Let’s face it, we all know that no one wants to have to get official documents unnecessarily. It can be time-consuming and often tests our patience. If we can finish a basement without having to go through the process of applying for permission, that would be great, but it is not likely.
Applying for and obtaining a permit to finish your basement is a process. The permits you will need will depend on the details of your project, but there are some standard steps for getting permits. It will take you time and will come with a cost, but it is undoubtedly preferable to completing the project without a permit.
Generally, a permit is required to finish a basement, but it is decided on a local level (municipalities/townships). The cost and permit types vary. Approval usually takes two weeks. Not getting a permit can result in code violations, penalties, and having to redo non-compliant aspects of the basement.
What Is Considered to Be a Finished Basement?
In order to renovate your home and make any structural changes, you must apply for permission from the municipal offices in your area.
Finishing a basement is included on the list of things you need permission to do in many states. This is because the government is trying to ensure that your home complies with the rules and regulations for buildings that are intended to promote safe living environments.
A finished basement is composed of (but not limited to):
- Finished walls, floors, and ceiling.
- An electrical system.
- A heating and/or cooling system.
- Accessible stairway or entrance.
- An egress window and closet (if you want a basement bedroom to be recognized).
A finished basement is going to look like the living areas you find above-ground.
You’ll need to get permits to make any structural changes to your basement (such as adding in walls for a bathroom or bedroom), plumbing installation (including drainage systems), electrical installations (like general wiring and lighting), as well as HVAC installations (ducts and appliances like water heaters, boilers (yes, there are differences between the two), and furnaces).
Don’t forget to check if your new walls need to be floated!
If you are already painting and laying carpets, you are likely a little late for getting the permits beforehand!
Do You Need a Permit to Install Drywall?
It depends on the requirements of your local authorities and codes, but you may require a permit to install drywall.
I recommend checking your local codes and contacting your local officials for a definite answer.
In any situation, I would say it is probably safer to ask for permission and be told you don’t need it than have to ask for forgiveness.
Permit Requirements Depend on Local Rules
Building permits provide regulations to ensure that construction complies with health and safety, quality standards, local and international codes, and does not compromise the value of your home. So, as you can see, it is important to get and adhere to permits when it comes to finishing a basement.
The permit requirements depend on where you are. For the most part, you will need a permit to finish your basement.
This question can easily be answered by your local town or city hall if you are unsure.
I would advise you to investigate your insurance and your contractor’s insurance policies (if you have one) to make sure there are no clauses requiring permits for damages cover or claims, even if there is no need to apply for a building permit to finish your basement.
Also, having a permit-regulated basement may be a boon for the resale value of your house, as potential buyers are assured that the home is code-compliant and safe.
Do You Need a Permit to Finish a Basement In…
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What Kind of Permit or Permits Are Required?
You will need a permit for the general building changes, plumbing, electrical work, and HVAC installations (often these are all separate permits), as well as permits for adding, removing, or moving windows and doors.
The extent of the permits you need will depend on the work you are planning to do. But for most of the renovations needed to make a basement formally safe and hospitable for a living area, you are going to need to obtain permits.
Your local municipal office should provide a list of work that requires a permit, but if that is not clearly laid out, you can also phone or email your inquiry to find out.
Getting the Application Forms
Application forms for all of the permits you might need to finish your basement should be easily accessible. Local city offices carry forms, or you can find them online from official sites.
Either online or in-person, these offices should also provide a guide or list of required supporting documentation for the whole process.
Who Applies for the Permit: Contractor or Homeowner?
As the homeowner, you may be able to apply for the permits yourself. It will depend on the local protocols and rules for your municipality.
However, you will need to specifically look for permits that will allow you to DIY finish your basement.
You may also find that permits require licensed professionals to fill in and sign them. This includes professionals such as contractors, engineers, plumbers, and electricians.
If you are hiring a contractor, they generally have the necessary licenses or contacts that are qualified to apply for the permits needed for your project. Applying for the permits is generally also included in the quoted price for the project as they are aware of the need for the correct documentation.
Part of the application process for the building permits might require the license and insurance information of the contractor.
By no means are homeowners exempt from the need to apply for permits. If you are planning to take on this home improvement project, you will still need permission.
For more information on who pulls the permit, you can read my dedicated article: Who Pulls Permits Homeowner or Contractor.
Who Should You Apply To?
The city or county officials handle the building permits. When you are applying, you can apply through the city or town hall or through the governing office.
The actual department that you need to look for might differ in name depending on your state or area. Common names to look for would be:
- Building Safety and Permit Department.
- Community Affairs Department.
- Building Regulation Division/Department.
- Building Inspections.
- Contractor and Builder Services.
For example, New Jersey’s application packet can be found through the Community Affairs Department. Online, it is under the tab Code Official Information.
Standard Information and Documentation for Application
There are some standard things you will need and need to do in the process of applying for permits to finish your basement.
- Prepare a building plan. This must include precise:
- Ceiling heights and floor measurements.
- Fire alarm, smoke detector, and any means of egress locations.
- Dimensions and locations for the HVAC system, wiring, receptacle outlets, appliances, and doors and windows.
- Apply for building approval.
- Make an appointment to review the plan for approval (repeat this step if revisions are needed). This step might require a deposit.
- Apply for a building permit, with the following from the relevant division of your local city office:
- The application, checklist, and related documents.
- Copies of the necessary plans (such as site, foundation, floor, and framing plans).
- Any relevant supporting documentation, which might include fire alarm and sprinkler plans and county assessor reports (this will be indicated).
For the construction permits to finish a basement, you are likely to pay $200-$1,000 for the permits.
You will likely need more than one permit for finishing your basement, as you will need a permit to renovate the basement and to add in the necessary plumbing and electrical parts.
I have state-specific articles for basement permit costs and rules. Scroll up to select your state from the table to take a look.
There is a range of potential cost points for other necessary permits required to finish your basement:
- Electrical permits: $10-$500.
- Plumbing permits: $30-$500.
- HVAC permits: $250-$400.
However, the high end of all those ranges is uncommon for most areas. You are more likely looking at spending around $200-$300 for your permits.
It’s worth noting that if you are completing the renovation without a contractor, you will also have to consider HVAC permit costs for installing appliances such as furnaces and air conditioning. The cost ranges from $250-$1,500, which is often included in the quote from a contractor.
How Long Should the Application Process Take?
The actual time it takes to get the permit should be about two weeks. However, this is only part of the process and will vary depending on the operation of your local governmental offices.
Drawing up your building plan might take some time as you work with your contractor to create the vision you have for your basement on paper. It also has to be highly detailed.
Once you have reviewed and revised the plan to the point that you are happy, you have to get the plan approved. This could be done on the day of your appointment, or you may need to adjust the plan.
If there are any revisions required on your documents, you will have to go back to the drawing board. You will still have to receive approval after making the necessary changes.
Following approval, you need to wait for the permit to be issued.
In total, if you have no major issues and have already got a building plan prepared, a reasonable estimate is that your permits could take between two and four weeks.
What Could Delay the Process?
A big factor to consider in the current global climate is that COVID-19 might cause delays. This might be to restrictions on construction or might be due to the governmental offices themselves.
They might be experiencing backlogs due to the delays from COVID, there might be extra documentation and processes required for safety protocols, and there might just be fewer appointments available as people attempt to limit the crowds in the official buildings.
Other, more standard, delays can be due to changes being required on documents, requests for extra supporting documents, or how busy your contractor is with other projects.
National and international holidays can also cause delays as your city offices may close down or reduce to a skeleton staff around Christmas and New Year, but also Easter, Halloween, and Thanksgiving. This may add an extra week or two to your application process.
Times of crisis can also cause delays if there are urgent matters for the city officials to deal with, such as hurricanes and fires.
Another thing that might delay the process of getting a permit for finishing your basement will be if you are trying to get a permit for an already finished basement. You will have a lot more to do for this, including settling potential fines and adjusting your basement for coding regulations.
What Happens if Basement Finished Without a Permit?
If a permit is required to finish a basement in the state or area that you live in, then it is inadvisable to forgo the process of getting one. If you do, you are facing more trouble than the application process.
The full details of what you might expect from finishing a basement with a permit can be found in this article, What Happens if I Finish My Basement Without a Permit, but I will briefly list the consequences here.
- Your house may fail a home inspection. This might be because, without the regulation of a permit, your basement may not be up to code standards.
- You could be liable for a fine. These can be large fines as well, sometimes with daily penalties.
- You may have to apply for a retrospective permit. This is a long and complicated process.
- Structural changes may be required in your basement. You will likely have to extend construction (and disturbances) and exceed your initial budget to make the changes.
- It can affect the code-compliance, insurance, resale, and mortgage of your home.