Most homeowners are aware they need a permit when undertaking major improvements to their house, such as building an addition. However, they make a common mistake and assume they don't need any kind of permit for smaller renovations, such as finishing basements, or updating plumbing or electrical equipment. A huge number of home renovation projects, including DIYs, require a permit, and carrying out the projects without the proper permit could have costly consequences.
Ray Leclair, an experienced real estate lawyer and vice-president of the TitlePLUS program at Lawyers' Professional Indemnity Company, pointed out:
A dream home purchase can turn into a nightmare if you do not acquire the proper permits or if renovations were done by a previous owner without a permit. The municipality may force you to remove walls, ceilings, cabinets and other finishes so that an inspector can determine if the work complies with the building requirements or, in the worst case, remove the improvement entirely.
As you can see, renovating your home may be a bigger deal than it first seemed, and there are several things you should have in mind before you start your project.
Overall, the permit system makes sure all home renovations meet basic requirements for health and safety, including fire protection, as well as municipal standards for zoning and heritage. Generally, you need a building permit for home improvements that involve changes to the structure or systems of your house, including
- adding new additions,
- reconfiguring space by moving or removing walls,
- adding new windows and doors,
- installing fireplaces,
- or updating electrical and plumbing systems.
The specific requirements vary across different municipalities, but repairs and renovations such as re-roofing, painting, re-siding, installing flooring and cabinets, or replacing windows and doors usually don't require a permit — provided they don't mean any changes to the structures or systems of the house.
Building Permits in Toronto
In Toronto, you can submit a building permit application in person at the customer service counter in the district office where the home is located. Officials don't accept any applications without the appropriate fee. The Toronto building staff will review your plans in order to make sure they comply with the Ontario Building Code, local zoning by-laws, as well as other applicable regulations.
After they've reviewed your submission and deemed it to comply with all applicable laws, you can monitor the status of your application online. Building permits are valid for the duration of the ongoing construction. However, if the work hasn't started yet or has stopped, the permit is valid for up to six months and a building inspector can provide an extension to your permit.
Apart from the building permit — which is formal permission from your municipality to begin construction, demolition, addition, or renovation — there are other special types of permits you might need: heating permits, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) permits, plumbing permits, demolition permits, sign permits, or sign variance permits.
In Ontario, you need a permit for these renovations:
- Constructing accessory buildings with an area of more than 10 square metres, or an addition to an existing building
- Constructing attached or detached garages
- Structural alterations
- Excavating, repairing or underpinning a foundation
- Heating ventilation, air conditioning, plumbing, or electrical work
- Constructing one or more new separate dwelling units within a building
- Finishing previously unfinished spaces within a building
- Adding new entrances or windows, changing the size of entrances or windows, or closing entrances or windows
- Constructing chimneys or fireplaces
- Installing swimming pool enclosures, constructing detached decks more than 60.96 centimetres above ground, or building any deck attached to a building
- Demolishing or relocating all or part of a building
On the other hand, you won't need a permit for these renovations:
- Replacing stucco, siding, or shingles with the same material
- Replacing doors or windows without altering the opening,
- Constructing fences (except pool enclosure fences)
- Patching, painting and decorating
- Installing cabinets or shelves
How to Get a Permit
The homeowner is legally responsible for obtaining any required building permits and should provide the municipality with detailed information and plans of the renovation as well as any other documentation requested. If you have a contract with your renovator, it should specify which permits you need and whether the renovator will obtain them on your behalf. If so, you'll need to draw a letter of authorization allowing the renovator to apply for the permit on your behalf.
You can get a permit application from the local building department in your area. You should send the application to your local planning department for land-use approval and to the local sanitation authority or department of environmental quality for sanitation and septic approval. Plus, you'll have to pay a permit fee upon your application.
After submitting your application, the municipality reviews your plans and drawings, making sure you aren't breaching any safety codes or going against important zoning areas. Municipalities try to make the reviewing process as quick as possible so that homeowners don't have to wait with their projects for too long. They approve smaller, simpler projects in several days, but reviews of more complex projects might take several weeks.
Furthermore, during the project, you should give notice to the building inspector, who'll check whether you're carrying out your project in compliance with municipal requirements. Don't forget that your permit is issued only for a specific renovation project and that any other renovations that aren't included in the permit require a separate permit.
Carrying out a renovation project without a permit might cost you a lot of nerves, time, and money. Your municipality can issue an order stopping your work until you obtain a permit, or in the worse scenario, stopping you completely. Moreover, they may force you to redo changes that are against the building code in your area at your own cost. If you fail to follow the municipality's orders of bringing the work to order or removing the work completely, the municipality may pursue legal actions against you. Lacking a permit for your renovation project will have an impact on any insurance claim arising from the renovation. We recommend you consult your insurance representative about the coverage of your insurance before starting work.
You can obtain more information and assistance you need from your real estate agent, or from the sources like your local homebuilder's association, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and The City of Toronto has also published a very helpful guideline to assist homeowners with their building projects.