A general rule of thumb for remodeling is that it’s better to ask beforehand rather than to do something that may have to be undone or redone later. As that rule pertains to work you want to do around the house, it can become a little more complicated. Remember that the municipal planning and zoning department and building inspectors exist for a reason, and they are charged with protecting pubic health and safety, as well as with making Boston’s buildings as environmentally sound and as attractive as possible.

When Is a Permit Required?

Significant changes to a building’s structure or use will usually require a permit. Under state regulations, it is necessary to secure, and pay the fee for, a permit any time you want to “construct, re-construct, alter, repair, remove, or demolish a building or structure; or to change the use or occupancy of a building or structure; or to install or alter any equipment for which provision is made or the installation of which is regulated by the Massachusetts State Building Code.”

That’s a broad category, covering most areas of a home, from windows to kitchen cabinets, from electrical circuits to kitchen cabinets, from the front door to an interior or exterior stairway. In addition, the state grants additional powers to other governmental jurisdictions, including counties and municipalities. They vary from place to place, so the wise way to proceed is always to call your local building officials and describe the work you want to do. A professional contractor on a major remodel project will be the one most likely to obtain the required permit. As a homeowner, however, you should be aware of the requirements and assure that all necessary permits have been issued before work begins.

Minor renovations may require only an online application, but major construction projects usually require in-person applications, and may also mean that you have to submit architectural plans, samples of materials or engineering studies. However, since this is the digital age, even long-form applications may now be submitted electronically, according to the city, and they even accept electronic plans. The purpose is to ensure the integrity of the completed project and that all work is performed in accordance with existing codes and standards, and that safety requirements are met while construction is underway and at completion. The cost for permits varies: Simple permits might require payment of a flat fee. Other work is based on estimated costs, and renovation that calls for separate plumbing and electrical permits or for multiple inspections can be costly.

DIY Work and Handyman Projects

Because a lot of people enjoy hands-on work around the home, from landscape projects to woodworking and repainting, it pays to know where the limits are in terms of home improvement. The city’s comprehensive website offers a wealth of information; you’ll find information not only about permitting requirements and procedures, but also about selecting contractors and navigating the sometimes confusing terrain of building terms and practices.

In Boston, there are also specific neighborhood restrictions designed to preserve historic character and community standards. Zoning and use regulations can be difficult to understand, and may even require professional assistance. In some cases, while you might be able to paint the interiors of a historic home, you could be faced with a disapproval or even a fine if you want to paint the exterior. It’s smart to be sure before you plan to replace, repair or redo.

Because we are a premier downtown resource for owners, architects and designers, builders and contractors, we’ll be happy to help with any construction-related questions you might have. Whether you’re new in town or a long-time resident, we hope you agree that building a better Boston is a worthwhile goal.

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