Permission granted: Get your home-improvement permits before you start, inspectors say

Nothing could be more infuriating for the motivated home improvement do-it-yourselfer than to do it yourself, only to be told you've done it wrong. Maybe you inadvertently built that deck too close to your neighbor's lot line, or maybe your stair guardrail is too low, and is judged a tripping hazard. Now you'll have to rip it up and start all over again.

The sad fact is, it's your own fault. You should have gotten a permit.

Connie Fournier is deputy director of the construction inspection service division of the Minneapolis Regulatory Services Department, the agency that houses city building inspectors. She says that aside from decorative fix-ups such as painting, finishing or carpeting, there isn't much you can do to improve your place of abode that doesn't require a permit.

"Particularly if you're going to change a room, add a room, modify something structurally, add wiring or plumbing or mechanical equipment, you need permits for that," Fournier said.

That may seem like just more pointless government meddling, but there is reason behind the inspection rhyme, according to Fournier.

"The purpose of a permit is simply to provide information to that homeowner, to make sure that what they are going to do is going to meet the minimum safety requirements of the state building codes," she said. "That's why we like preplanning."

Preplanning is almost a mantra among building inspectors. It's one thing to get all your plans sketched out on paper to your personal specifications; it's quite another to satisfy building inspectors.

"The more preplanning that homeowners can do in advance of their projects, the better off everyone is," Fournier said. "We advise people to do a lot of research, not only in what they're planning to do, getting proper drawings and so on, but also research on who they hire, if they're going to hire anyone."

You might not realize, for instance, that the state requires that general contractors be licensed. And you might also be unaware that if you pull a remodeling permit, you then are personally responsible for the work. Fournier recommends letting your contractor take out any permits as part of their work. Or you may not know that you are legally required to pull all needed permits prior to launching your fixer-upper project.

"I think the largest advice to everyone is that you should check it out before you start," the inspector says. "Get your plans drawn up, get approval from the start. Then you'll build it right the first time."

The city makes some of the work easier on homeowners by publishing online a great deal of information about which permits are needed and when they must be taken out. The site (www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/inspections) also posts permit forms that you can print and fill out.

In addition, Fournier's department stages a "homeowner's night" every Monday through construction season, which ends Sept. 30. She said homeowners can make an appointment to come into the agency after work and get answers to virtually any questions about home-improvement permits.

Call 673-DECK (3325) for reservations..

A building permit is required when:

1. The total sum of materials and labor exceeds $500. This applies to residents, contractors and commercial owners. Even if you are a homeowner, your labor has value.

2. The work is structural in nature, such as adding or replacing beams, posts, joists or rafters. In this case a permit is required even if the total sum of materials and labor is less than $500.

Some common items requiring a permit: Roofing Siding Retaining walls over 3 feet high Replacement of doors or windows where opening size changes are made or where the value exceeds $500 Decks Stairs -- exterior or interior Skylights Repair or replacement of brick, stone facades Garages Additions Sheds, greenhouses, utility buildings or screened porches over 120 square feet Swimming pools 24 inches deep and over 150 square feet in area New kitchen cabinets Conversion of attic or basement to habitual space or sleeping quarters Conversion of single-family homes to multiple dwelling units Increase/decrease in the number of dwelling units Remodeling/demolitions of interiors with new Sheetrock installation Demolition of buildings including garages over 1,000 square feet in floor area Fences over six feet high (Source: City of Minneapolis website, www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/inspections)