to be done. Whoever pulls the permit is ultimately responsible for the work and you want the responsibility to be on the worker, not on you. Again, beware of a contractor or tradesman who asks you to pull your own permits for the job. That means they are trying to eliminate any personal liability for the work they are about to perform.

For most work that needs to be done, other than new construction, you can have your contractor request an “alterations” permit which is only $45. The city will then come out to inspect the work so you don’t have to. They will make sure that you get the work you expect and are paying for.

It is often required that you obtain a permit even to change a water heater. Before you build or renovate, know what’s required by your city.

According to the NC Engineering & Inspections site, you are required to pull a permit:

For Plumbing:
* Installations, alterations or additions to the sanitary drainage, waste or vent systems (DWV).
* Installation of fixtures, water heaters and appliances requiring connection to the building DWV, water service or water distribution system.
* Installation of sewer and or water service systems, including replacement.
* Special application equipment such as water softeners, process water connections, grease traps, etc.

For Mechanical:
* Installation or replacement of a furnace, condenser, boiler, chiller, solar, hot water or steam heating and/or cooling system used in heating or cooling residential, commercial, institutional, and industrial facilities.
* Energy distribution systems such as ductwork and piping systems are included in the requirements for permits. Installation or replacement of gas piping, equipment and appliances.
* Fossil fuel fired heating equipment — oil, wood, coal, etc.
* Installation and/or replacement of gas logs, vented and non-vented — ranges, grills, lights etc.
* Commercial refrigeration systems, coils, freezers, coolers, etc., any commercial refrigeration equipment assembled on site and not designed as unitary plug-in appliances.

This post has 14 Comments | Would you like to leave a comment?


  1. Yphen Ebsn:
    If it’s less than $5000 and you’re not changing anything structural, you should be fine with no permit.

    Anytime you have a question about permits, simply call your local city planning department.

    Good luck with the wall and thanks for asking!

  2. Im adding a wall on my car port do i need permit for it?

  3. So true, Jeff!

    We own an office in an office complex building. We bought it new construction. Construction had to be signed off on by both city and county inspectors.

    Five years later, the back corner of the structure collapsed and the entire building was almost condemned. We had to move out for a year!!! No inspector, of course, was liable. Most of the time, I have no idea why we are required to use them…..

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  4. Karen, Thank you for the post. I live in PA so we do have some different rules here. I will agree that having a qualified service person do the work is an absolute necessity. Having said that, I would never say that just because a city inspector came out and gave his stamp of approval would mean that it was done correctly. I have been involved with construction in the past and have seen times when it was approved by the inspector and was not done properly. When they were called, they were not liable for anything that may have happened. That is the responsibility of the contractor (if you can find him!!!).
    Jeff Paulus

  5. Hi Larry:
    Laws regarding permits are very local. And most permits are dependent upon how much the renovations cost. You can contact your city inspections department and ask your questions, even anonymously, to get more definite answers.

    One issue is that you added quite a bit of square footage to your home and that additional will not show up in the tax records because it was not permitted. Because of this, it’s possible that won’t count toward added value when you go to sell.

    It’s still possible to get permits and inspections on the work done if you decide to do that. Or you can sell and, if the buyer’s inspections all come back good, you won’t have an issue to deal with.

    Good luck to you and please let me know what happens.

  6. Good morning Karen, what happens on renovations that have been done without a permit? We have had a number of renovations done converting the two car garage into a kitchen and living space, all of the work we did ourselves other than the Sheetrock mudding. I realize now we should have pulled a permit in the case we ever want to resell plus for our protection. Thank you for any answers you are able to give us.

  7. Hi Chris:

    Most of what you’re doing does sound cosmetic but your workers will still need permits, depending upon the size of the job. Plumbers and electricians will probably need to be permitted. It’s actually protection for you to be sure someone “knowledgeable” is checking that the work is done correctly.

    To know for sure, check with the planning and development department in the county where you will be renovating. Some areas are regulated by the county, some by the city (some both). And the rules will vary with each, unfortunately.

    You’re right, things have changed since 2009. In fact, things change annually!

    Thanks for asking and best of luck to you with your renovation!

  8. Karen, love the post, most helpful as I am looking to relocate to NC and the house I want is gutted!

    Have the laws changed much since your post about building permits? I see it was in 2009…obviously, between a hurricane and FEMA, etc. have you found anything dramatic?

    Also, what about a reno that is NOT structural, but includes a lot of hefty $$upgrades, close to 20k? (i.e. tearing up tile and putting in hardwoods, putting up drywall, changing out a kitchen and bath). All of these are costly, but not necessarily structural?

  9. Hi Michelle:

    Yes, a contractor can file a lien anytime. The problem they face, however, is being able to defend it in court. If a permit should have been pulled, they would be crazy to go to court and expose their error.

    Hopefully, you have documentation showing what work they did and how much you paid them. The burden is now to prove who is correct in front of a judge.

    The situation you explained should convince the court that this is a fraudulent lien and you will, hopefully, get the lien removed quickly. If other neighbors are in the same situation, get an attorney together and resolve your problem.

    Good luck to you and please let us know how this turns out.

  10. Can a contractor out a lien on my property without ever having pulled a permit to do any work. We contracting them to do repairs after the tornado damage. Four months later they worked on the roof and then did no other work. We had paid them almost $11,000. After 8 months we finished the work ourselves. The company is now stating we owe them more money and they sent a copy of the lien they filed in July. We have recently discovered they never pulled a permit. Is this legal and what should we do? Five other neighbors are going through the same thing with this company.

  11. Hi Karen,

    I haven’t posted in a while, but I wanted to thank you for the excellent information you continue to provide. It really is super.

    Best Regards,

  12. Exactly my point, we should know what the requirements are but, like everything in this industry, it changes so often! And, who would think you need a permit for that? The inspector said, if installed improperly, water heaters can be a huge hazard and the law is to protect the consumer. I appreciate that, however, this country is so over-regulated!

  13. In response to needing a permit for a little thing like replacing a water heater, I would say, “I am of the opinion that you do it and when they tell you that you need a permit, say, “Are you serious?! Where do I get one!” Some of these little rules are over the top!”
    I always use someone that I know is capable to do a proper job, but we do not need a permit for that here. (I guess!!! I never asked!)

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