Do we really need a permit?

I don’t think I’m the only homeowner who has experienced that awkward moment.

Do you know the one?

The back yard in 2011
The back yard in 2011

A contractor is visiting your house. You’re looking at the outside of the house and talking about what you could do. You tell the contractor what you would like to do and he or she gives you a few suggestions.

“If you’re going to pour concrete” she says, [I’m using the feminine pronoun because…why not?] “then it doesn’t cost much more to pour more concrete. Framing in a new addition is also quick and inexpensive. The real costs come with the finishing, the fixtures, the plumbing and the appliances. You may as well create a larger room and give yourself some extra space.”

You’re following this logic but, having never done this before, you’re not sure of the steps involved. Then a horrifying question comes to you.

“So,” here comes that awkward moment, “is this going to require a permit?”

A dark cloud passes over the conversation. We have mentioned the unmentionable. Until now, the sky has been clear and filled with possibilities. In your mind, you and your contractor could have shaken hands and started ripping out walls tomorrow.

Now there is another presence: the government. Aaaaagh!

Beside the back steps, 2011
Beside the back steps, 2011

This moment is also a litmus test for a contractor. She knows you want her to say, “no”. She knows if you could avoid involving anybody else, you would. However, if she does say something like, “no”, I think you should thank her for her time and show her the door.

The contractor I shared this moment with explained rather tactfully that if we proceed without a permit we can be fined. However, he said, it is not common practice for municipal building departments to patrol the streets looking for unauthorized construction. In our case, with the work happening in the least conspicuous corner of the house, we might “get away with it”. It would have to be a really grumpy neighbour reporting us for us to get caught and fined.

However, he pointed out, if the District finds out after the work is finished, they can make us to tear it up and start again. On top of that, if we ever want to sell the house, any work that is unpermitted can really turn a buyer off (not that we’re going to sell, ever.)

Beside the front porch, 2011
Beside the front porch, 2011

The short answer is yes, we need a permit. If we do any plumbing, we need a plumbing permit. Same with electrical and, if we move or add any exterior walls, we need a building permit. The only way to know is by talking to–GULP–the government.

I was so freaked out about permits when I called the District that I tried to be as anonymous and hypothetical as possible. I had this idea that if I gave them my address, they would put it on a list and start monthly drive-bys. I ended up giving the address, and I don’t think any drive-bys have occurred.

Talking on the phone with the building department, I had the impression they get this kind of question a lot: people trying to avoid permits. It sounded like they were trying to be patient with a stupid question. It was hard to get an estimate, because, of course, they need to see exactly what you want to do, but I seem to remember the rough figure of $160 was mentioned and it would take something in the range of 6 weeks for the permit to come through.

This seemed like far too much and far too long. I was very impatient back in 2011. I wanted to do it now and they were MAKING ME WAIT.

On the District of Maple Ridge FAQ page it helpfully lists this Frequently Asked Question:

2. Why do I need a permit?

Permits are required to ensure the work is completed in compliance with local bylaws along with provincial and federal codes that establish minimum acceptable standards for life and health safety.

One of my neighbours with more experience renovating houses said people don’t understand that permits protect homeowners. Without permits, we could do all sorts of horrendous things to our houses like tack a new room on the side of our house just because “we were pouring concrete anyway!”

As soon as we started working with the Heritage Dept. and Annabel the architect, my perspective on time and money changed. It had to. Now I realize the more carefully we plan this reno, the better; that issuing permits is an important and reasonably priced service provided by our local government; and, finally, minimum standards are usually not good enough.

The more carefully we plan this renovation and retrofit, the longer we are going to love this beautiful house and the longer it is going to last.

roses 2011
Roses in 2011

We want it to last forever.

Published by

James Rowley

James lives in Maple Ridge, BC, Canada with his amazing partner, Leanne Koehn, and their two amazing kids in their beautiful house. He studied Science and English Literature at the University of British Columbia where he met Leanne. He also studied acting for a while at Studio 58 in Vancouver. He works as a teacher of English and curriculum writer for new Canadians.

7 thoughts on “Do we really need a permit?”

  1. Good advice. I think there is a big difference between homeowner mindset and government mindset, but ultimatley they are there for a reason, to protect us from ourselves and shoddy workmanship. A person just has to watch Mike Holmes to know how badly we need to be protected. If you have the right mindset going in, and be honest about what your trying to do, most will be helpful. And yes that help costs money. but your house is your biggest investment to protect it and your family.

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