The short answer is “No”. The long answer is also “No”.
Really? Yeah, this one is straightforward.
Let me explain; I’ll begin with a caveat. If you plan to build a project yourself because you know the building code (be careful, it is over 700 pages), you understand proper construction techniques, you know your way around span charts, live load, and deflection, and you understand local zoning rules, then go ahead, apply for that permit. You’ll need to create your own structural drawings (in plan view and cross section), you’ll have to explain those drawings to the Building Inspector (who probably knows construction better than you do), and you’ll have to show the Inspector how your design meets the zoning setback rules. If any issues arise, it will be you vs. the Building Inspector.
I have been a contractor for over two decades. Here’s some sound advice: If you need a contractor, he should get the building permit. He should be responsible for designing the proper structure, for explaining it to the Building Inspector, and for meeting the Building Code and the setback requirements. If you are building a small project yourself, say a storage shed, then get the permit yourself.¹ But a larger project, like a deck or porch, has complex code requirements that must be understood and respected.
Why wouldn’t you put the responsibility on the contractor, anyway?
“I can save money”. Really? Do you think you can determine the proper girder size and footing spacing, or the depth of a joist for its span, more efficiently than an experienced contractor? And how much is your time worth?
“The building permit is just administrative paperwork. My contractor will create the structural drawings, and I’ll just bring them to my town’s Building Department and fill out the forms.” No, a Building Permit is not just a bunch forms. It is a legal document. Once approved, it gives you the legal authority to add to or alter your house. The signature on the permit application identifies the person responsible for the project. If there is a Building Code issue, the inspector will talk to you as permit holder and hold you as permit holder responsible. Do you want to argue with the Inspector?
Building Code has the force of law. You or your contractor does not have the authority to build a structure that fails to meet the code. Even on your own house. The inspector will enforce Building Code to ensure your structure is safe — safe for you, for your guests, for anyone who comes on your property, and for anyone who buys your house in the future. The Town can force you to tear down a non-compliant structure.
“My contractor, Chuck with a Truck, says we do not need a building permit.” Well, that could be possible – if your deck will be less than 200 sf, will not be attached to your house, will be less than 30″ above grade, and is not part of a required egress path, then it does not require a permit.² I hope this sounds complicated, because it is. Notice the “and” in that sentence. It is important. Remove any of those requirements (attach the deck to your house, for example), and you need a permit.
“Chuck says the homeowner should pull the permit.” Yeah, I bet he does. Chuck has a truck and some tools, but not much more. He may be licensed in the state, and his company may even be registered.³ But if Chuck is asking you to pull the permit, I bet he is not insured. Before the town Building Department issues a permit, it will check his license, his registration, and his Workers Compensation insurance. All this is important. His license provides some indication that he is competent (probably had to pass an exam). The benefits of his registration vary by state (and may be important – more about that later), but the Workers Comp insurance definitely IS important to you. If an uninsured worker is injured on your property for any reason – his ladder breaks, his dull saw blade binds and cuts his hand,… — he can sue you. Really. And the law favors the worker. Fault is irrelevant. Chuck has medical bills, and he has lost wages. And you have an asset: your home. If Chuck’s accident is serious, and he is disabled, you may be paying for medical bills and lost wages for the rest of his life. Do I have your attention?
Here’s the rub with Workers Compensation insurance: It is expensive. Costs vary by state and change over time, but I have seen them run as low as 8% and as high as 19%. Workers Compensation is one of the first expenses a semi-scrupulous contractor drops. And the risk falls on you.
“But the sign on Chuck’s truck says he is insured.” Yeah, he may have Liability Insurance (which protects you if he damages your house), but he still may not have Workers Comp Insurance. Have Chuckie pull that permit; the town will check his Workers Comp insurance. (See footnote 4 below.)
Oh, I promised you I’d explain contractor registration. This varies by state. In Massachusetts, every Contractor who works on a house is required to register his company as a Home Improvement Contractor and pay a recurring fee. And this benefits you: those fees accumulate in a fund which the state uses to help citizens who are cheated by unscrupulous contractors. Up to $10,000. But here’s where it gets interesting: reimbusement from the fund is only available if your contractor gets the permit. A homeowner who pulls his own permit loses access to that fund. Bummer. So again, let Chuckie get that permit.
- Actually, a shed under 200 sq ft does not require a building permit. But it does need to meet zoning and wetlands regulations.
- Per International Residential Code 2009, para R105.2 item 10.
- In Massachusetts, a building contractor needs a Construction Supervisor License. You can check the status of an individual’s Construction Supervisor License via an on-line database maintained by the Office of Public Safety. In addition, a company that works on residential homes in Massachusetts needs to be registered with the state Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Registration as a Home Improvement Contractor. You can check a company’s registration status via the on-line database here.
- Town Building Departments do not check Liability Insurance– they do not care whether your house is protected. But towns do check Workers Comp because that insurance also protects town inspectors who may be injured on your property. (Sorry to sound cynical here.)
We at Archadeck of Suburban Boston offer professional design and build services for clients west and north of Boston. Over the past 23 years we have designed and built over 800 projects. We have enhanced the depth of our expertise by limiting our work to decks, porches, sunrooms, and patios. To view some of these projects, visit our website. To learn how we treat our clients, check us on Angie’s List or read a recent article about us in Remodeling Magazine. For a free design consultation and a relaxed and rewarding design and construction experience, contact us via e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone, 781-273-3500.
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