As a home improvement pro, one of the most common questions I get from homeowners revolves around the question, “When do I need to bring in a contractor?”. As much as I hate answering questions this way, the honest answer is always, “It depends….”

What’s going to determine the right answer for you is a combination of local regulations and your personal comfort level.

Local Regulations

In the U.S., homeowners can almost always perform work on their own homes without being licensed or certified in a specific trade. It’s a bit like the U.S. legal system—you can always act as your own attorney, but you can’t be an attorney for someone else unless you have the proper certification.

Let’s look at California as one example. According to the California Department of Consumer Affairs/Contractors’ State License Board:

“In California, anyone who contracts to perform work on a project that is valued at $500 or more for combined labor and materials costs must hold a current, valid license from CSLB.”

But California also has a homeowner’s exemption. Also from the Department of Consumer Affairs:

“A homeowner improving his or her principal place of residence is exempt from licensure.”

With the exception of:

“Property owners are prohibited from performing well-drilling work covered under the Well Drilling (C-57) classification.”

This is pretty standard language for most parts of the country. In the vast majority of cases, you don’t need to be a licensed contractor to work on your own home. Where some DIY projects go wrong is when homeowners assume that they don’t need to pull permits.

Permits vs. Licensing

It’s important to understand the difference between these two terms. A license is a certificate of qualification issued to contractors by a governmental body. A permit is written permission from your local building department to perform work on your property.

If a permit is required for a job, then it will be required whether the work is done by a contractor or the homeowners themselves. This is an important point. Even though, as a homeowner, you don’t need to be licensed by the state, you still need to pull any appropriate permits.

Important: If a permit is required for a job, then it will be required whether the work is done by a contractor or the homeowners themselves.

Permits usually (but not always) imply that a city inspector will come out to inspect the work in progress, and make sure that it’s being completed properly. Most permits require a fee, the amount varying with the size of the project.

So how do you know if your project requires a permit? Well, (you guessed it) “It depends….”

Most local governments give guidance on this point, either on a website or over the phone. In Oregon, for example, the requirements for plumbing permits are quite clear. You need a pluming permit to:

“Replace water heaters and underground piping, alter piping inside a wall or ceiling, or beneath a floor, and for plumbing in all new installations; Emergency repair, alteration, or replacement of freeze-damaged or leaking concealed piping, if new piping exceeds 5 feet; Remodel or add on to your one- or two-family dwelling when existing plumbing is to be relocated. This includes installation of building sewers, water service, and exterior rain drains.”

But, a plumbing permit is not required if:

“A property owner does ‘ordinary minor repairs’ to plumbing systems on his or her own property, which means repair, replacement, or maintenance of existing accessible fixtures, parts, and appliances and their related water and drain attachments. Do not alter an existing plumbing system without a permit; or  A property owner or licensed plumber performs emergency repairs to, or replacement of, freeze-damaged or leaking concealed piping, provided new piping doesn’t exceed 5 feet in length.”

Seems pretty straight-forward, right? The confusion comes in when individual cities or counties have their own definitions of “ordinary minor repairs.”

Although the core building code that governs residential buildings–The International Residential Code (IRC)—is the same for every town and state, there are volumes of exceptions and variations on the local level. For example, it’s common for one town to require permits for replacing windows, while the neighboring town does not. At the spots where these jurisdictions meet, you might find two homes within sight of each other that have radically different permit requirements. This is why it’s so important to make a quick phone call to your local building authority and find out if you need a permit for your project.

Okay, so what’s the penalty for working without a permit? Well, in Atlanta, Georgia, working without a permit it is considered a misdemeanor violation, punishable with up to a $1,000 fine and/or thirty days in jail.

Are you going to do jail time for not getting a permit for that new water heater? Almost certainly not. These maximum penalties are really for contractors with a record of cutting corners. But why put yourself in the position to worry about it at all?

Also, remember that construction is a local business. Regulations vary wildly from locale to locale, often driven by recent local events. I’ve heard anecdotal tales of cities requiring a plumbing license to purchase a gas water heater in the wake of an explosion caused by amateur workmanship. In situations like this, suddenly the city starts cracking down on any non-permitted work in an attempt to prevent any repeat tragedies.

Your Comfort Level

This is the real determination of whether you can do a project DIY or call in a pro. If you’re willing to do the research and put in the hard work, you can perform almost any home improvements or repairs. Just make sure that you understand that it may take you longer than you think, and don’t put yourself in a situation where you’re uncomfortable—if the thought of a project gives you a headache and makes you break out in a cold sweat, then it’s time to pick up the phone and call a pro.

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