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Planning & Building Regulations 101

Planning & Building Regulations Planning & Building Regulations 101

When it comes to larger scale renovation projects, additions, or even the replacement or updating of utility systems, it is important that homeowners know exactly what they can and can’t do. That may seem like a strange concept: the idea that your very own private property can be regulated.

But the fact is, if you want to mitigate your own liability and insure your property against any possible damages that might occur over the course of you and your family’s life there, it is vital that building codes are strictly followed.

From a contractor’s perspective, it is also important that work maintain standards set by the building commission of your region so that these business’s protect themselves from liability. Often, you will find that a contractor who does not adhere to code and follow up with a proper inspection of the work has something to hide.

This could be detrimental, both if something does go wrong with the work, or, if as a homeowner, you choose to sell your home down the road. Upon resale, it is a certainty that shotty work done below code standard will be exposed and you will be forced to pay because of it.

For these reasons, among others, it is a good idea to brush up on a basic understanding of building codes. But often, these things can be a mystery to the layman, or someone with little knowledge of the trades.

Fear not! In this article we offer a crash course for  homeowners on building rules and regulation for projects and renovations of private residential properties.

With a Permit

There are some things that can be done around your home without pulling a building permit from the local building commission. But first, what is a building permit?

Think of a building permit as an announcement to the town in which you live that you are planning to begin a sizable amount of work on your home. It lets the people in charge of upholding code through inspection, and of keeping the specs of your home on file, that you are making a change or update to the existing structure.

Planning & Building Regulations 101 For the purposes of this article, we are using New York City building code. Outside of a few minor differences, the rules and regulations outlined here are fairly universal to the rest of the country. The particular language of those standards may be exclusive to NYC, but are mostly semantics and are mimicked with some level of similarity nationwide.

According to the NYC Administrative Code 104-14, a building permit is not required for what is  deemed “minor work and ordinary repairs.” This phrase is laid out slightly more definitively as anything that is done to a home that does not “affect health or the fire or structural safety of the building or the safe use and operation of the service equipment.”

Structural safety is the trickiest phrase in there, as it suggests any changes at all to the structure of a home- say, if a wall is moved- has a potential effect on the safety since safety is determined through inspection. Thus, if something about the layout of your home is changed without the town or city knowing about it, in theory it is deemed unsafe.

“Service equipment”, mentioned later in the above quote, refers to the utility systems in your home (i.e. electrical panel, water heater, AC, heat, etc.). Any changes here must go through a permit and inspection process.

The term “ordinary repairs” convolutes this slightly. A repair is basically a replacement or renewal of a part of something that already exists in the home For instance, you can replace a plumbing fixture on an existing water heater (service equipment) or hang a new bedroom door (structural) without having a permit pulled. As long as you are not making any changes to the space you are good! The only stipulation is that the replacement parts must be equivalent to what was originally installed.

Code Enforcement 101

Pretty much any other type of home improvement project that does not explicitly fall under the categories listed above have a set of strict rules and regulations for said work to pass an inspection and be considered up to code.

As mentioned earlier, a good way to think about the types of jobs that are regulated is associating regulation with change. Most building commissions outline regulated jobs with a series of verbs that all constitute a change of the existing space. For example, the New York building code states that it is unlawful to erect, install, alter, remove, or convert without a trade specific permit obtained in accordance with code requirements.

Here are somewhat more specific examples:

  • The removal or modification of anything that is load bearing
  • Any change affecting a required loading or fire exit
  • Any change affecting shared municipal utilities (i.e. work on a sprinkler system tied to city water distribution line)
  • Any plumbing work other than the replacement of visible fixtures in the home (what can be seen or accessed at a sink, for instance)
  • Pretty much all electrical work

The Process

So what does the process by which homeowners report construction and renovations look like? It is mostly the same regardless of the type of job with a few small exceptions.

For new construction, like that which takes place if you are adding onto your home or erecting a garage or off building, first you must get zoning compliance approval.

If a well or private sewage disposal system will be featured in the new construction, the health department must also give their approval.

From there, you can file your permit application and will need to provide proof of worker’s compensation coverage. The latter can be obtained by contacting your home insurer.

Construction plans will be necessary for new construction as well. Depending on your town or city’s building commission, you may need to provide two or more sets of plans. After you submit these, your permit will be issued and construction can begin. After its completion, it typically falls on the shoulders of the contractor to call for inspection, since, after all, it is their work that is to be inspected.

The major differences in how this process unfolds across job types is if you are having work done in a licensed trade discipline like plumbing, electric, or HVAC. This differs from new construction for a couple of reasons:

If you are having new construction done, you are likely hiring a general contractor. This contractor holds a contractor’s license, but not a trade specific license.

The trade work that takes place as a part of your new construction (you want your garage to have lights, don’t you) will be taken care of by your GC. In other words, you pass the buck off in some respects.

But if you are merely having an electric panel updated, for example, you will not use a general contractor, but an electrician. In other words, you are your home’s general contractor in this case. Thus, the process differs slightly.

Trade Specific Permit/Regulation Process

  1. Trade specific permit application
  2. Proof of trade license of contractor
  3. Proof of worker’s compensation coverage
  4. Permit issuance

It is important to note that more times than not this process does not fall on you, but rather the contractor you hire. This is a part of their day to day, and the efficiency with which they are able to navigate the building commission is a testament to that.

Still, it is important to understand the type of work that is regulated. For starters, it helps you choose the right people to work in and on your home. Any reputable contractor is going to pull permits, even if they think it might not be necessary to do so,  to protect the home, the people in it, and their own work.

Most importantly, though, a basic knowledge of building codes helps you to discern what is and is not doable as you plan future projects, and the degree with which margin for error is of the utmost importance. As a general rule of thumb, when a permit is required, it means something can go horribly wrong if that job is done incorrectly. Knowing when this is the case can help you mitigate risk and keep your home and family safe.