Don't let permits and inspections scare you or worry you. I remember this was a big mental hurdle in my mind to getting started. The words alone seem so daunting. Do you have permits for your basement? Did you pass inspection? Crap! What happens if I don't? Jail time? Huge fines?
Chillax. There are no fines and you won't do time. Try changing the vocabulary from" permits" and "inspections" to "announcements" and "reviews". The permit is really just an announcement that you are going to do some work on your house. The inspection is really just a review of your work by a licensed and experienced person who is just checking to make sure everything is safe.
Permits for finishing your basement
If you're finishing your basement yourself you can actually start without one. I built a couple of my walls before I made it official and purchased my "announcement" (permit). I don't even have permits as one of my 8 steps to how to finish a basement.
Now, if you're planning to have a huge back hoe outside of your house to dig up some dirt and install a basement window, then you may have a neighbor or two who start to ask some questions and in that case you want to have your permit ready. The very first inspection visit is the framing inspection so as long as you have the permit before then, you're good to go.
Every area is different but in my county permits can easily be obtained by the homeowner. You need a rough sketch of your design, the permit application (name, address and stuff) and you need the permit fee. You take that to the county office where a clerk checks it over and hands you a permit. In my case it was a big orange sheet of paper that you put somewhere near the front of your house.
They will want to know if you are also doing the electrical and plumbing phases, say yes, you can always change this later if you decide to hire someone. If you do decide to hire some then they need to get their own permits and handle their own inspections. The person who did the work is responsible for passing the inspection.
Should you get a permit?
Yes! If you are going to do electrical, plumbing or major structural work - you should absolutely get one. It's not that hard and it could save your life, your kids life or some family's life in the future. By getting the permit you're all setup for free inspections!
That's right, free help! Look, you've never done this before, now you'll have a guy come out before everything is closed in by drywall, and just let you know if you've done something that could hurt you or cause damage to your house. Don't look at it as a hurdle, look at it as an opportunity to improve and to learn.
Plus, if you ever sell your home, the realtor is going to ask, "Do you have permits and inspections for this great basement?" No? There goes 5 to 10 thousand bucks out of your pocket. You can probably still sell, but the buyer is worried now, no one has checked your work. If you wait until you sell to get things inspected, good luck. Codes change over time and you're expected to meet the codes that are in place at the time of the inspection. Not to mention the fact that you'll have to crack open a bunch of walls so they can see what's going on.
Finally, you'll give confidence to your family. My wife was always a bit leery when I working with electrical or plumbing and rightfully so. Electricity is no joke, it can hurt or kill you. Even though I showed her the books I'd read and explained the process and she could see the wiring and all the lights worked, it wasn't until the inspector came and put a small 2"x2" sticker on our basement door with red "approved" stamp on it, that she believed everything was safe and correct.
I always kind of thought of inspections as the SS coming in to check my papers with a big growling German Shepard by their side. But really it's more like a lovable little puppy who just wants to be your friend. I was a bit nervous for that first inspecton. It was for the framing. The guy took about 2 minutes, walked through basement, asked a few questions and gave me an approval. Done.
Electrical inspection was even better. This guy was giving me tips, showing me why certain things are done and encouraging me to keep learning. I actually failed the first electrical inspection but both issues were minor, I fixed them and then he came back and I passed. He said I was actually much more thorough in my planning and execution than some of the professional electricians.
Help Me Help You
The thing to remember about the inspectors is that they do hundreds of inspections a month. They have to inspect new houses, renovations, additions and more. Respect their time. Clean up before they get there. Make sure it's easy for them to walk around and see what they need to inspect. If they're coming to inspect electrical - make sure they can see all of the outlet boxes, make sure they can get to the electrical panel.
Be Sure to Be There
Make sure that you are home when they come to do the inspection. Don't just have your wife or brother or something let them in the house. They need to talk with you. They might have questions and if they have instructions on what you need to do to pass then you'll want to hear that first hand. If you had a contractor do some of the work then try to have them with your or at least know that they are available via phone to answer questions or get feedback.
They won't inspect every single element. If you put in 20 electrical boxes for outlets, they might check 3 or4, if those look good then they assume you know what you're doing. The bottom line is that they need to trust your work and it's more difficult to trust someones work who isn't there in person.
Go Ahead, Inspect Away
I hope that puts some of those fears at ease. I know I mulled over the whole permit thing for way to long. Just go online and find you counties website, hopefully they have one by now, and check out the permit process. Then get started already, get your rough design and application finished then pick a time and go apply.