What is a permit? Types and how to use them

Building permit requirements were initially  created to protect the public by regulating for safety and habitability. Today, the latitude of building permit requirements is often widened to include things like environmental requirements that do not necessarily affect the direct safety of the public but can improve quality, well-being and energy-efficiency.

Some builders and homeowners see building permits as another regulatory step that complicates the building process. Others see building permits as a step to ensure that newly built properties and significantly remodeled structures are safe and secure for residents and occupants.

Building permit requirements are not universal

Building codes are decided on and enforced by city or county building code enforcement bodies. As a result, a project that may require a building permit in San Diego, California may not require a building permit in Worland, Wyoming. Local building code enforcement offices should be consulted before any building or major remodeling is done.

That said, most local jurisdictions in the United States have adopted all or most of the International Building Code (IBC).

Building permit requirements change

It is not enough to learn building permit requirements, since these requirements change and, in most jurisdictions, become more stringent and comprehensive as time goes on. Even when the building codes do not change, the interpretation of them can change over time. It is always worth checking with local planning and building departments before starting a project.

Types of building permits

There are dozens of types of building permits and the required permits in a particular area will not be the same as those required in another area. The three main categories of permits are:

  1. Commercial
  2. Residential
  3. Multi-family

Within those categories there are generally a dozen or more subcategories of permits that pertain to the specific work that is being done. For example, new construction, foundation only, shell, and retaining wall are all subtypes of building permits that can be found within all of the three main categories listed above.

Building permits are not always required

Though the specifics will vary by jurisdiction, it is generally true that a building permit is required when there are changes to a building’s structure, electrical wiring, or plumbing. A permit is not generally required for minor cosmetic work such as changing carpets or painting.

New York permitting process

In New York State, most construction work requires a Department of Buildings (DOB) permit. Usually a state-licensed professional, such as a registered architect or engineer must file the plans with the DOB and secure a permit prior to starting the project. A permit is issued only if a DOB plan examiner approves plans or the applicant solves any objections that might be raised.

Although there is a bevy of permit types, the four major New York permits are:

  • NB: new building construction
  • ALT3: minor alterations that do not affect use, occupancy or egress
  • ALT2: multiple alterations that do not affect use, occupancy or egress
  • ALT1: major alterations that do affect use, occupancy or egress

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