Permits and Inspections for Basements

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? 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

Orange Permit to Finish a BasementIf 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).

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.

Das Inspections

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.

basement finishing jasonDo you have a crazy inspection story?  Did you ever have trouble passing an inspection?  I’d love to hear your stories.  Please post them  as a comment below.

Cheers -

Jason

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Comments

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  1. Thanks! I am going to the town to get my inspection tomorrow. Just eased my mind a ton!

  2. Jason, first of all, thanks a lot for this site. It will help me a lot since I am about to start work in the basement. Have a quick question about the work performed. Did not you have to be licensed to perform the electrical and framing work etc in the basement?

    Law may be different in counties where we live (I am close by you in Montgomery County MD), but I wonder what is it that I can’t do myself unless I am licensed (plumbing, electrical, framing, drywall etc.)?

    Thanks, ado

  3. mississauga sucks says:

    Hi there, reading the above makes my wana live in the US ! the permit and inspection process if way complicated in canada (specially in mississauga). you expect a hound and you actually get one! feels like they want a permit even if you are hanging ur wide screen tv on the wall
    the process is really complecated , you cannot do it your self you have to get professional help which costs at least $1500 they ask so many questions like site survey and all .its crazy -wish it was simple in missisauga to get permits for a basement. the city staff and inspectors are also very very unfriendly.

    • You’re right. I guess I never considered that it might be really restrictive in other areas. In Virginia a lot of the officials that run the building code departments are elected. So they always try to keep the homeowners best interest in mind, so they can keep their job! Then again, Virginia let’s you do a lot of things. Hand-gun… no problem. I guess you have to find a balance between safety for the common good and not stifling improvement and discovery. Sounds like Mississauga is a bit stifling.

  4. Hi Jason – just learned that I will need to provide two set of architectural plans. Did you do it yourself (if you did, what tools did you use) or you hired the professional for this.

    Requirements seems to be overwhelming for a newbie:
    http://permittingservices.montgomerycountymd.gov/DPS/building/AdditionsAndAlterations.aspx

    Maybe it is simple, not sure.
    Thanks a lot,
    ado

    • Ado- I checked out the site and it looks like you don’t need a lot of those requirements for a basement. http://permittingservices.montgomerycountymd.gov/DPS/pdf/HomeImprovementSubmittalGuideFees.pdf

      My suggestion would be to visit the building department / permit department in person and have them show you exactly what you would have to do for your finished basement. They should have examples of other homeowners applications that you could look at. I wouldn’t bother doing any extra application work until you what you know what they will expect.

      I know it’s probably a half-day of effort but it could save you days and days of prep work if all they need is a few things. Let us know how it turns out.

      - Jason

  5. Hi Jason, I am going to visit permitting office next week – found something interesting though – not sure if you have faced this issue, “ceiling height”. Not sure if I am reading it incorrectly, but the requirement is to have at least 7″ height in all spots – I measured and saw that my height is slightly less than 7″ near the main iron beams and ducts so even in unfinished mode the height is less than 7″. Am I reading this file correct (law was changing in last 10 yrs or so):

    http://permittingservices.montgomerycountymd.gov/DPS/pdf/BCP11-02BasementCeilingHeight.pdf

    I hope county is not expecting me ti dig my basement further deeper through concrete to get to this height. Wonder if I can finish it but not claim this space as “living” space.

    Did not even start and am learning a lot :)

    Have you faced anything similar?

    Thanks,
    ado

    • Ado – Let us know how it goes. The fact is you’ve already put yourself on the right path. You run into a hurdle and you start solving it. Somethings might slow you down but NOTHING will stop you. Make progress each day. Keep it up and you’re guaranteed to succeed. -Jason

  6. Thanks Jason for this article, and for the website. I am really glad to find it!
    I got a first contractor who asked for $500 to get us the required permit from the county to finish our basement, and the second one asked for $1000!
    I have been to the county, got the permit by myself. I just paid the required fee which is a far less than what the contractors asked for. Thanks again.

  7. Thanks for this website. It has a lots of helpful info.
    I Just want to mention that we contacted two different contractors, months ago, who quoted us respectively $500 and $1000 to pull the permits for us. We decided to get them on our own. I have been to the county office and got the permits in no time. We filled up the forms and just paid the fee required by the county which is far less than what the contractors asked for!

    • Liz – That’s awesome! Thanks for letting us know those amounts you received as quotes. I certainly don’t mind paying for a good contractor, but I don’t see why they should markup the permits so much. Now you can take that extra money and get something nice for your new basement! – Jason

  8. Hey Jason,
    We are moving into a new house in a few weeks and I plan on finishing the basement without a bathroom. My question is if I get permits will my property be assessed with higher taxes after an inspection when I am finished.

    Thanks

    • Brian – My guess is… yes. Property is typically assessed based on square footage, bedrooms, bathrooms and a few other factors. If your county/township is efficiently run then they will likely have a link between permits and assessments. That being said, I would still 100% recommend getting a permit and an inspection. Tax evasion is never looked upon kindly by our friends in government, but we all know everybody plays the game. – Jason

    • Most of the time, yes. There are caveats that differ by state/county though.

  9. I had a house built and the basement was roughed and inspected by the city less than a month ago.Now i want to finish it and the city is asking for blueprints.

  10. Jason,
    Thanks for your advise on permitting. I just finished the demo and on to the permitting stage. Obviously each state/county are different. I was just wondering how “rough” your sketch was that you turned in alongside your application.
    - Jimmy

    • Hey Jimmy – Pretty rough. Let’s put it this way, I could have drawn my basement permit design with an etch-a-sketch. It was literally a few rectangles with names of the rooms. I think what they were really looking for was the room name – like did I right “bedroom” but not have an egress window. Or did I write “Sauna” or “kitchen”, in which case they may have asked a few more questions than they did. Good luck! – Jason

      • Thanks Jason…Super helpful. I’m out in Seattle, and there seems to be a million and one details the city wants to know…That said, I plan on hiring only electrical, doing the plumbing myself(w/ the help of an experienced friend) as well as the rest of the project. Pretty similar to your parents size…minus the “huge ass” saw!!

        Living in Seattle and have just purchased our home, I’m a bit nervous about starting the project w/out having a history of wether or not its a wet basement(common up here). Part of me wants to wait til rainy season(winter) to see if I dealing w/ anything before I do the work. Any thoughts? PS…I’m getting the book:)

        • Hey Jimmy – Great to hear from a reader in the Northwest. If the house you bought has been around for a few years (5 or more) then you should be able to spot signs of water trouble in the basement, IF there have been any. Is there a musty smell? Are there any “weep” lines or water deposits on the concrete block? Any discoloration on the floor? Does they sump pump go off a lot?

          If you don’t see any signs of moisture problems then you should be good to go for finishing your basement.

          Thanks for buying the book and the videos – be sure to leave a comment or email if you’d like to see any new chapters, I’m about to update everything for the latest 2013 edition.

          Good luck! Cheers – Jason

  11. as every nagging wife does, I too told my husband that he needs to get a permit for the work in our basement, and he proceeded to not . . . and put up the sheetrock. Now, and investor friend of ours put him in panic mode b/c he was buying a investment property and made the seller get it inspected- who too had not got a permit for a basement finish.
    Now, although the drywall is not taped, my husband has decided to get it permitted. Our goal is to number the pieces, photograph extensively, and unscrew ALL the sheetrock and stack it in the middle of the room for the inspection. Nice, I know! obviously nothing has leaked, or caught on fire in the last 6 months, but we’d hate to waste the investment when we go to sell the house and can’t get the extra equity we were expecting. Sometimes nagging wifes should be listened to! – oh, did I mention I was an Architect? Yea, he forgot that vital bit of my credentials.
    Cheers!
    Rachel

    • Oouuch… your guy is just trying to do some good. Have you considered just calling the inspector and having him come out? Maybe he can cut a few holes and do an inspection without you having to rip out all of the drywall sheets in your basement. You never know. Good luck Rachel, and give that husband of yours a break! Cheers – Jason

  12. We are starting our basement project. It will require adding another trunk to our HVAC for heat. Did you do that yourself? Or is that better left to the professionals?

    • Ben – I did not add any additional trunks at all. My basement felt warm enough in the winter. All I did was add a new register to an existing trunk, that I did myself. You can read about that in this post.

      I’m kind of on the fence about whether or not I’d do a new trunk myself. I suppose I would, as long as I knew that the HVAC unit would still be balanced correctly. You have to be careful because you can throw your whole house out of whack if it wasn’t designed for that new capacity.

      Jason

  13. I’m struggling with this idea of getting a permit. I finished my basement with the exception of the bathroom. Now that I’m considering finishing the bathroom I’m worried about calling to have an inspection/permit. My basement has been finished for 7 years with no issues. If they come to look at my bathroom plan, I’m sure they will ask about the rest of the basement. What could they ask for regarding my finished basement?

    • Hey David – I feel your pain. It seems like you’re just inviting trouble. They could ask for just about anything. They could say they want to inspect your basement electrical or basement framing or whatever. They might also just skip it and just inspect your bathroom. It really depends on where you live and even the inspector that comes out that day.

      My advice would be to apply for the bathroom permits that you need. Deal with the older work at a different time. It’s not like they can haul you to jail, they’ll just fail to pass you, then at some point before you sell your house you’ll have to do the work to fix whatever they don’t pass. Most likely, they just check for the work that’s been asked to be checked. MOST… likely.

      Good luck man, if you’re planning to live there awhile I wouldn’t blame you if you just held out. – Jason

  14. I’m wanting to start a basement project but I’m not sure if I’ll need or should get a permit. We would like to use most of our basement as an area for the kids to play and hang out with friends. We also have our washer and dryer down there. We will be just painting most of our basement but I’d like the furnace and laundry area to be walled off so the kids can’t get to it and also to create a storage area for holiday decorations, camping gear, etc. We will need to frame and drywall a few sections of wall as well as add two interior doors. We wont be touching any electrical or plumbing and only one side of the framed wall will be have drywall. The other side, which will be in the storage area, will be “unfinished”. It’s highly unlikely that we will ever sell our house but I don’t want to do or not do anything that could cause a problem later.

    • Tracey – Sounds like you have a good vision of what you want to do. I can see how this may be an instance where getting a permit isn’t necessary. However… I’d still get one. Now what you could do is get started with your painting, etc and then get the permit down the road. Don’t let that stop you from starting. I just wouldn’t do a lot of framing without a permit. Good luck, have some fun with it! – Jason

  15. Do you have to install an egress window for a finished basement that is used as a family room? There is one other small window in the basement.

  16. Hey Jason,

    So I just my own house, the biggest selling point for me was that it had a basement. The previous owner had already started finishing the basement and we discovered that they never got a permit for the work. The framing, electrical, and plumbing is done. Just needs drywall and paint and the project is done. I figured I should get a permit and inspection before doing all of that, but I have hit a few snags in the process:
    1. Turns out this wasn’t a basement, it was a garage converted into a basement, records still show it as a garage.
    2. I live in city limits so I have to deal with the city and not the county. They seem to be a little more picky on the process, but oh well.
    3. They require plans drawn up of what I plan on doing, I was able to draw the plans no problem for the framing, but I am unsure on what to do about the electrical and plumbing.
    Anyways, I was hoping it would be easy to just have an inspector come out, tell me what needs to be fixed, and that be that. Any tips?

    Thanks,
    Mike

    • Mike – I would definitely start with a nice friendly chat with an inspector, onsite. Tell him your story. Tell him, you can’t believe that other guy didn’t respect the process and didn’t get a permit. Then ask him, what can I do to make sure I’m in full compliance with city ordinances. Then report back to us here, I’m curious about what he/she will say. My guess, it won’t be that bad. Good luck with your basement! – Jason

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