What do I risk if I don’t get a permit during renovations?

By HUB SmartCoverage Team on February 9th, 2018

Superficial, DIY updates to your home such as painting or simple backyard upgrades do not require a building permit. If you’re making cosmetic changes, such as adding finishes to your home by re-tiling the floor, repairing appliances, replacing plumbing or installing lighting, you’re generally in the clear.

But if you’re doing anything that requires more than a paintbrush or green thumb, then you’re going to need an important document before you start.

It's the law

There are so many misconceptions about building permits and renovations. Ever heard: "if I'm not building an addition or taking down walls, I don't need one"?

Going ahead with any structural changes sans permit, however small, is actually breaking the law.

Real-estate lawyer Ray Leclair clarifies this in a Globe and Mail report:

"It's a municipal by-law under building code," he says. "The impact of it is that there could be a fine for the homeowner or the municipality can say 'remove the structure' or they'll condemn the property."

These are some of the “smaller jobs” that require a permit:

  • Finishing a basement
  • Updating plumbing or electrical equipment (not replacing)
  • Making a new deck
  • Adding a wood burning stove

Some bigger projects:

  • Making changes to partitions or load bearing walls
  • Changing the structure of doors or windows
  • Building a garage

Why it matters

If you’re even thinking of doing a renovation, you need to focus some of that attention on getting the proper building permits. Renovation legend Mike Holmes explains that starting construction without a permit is risky.

The permit puts the city on your side during the renovation. An inspector will stop by to check on the work during different stages of the project and make sure everything is being constructed to code. Without a permit, you won’t really know if your newly renovated house can pass a structural integrity test or if the electric work is liable to cause damage or start a fire.

Contractor’s responsibility

Often, shady contractors will try to talk you out of getting a building permit because it “takes too long” or “it'll slow the project down” – don’t fall for it! Permits help you avoid contractors who might not know what they’re doing or simply “build crap to make a quick buck,” says Holmes.

It’s only the building permit that holds contractors accountable for any sort or errors they make as determined by a trained building inspector.

Getting a permit shouldn’t be left up to your contractor, either. It’s your responsibility. It needs to be visibly attached to your property. If you can’t see it, you don’t have it.

Additionally, you can risk the future sale of your home if you fail to get a building permit. Any buyer can ask to see previous building permits. If you cannot provide them, they could legitimately ask for a discount based on the risk the home now presents to them. Bad work can also void an insurance policy should you need to make a claim.


“Not only can you be ordered to stop the project, but you might also have to uncover or remove finished work to expose what’s been done so it can be inspected,” warns Holmes. As Leclair said above, you can face fines and have your home condemned, too.

Without the permit, your contractor can simply walk away from the job with whatever money you’ve paid them, and dip off the face of the earth. With a renovation finished only half-way, you’ll need to hire someone else to complete the job. Building permits protect YOU, the homeowner. 

And sure, there is a bit of a hassle involved in getting a permit from the city. You need specific plans and additional documents, but don’t you think it’s worth it to have an inspector oversee the work of your contractor?

Once you’re granted building approval through the permit, your contractor has to call the building inspector during various stages so that they can come and check out the progress.

If the contractor misses a step, say they cover up electrical with drywall before the inspector sees it all, the freshly installed drywall will have to come down, costing you and your workers time and money. It’s your responsibility to check on your contractor’s work and make sure they’re following rules and processes; don't expect them to do everything for you.

Permit costs

Now the costs and processes involved in getting a building permit could be what scares most people away, especially when you want a job done cheap and quick.

Application fees must be paid upfront and range from $200 to $2000 depending on project size. This will cover administrative costs, field staff, and inspector visits.

You must present a site plan with drawings of the project. You can draw them up yourself or get a qualified person to do so. If someone qualified draws up the plans and something goes wrong with the structure, they are liable.

Allow 10 to 30 business days to hear the city’s decision.

Last word

At the end of the day, it’s your home and your money. It pays to renovate your property properly. Make sure to call your property insurer to see what’s covered during renovation or extended vacancy; there are a few instances where you’ll need extra coverage.   

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