Home Improvement Projects Illegal to DIY

You have the skills, but that may not be enough. Some projects require a permit at the least, if not the involvement of a pro.

Sometimes, it feels like the list of home improvement projects and repairs that need your attention never ends. As soon as you get your wood floors refinished, you discover a leak in your pipes. Then, the refrigerator breaks. A week later, the Homeowners Association sends a letter telling you to repaint your home’s exterior within 90 days — or else. Oh, and there’s the new deck you hoped to build for that end-of-summer soirée.

You might be inclined to power through the list on your own to get everything done as soon as possible. After all, you have the skills and can make the time. Depending on the project, however, this isn’t always your best bet. In some cases, doing these projects on your own might actually be illegal.

To clarify, we’re not talking about felonies here. We’re talking about potentially getting on the bad side of your local building codes division by failing to obtain a permit for the work.

“The police are not going to come and arrest you,” says Chuck Khiel of Case Architects and Remodelers, vice president of the Schedule Fred division. “The ramifications are fines and … the reality is the inspector can escort you off the property.” You also risk being ordered to demolish your project.

How do you determine whether a home improvement project is illegal? For starters, Khiel says check with your local jurisdiction, because codes and regulations vary from one place to another. Not only that, codes change frequently. The project you have in mind may have been legal last year, but may not be today

There are a few projects — or types of projects — that you can pretty much count on being illegal to do without a permit no matter where you live. Like these:

Deck Building

DIY decks are among the most frequent violations and also one of the most dangerous, Khiel says. “We see a lot that are not built even close to code,” he says. This is especially problematic with elevated decks.

Getting a permit ensures your deck has all the necessary safety features and it’s attached to the house correctly. (Side note: Permits are usually required for roofing, home additions and structural changes for similar reasons.)

Obtaining a permit will also help you avoid other mishaps, like digging through an electrical cable, because your permit will likely specify that you need the utilities marked before breaking ground. Use Call811 for details on utility marking in your area.

Not sure if your existing deck is safe and secure? This checklist from the North American Deck and Railing Association will help you figure it out.

Electrical Work

This is a broad category, but it’s probably safe to assume that if the project involves tapping into your electrical system, you are probably going to need a permit to legally complete the work.

A few projects that require a permit across many jurisdictions include:

Why are jurisdictions so vigilant about electrical work? Because it’s dangerous if done improperly. It requires a great deal of skill and training, along with a license for anyone who does it professionally. Inspectors need to look at the project in-progress and after completion to make sure there are no safety violations.

“When it comes to electrical work done by homeowners … the real risk is fire,” Khiel says. Getting a permit will mitigate this risk, as well as the risk of electrocution. According to the Electrical Safety Foundation International, about 400 electrocutions occur each year in the U.S.).

Plumbing Repairs and Changes

If all you’re doing is installing a new and improved faucet or replacing your toilet’s supply line, the chances of you needing a permit are virtually nil. However, large-scale plumbing projects are another story.

Again, the particulars will depend on the rules in your jurisdiction. In general, you will need a permit any time you intend to:

  • Move a plumbing fixture more than six feet;
  • Add a plumbing fixture where one didn’t previously exist;
  • Repair or replace pipes;
  • Install or repair a septic tank or dry well;
  • Replace a water heater.

Is plumbing really so complicated that a seasoned DIYer can’t handle it without the city inspector checking the work? Maybe, maybe not. But as a homeowner, you may not be well-versed in current building codes. These codes are there to protect your entire community from plumbing mishaps like water damage, mold and even sewage backups and blockages.

Taking Down Trees

A tree on your property is your property. But in some jurisdictions, you still need a permit to remove the tree. For safety reasons, an arborist or tree removal service might be your best bet. But if you want to do the job yourself, first check with your city or town because the rules can be complicated.

In many cases, city government is charged with preserving trees whenever possible. Permit rules may vary depending on the type of tree, its location, the type of property you own, etc. In Portland, Oregon, for example, you need a special heritage tree permit to remove trees deemed significant based on their age, size and history.

Dawn Weinberger
Dawn Weinberger is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon who has contributed to numerous publications and websites over the past 20 years, including RD.com, Glamour, Women's Health, Entrepreneur, and many others. Dawn has a BA in journalism from Western Washington University and is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. She writes about everything from health and medicine to fashion, shopping, and business.