Hold Up! Do You Need Permits for That Bathroom Remodel?

As a homeowner planning out your dream bathroom remodel, you’ve got no shortage of vision. You’ve ransacked Pinterest and Houzz for inspiration; you’re on a first-name basis with the owners of your local tile shop; and at this point, you could walk a fixture showroom blindfolded.

But, have you thought about permits? (We know we sound like a nagging parent, but keep reading). Not all remodeling projects call for a permit, but with the bathroom’s trio of plumbing, electrical, and structural projects to choose from, chances are you’ll trigger some kind of permit requirement.

Your best bet? Deal with the permits now. Enjoy your perfectly legal bathroom remodel for years to come. And sell your home without any question as to whether the work is up to code.

With the help of seasoned real estate experts, a deep dive into local building laws, and the insight of experienced plumbers whose work tends to fall into the permit camp — this guide will walk you through which bathroom projects often require a permit and how to obtain one so you can officially launch this project.

A computer used to find a permit for a bathroom remodel.
Source: (Daniel Faro / Death to the Stock Photo)

Check your city’s residential permit rules

A residential permit is like a permission slip from your local government granting you (the homeowner) or your contractor to carry on with your remodeling project. It sounds like bureaucracy, but permits are meant to serve as a safeguard for homeowners.

Permits for projects ensure that the work complies with local policies like land use, zoning, and construction. That means the future structure will be safe for you and future occupants.

Here’s where it gets confusing: There are no federal or state-level permit standards for homeowners to follow. Permit requirements will be specific to your individual county and city, as will building codes and local land use laws.

If you choose to work with a contractor on your bathroom remodel, it’s likely they’ll take care of the permitting process (but always double-check!) Generally, if you use a contractor, they should apply for the permit in their name. If you’re going the DIY route, here’s what you can generally expect when seeking out a permit:

  1. Start by browsing your city or country’s government website to see if your project requires a permit. Typically, you can find these documents under “permitting, license, and inspections” offices. When in doubt, reach out directly to the office, detailing your remodel — you might even need more than one permit depending on the complexity of the project.
  2. Complete the permit, including as much information as possible. Some local governments now allow applicants to complete the permit entirely online.
  3. Return the completed permit and pay the fee to file it. Fees will vary based on location and project. If your project is relatively simple, the office may approve it on the spot. If it’s more complicated, you’ll need to wait days or weeks for sign-off.
  4. Once approved, you’ll get one of those tell-tale bright orange permits to post in your window while the project is underway.
  5. It will vary depending on where you live, as well as the complexity of the remodel, but an inspector from the city may be required to check out the progress of the work before it’s completed.
  6. When the project is complete and approved by an inspector, you can toss the orange permit and enjoy your new bathroom.

DIY vs. contractor bathroom remodel

Even deceptively-easy DIY projects might require a permit. It’s not about who is doing the work, explains San Francisco real estate agent Amanda Jones, it’s about what work is being done. In her nearly two decades of experience, she’s seen a ton of bathroom remodeling projects, many with mixed results.

While the bathroom remodel project may seem easy, sometimes it’s best to call a professional. “I can’t emphasize this enough,” Jones says, “when you’re dealing with water, on top of electricity, the work really matters. I have seen so many jobs where people don’t do proper waterproofing.”

A bathroom remodel that needs permits.
Source: (Andrea Davis / Unsplash)

Bathroom projects that will likely require permits

As a general rule, you should anticipate applying for permits for any of the following bathroom projects:

  • Adding a sink, or moving an existing one
    If you need to add new plumbing lines to your bathroom to accommodate a new sink or move an existing one to another spot in the bathroom, you’ll need a permit.
  • Structural changes and additions
    Any project that drastically changes the footprint of the bathroom will likely require a permit. That could even be a move as small as building a new dividing wall or moving an existing shower wall.
  • Plumbing or sewage projects 
    “The rule of thumb on a bathroom remodel is that if you need to open or penetrate the walls, you will likely need a permit,” says Jones. Any projects where plumbing is moved or extended will require a permit.
  • Projects that require a dumpster on a public streetIf you are undergoing demolition and need a dumpster, you’ll have to apply for a permit if it rests in the street instead of a driveway.
  • Replacing a water heater 
    If your remodel comes with a new water heater, you’ll need to apply for a permit.
  • Adding windows or skylights
    A new window or skylight will change the structure of the bathroom and requires a permit.
  • Adding a new outlet
    In some cities, this electrical work will require a permit.
  • Installing tile
    Because tiling the bathroom deals with waterproofing and plumbing, you may need a permit to install it, says Jones.
  • Replacing a bathtub
    Similar to installing tile, the waterproofing and structural needs of a new bathtub mean applying for a permit.

Bathroom projects that may (or may not) require permits

While you can be almost certain you’ll need a permit with some projects, others fall into a gray area. If you’re considering any of the following, make sure you contact your local permitting office to confirm before getting started:

  • Demolishing a (non load-bearing) wall
    Removing a non load-bearing wall might require a permit. This will also serve as a safeguard to make sure the wall isn’t critical to preserving your home’s structural stability.
  • The cost of the project is above a specific threshold 
    In some cities and counties, the estimated cost of work may trigger a permit. For example, if the cost of your project is estimated to be over $5,000, you may need to apply for a permit, no matter the project.

Bathroom projects that rarely require a permit

Always double-check with local laws and ordinances, but these bathroom updates typically don’t need a permit:

  • Swapping existing fixtures or finishes
    If your project is a simple swap, you probably won’t need a permit. That includes changing existing flooring, replacing a toilet or sink (in the same location), or changing a light fixture.
  • Painting
    Adding a fresh coat of paint doesn’t deal with electrical, plumbing, or structure, and does not need a permit.
  • Countertop projects
    You can often swap out existing countertops or extend your countertop without applying for a permit.

With any bathroom remodel project, double-check with your city or county before moving forward, sans permit.

A bathroom remodel receiving permits.
Source: (Cal David / Pexels)

What to expect from bathroom permit inspections along the way

Depending on the complexity of your bathroom remodel, you can expect one or several inspections from the city, says Jones. For example, if the permit includes plumbing, electrical, and building components, you might have three different visits from city building inspectors.

In that case, plumbing and electrical inspectors will stop by first, when the wall is still open and the work can be examined up close. From there, with sign-offs from plumbing and electrical (if applicable), an inspector would stop by to inspect the building once the walls have come up or been patched. That inspection would be the final sign-off, Jones says.

But, if your project is relatively simple, an inspection could be as easy as sending photos of your ongoing work to the city or county office. They may be able to sign-off on the progress remotely. When you apply for the bathroom remodel permit, you can coordinate inspection timelines with most city or county offices.

Cost of obtaining bathroom remodel permits

The cost of a bathroom remodel permit will vary in price based on both location and complexity of the project. According to HomeAdvisor, a building permit can cost between $406 and $2,222, on average.

“I typically see that [bathroom remodel permits] are under $1,000,” says Jones. While it could feel like a big and unnecessary expense, it’s hard to put a price tag on the safety and longevity of a project in the long run. Getting a permit requires the homeowner or contractors to do work by the book, ensuring it’ll last and be safe for daily life.

A bathroom remodel that required permits.
Source: (Jonathan Borba / Pexels)

Permits feel like a nuisance: What’s the purpose of getting them?

“Many times people don’t want to do the permit because they’re worried about the hassle factor,” Jones explains. “They’re concerned about holding up the job.”

Waiting for permits to come through, or inspections to take place can delay a job in the short term, but getting permits can provide you a sense of safety and security in the work that’ll extend for years to come.

In the event of a home sale, being able to produce permits on your property, “telegraphs that the owner wants to do things by the book and is not cutting corners,” Jones says. Alternatively, you’ll need to apply for permits retroactively or sell the home with unpermitted work at a discount.

Getting a permit after the work is completed might mean cutting open walls to show sound plumbing or electrical, which in Jones’ experience, just leads to more work in the long run.

After the fun and excitement of picking new fixtures and a bathtub, looking into permitting can feel like a drag. While the bureaucracy might not be as thrilling as the remodel itself, obtaining permits for projects can add a sense of security that little else can.

It holds you, or your contractors, accountable for a job well done and ensures that your project will hold up for years to come — whether you’re enjoying it yourself, or passing it on to a buyer down the line.

Header Image Source: (Christian Mackie / Unsplash)