Dear PoPville – Get a Permit or Risk It?

Ed. Note: Just a general photo of a basement entry, not the specific basement referenced below.

Dear PoPville,

We are considering adding a front entrance to the basement of our row house. Our neighbors didn’t get a permit when they did theirs and had no problem. Another neighbor got a permit, worried about a potential fine if they didn’t do so. The project took about 5 days.

I’m inclined to take my chances. Any suggestions from the PoP community? Also, any suggestions for the project in general? I checked the years of archives and while basement dig outs has been covered there hasn’t been a discussion specific to basement entrances.

72 Comment

  • Based on my recent experience with getting proper approvals/permits in order to get work done, I’d recommend risking it.

  • You can probably do it without a permit and not get caught. Just keep in mind that the fine is $2500 if you do get caught.

  • jim_ed

    Depends. Do your neighbors like you? If so, go for it. If not, there are few more passive aggressive ways for a neighbor to get back at you other than reporting a violator and having a stop work order posted on your door.

    • I can tell you from experience that even if you do call DCRA to report un-permitted activity, nothing will happen. Not even after multiple calls.

      • Maybe not, but if a psycho, horrible liar of a vindictive neighbor calls them you will be in for an eternity of Kafka-esque nightmares. Believe me.

      • Not true. I’m having a major basement renovation done and have had nosy neighbors (I can only assume) call the inspectors at least half a dozen times over the last 6 months. They’ve shown up immediately every time that I was aware of. We had all the permits, except for when the contractor failed to get a sidewalk closure permit for a cement truck that was there for 2 hours. He got fined.

      • My experience is the opposite as well. My asshole neighbors in Mount Pleasant called the DCRA on me even when we had permits (apparently because they didn’t like my builder and then me by extension for daring to buy the property). And the DCRA hassled me.

        If you have asshole busybody neighbors that are on a power trip, better get a permit.

        • Plenty of my calls/email messages to DCRA have led to a fine and a shameful “Stop Work” order posted on the front door.

          Let your conscience be your guide. Meanwhile: Good Citizens, report the cheaters!

      • I have a very different experience. We have undergone massive renovations on the main floor of our house, and tackled the basement. Apparently, we have a lot of nosy neighbors in our neighborhood (Truxton Circle/NoMa) who call the DCRA at the drop of a hat. Luckily all of our permits were in order, but they issued stop work on three houses on our street who risked going without proper permits. Get the permits.

  • KSB

    I don’t know the system well enough to make a recommendation but would there be concern about lack of a permit coming to light when you’re trying to sell in the future? Once it’s done, I don’t know that this is a concern…

    • The problem would be whether it wasn’t done up to code. that would create problems. But an inspector would not know whether it was permitted.

      • Very true, but as a home buyer, you can look in DC public records and see whether permits were pulled. This might be a big deal to some buyers, and others might not care as long as the inspection went well. I looked to see whether my house had any permits pulled and also if it had a CoO (it was used as a rental before I bought it). It had neither, but I wanted the house enough to not care.

  • Get a permit because:

    1. You are breaking the law if you don’t – that does matter.
    2. You owe it to the city, your neighbors and all those who have gotten permits to do the same.
    3. If you mess up the job (and this is not a simple job) and issues arise, U have much less recourse with DCRA, your insurance company, your neighbors and any other stakeholder in the project. Conversely, if you do the job according to the approved DCRA plan, you have some cover in the case of problems.
    4. And if you hire a contractor who says they will do the work without a permit –well, you’ll find this one out on your own.

    • gotryit

      1. So is speeding, jaywalking, etc. What do you mean by “it matters”?
      2. Why do I care that I got a permit and someone else didn’t?
      3. Having a permit won’t help if there’s a problem. If there’s a problem and something is broken, then you’ll have to pay someone to fix it whether or not you got a permit. DCRA doesn’t provide insurance.
      4. It is very much possible to find a good contractor who will work without a permit. It’s the homeowner’s skin on the line, not the contractors.

      That said, I’ve done it both ways, and I’d still get a permit. Like Monroe said below, it’s visible work and probably not worth the risk. Also, it should be relatively easy (if you can handle some bureaucracy) to get the permit.

      • “Having a permit won’t help if there’s a problem”
        It might not help, but not having it sure can hurt. For example, I’d guess that your homeowner’s insurance policy includes a clause refusing to do repairs on anything even peripherally related to unlicensed/unpermitted work.

        • this is exactly right – if its not permitted its not going to be inspected and if there are problems you have no recourse with your insurer. You are likely also violating the terms of your homeowners insurance policy by doing this. which will only be noticed, and will only matter, if and when you have a huge problem and need the insurance policy to step in, at which point they will magically become very attentive to these sorts of details.

    • 5. If something goes wrong with the work and it creates an eyesore or opportunity for crime, one of your neighbors can find some time when you’re not around, photograph the job site in such a way as to reveal the conspicuous lack of a permit, and e-mail the photo to DCRA. The normally lugubrious DC government springs to preternatural life when the possiblity of collecting fines is involved.

    • in my experience, a contractor’s willingness to work without permits is an incredibly strong indicator of the likelihood that you will have problems with them. “I will work unpermitted” means “I will cut corners.”

  • saf

    Get a permit.

  • Will you be renting out the basement? If you want to register your basement unit so that you can rent legally, I’d recommend getting the permit.

    • Most D.C. basements have a ceiling height that’s too low to qualify for a legal rental. Unless the OP or a previous homeowner has had a basement dig-out, odds are this will be a non-legal rental (like many (most?) D.C. basement rentals) anyway.

  • I live in the cap hill historic district and had a some work done on the front of my house (siding, windows, entry door). We had an architect draw up plans and then I took them down to DCRA for Historical approval and DCRA permits. It was really not that bad. I went into it thinking that it would be like dealing with DMV, but was pleasantly surprised. I went in on a Friday afternoon and was in and out in less than 30 minutes.

  • Because it will be visible work, I’d be inclined to get a permit.

    For your project, is the hassle of getting a permit greater or less than consequence of getting caught?

  • That’s really visible, really structural work being done. Get a permit. If you were my neighbor I’d report you in a second.

    • same here. get a permit! it’s the law. if you get busted, you will have a stop-work order and be fined. just do it. it’s not that hard.

    • “I’d report you in a second.” Glad I’m not your neighbor.

      • This is not minor work. this is digging an enormous hole adjacent to my property and punching a hole in a foundation wall on a property that abuts mine. This is NOT the kind of work that should be done without a permit.

        • you mean a hole in a wall?? (no pun intended) that could be structural? Is that the concern?

          • A three-foot wide, seven foot tall hole in a foundation wall. That, in addition to the huge dig out for the steps (that would require a retaining wall to prevent my property from being insufficiently supported), is the concern.

            Look, I’m all for covering your window with a trash bag and doing a bathroom reno without a permit. Have at it. This is the sort of serious construction undertaking that needs to be carefully planned, permitted, and executed by skilled trades who understand exactly what they are doing.

      • I am, so you’d better Do The Right Thing.

  • I was thinking about having such a project down on my own home. Can anyone give me a rough estimate for how much it might cost?

  • Get a permit. This is structural work that affects your neighbors’ houses as well as your house and all subsequent owners. There are reasons why you need to get a permit to do this type of work and it is to protect yourself and others from dangerous and shoddy contractors and work. Even if you “get away with it” while the construction is ongoing, anyone can call DCRA after the fact with before and after pictures and you will be fined $2500 + have to go thru the permitting process as built. If you can’t get a permit approved for the work that was done, you will have to rebuild. Stop Work Orders and fines are big cash cows for DCRA. Judging from the number of SWOs I’ve seen in my neighborhood, DCRA is plenty happy to write ’em up.

    • ah

      So, would this be true of the neighbor who also did it without a permit? Mutually assured destruction.

      That said, I would get a permit for any work that is visible from the street while it is going on.

      For things that are entirely internal I might have a different view.

      • Yes, just because the work has been completed does not mean that they are off the hook. Of course I’m sure there is a limit as to how far back they can go and also problems proving that the work was done within a certain time frame, but I am aware of more than one house being fined after the fact for work that was performed without a permit.

  • Also, you should check your survey to see if your front yard is public space or not. Many of the stoops and gardens in front of DC rowhouses are technically publicly owned.

  • I’m guessing that if you don’t get a permit and that makes it an illegal apartment, then you won’t be able to evict a renter that isn’t paying their rent.

    • Hmm, I don’t think so — although D.C. law makes it hard to evict a renter even in a completely above-board unit, and I’d imagine it’s at least as difficult for a non-legal unit.

    • Actually, if it’s an illegal apartment, you just change the locks and throw their crap out in the street. If it’s registered, tenants’ rights laws come into play, and it actually becomes a lot harder to evict someone.

      • This is terrible advice.

        • +1. If your apartment isn’t legal it’s even more important to follow the rules. Your tenant could take you to court and you could then owe them back all the rent they ever paid since your apartment was not legally rented.

          Point in case- if your apartment isn’t legal, DO NOT piss off your tenants…

  • Even if you don’t get a permit. CALL MISS UTILITY!!! If your contractor hits any existing undergound electric, gas, cable, water or unknown utility, you will be in big trouble and our of a lot of $$$ .

  • When I did construction work my contractor got the permit for us. Hence, I did not have to wait in line or worry about it. I probably paid for it, but it made my life easier…

  • If you do this work unpermitted, you might as well stop paying for home owners insurance too because if you ever need to make a claim more expensive than a $1,000 roof repair, the insurance company will do their standard due diligence. The adjuster will see there is an entrance (signifiying a seperate unit within the residence) that isn’t on your policy and simply decline each and every claim you make, regardless of whether it had anything to do with the basement or not.

    No insurance company would insure someone that made improvements that require permits, without them and this is even more serious when it comes to structural issues or concerns.

    • What do you base that on? If the claim is related to the unpermitted work, then maybe… but if a grease fire in my kitchen burns half my house, they’re going to have a hard time rejecting the claim for fire damage because there’s a plumbing fixture upstairs that didnt get a permit.

      • nice idea but you’re totally wrong. you are violating the terms of your policy by doing unpermitted work, and if you violate the terms of your policy it is null and void.

        you will never learn this until you make a claim, because they will happily continue to take your money as long as they don’t have to pay for anything. However, as soon as a claim gets made, they will proceed to look high and low for an excuse not to pay.

        health insurers will do the same thing with preexisting conditions, lying about smoking on applications, etc, if you are buying individual coverage. they will take your money until you have a big claim, at which point they will be in your doctor’s office reading every scrap of your medical history.

        • I think you need to get things into perspective. This fear mongering is ridiculous. I am sure there are horror stories that you think justify your over reaction, but those are exceptions.

          The requirements for what must be permitted compared to the foot traffic at Home Depot compared to the foot traffic at DCRA compared to the number of people getting rejected for claims by their homeowners insurance claims just doesnt bolster what youre saying.

          The number of very large claims is pretty big. The number of rejected claims is pretty small.

          Comparing health insurance companies to property insurance isnt even close to a comparison.

          • most people never use their property insurance so they never find this out the hard way. have you ever claimed against it? I can guarantee if anything happens to your property during or as a result of unpermitted work you are not going to get a claim paid.

          • Thats not exactly the same thing. You are right about that.

            In fact, in order to be properly covered during jobs, you need to make sure you know about your contractors bonding and his workmans comp is up to snuff

          • i spent a while researching this. Generally, you appear to be wrong based on quite a few accounts I’ve read through. Specifically, with my homeowners insurance policy, you are definitely wrong. They dont cover faulty workmanship or negligence. However, there is no definition that a lack of permit constitutes this. Moreover, they do not require me to obtain a permit in order for the policy to remain in force. My insurance policy isnt very special, so I assume that with the possibility of rare exceptions you are completely mistaken.

  • I got shut down doing illegal construction because something was visible from the street and an inspector drove by. This is very likely to happen to you if you live in a gentrifying area and there is a lot of construction in your neighborhood. FYI they fine $2K PER OFFENSE. So electrical, mechanical, structural, etc are all separate areas of offense and they give you a fine in as many of them as possible. I had 4 fines. My project was major and completed in various stages and I got busted at the end. You have to get everything inspected and permitted and finish out the work under permits. My inspector was very cool but some of them aren’t. We still came out ahead cost-wise but it was a huge PITA.

    • yeah, and i’m aware of at least 2 jerks in Bloomingdale that troll the neighborhood looking for people to report…unbelievable that they have that much time on their hands. In the past, At least 3 of our neighborhood leaders who didn’t agree with these people on certain things have had problems with them reporting. So, though it’s really unthinkable to me to even notice, much less report someone else (unless i saw big time structural work happening on the house right next to me), there are people out there who have nothing better to do than troll for otherwise unstanding citizens doing work on their houses without permits.

      When by the way is DC going to get real and bring their requirements for basement apts in line with reality? 7 feet below the lowest joist is beyond real…unless you want to pay for a 30K digout. Then you won’t recoup your money even with rent at 2500 per month for years and years.

      • Seriously about the requirements being unrealistic. Our ceilings are an inch shy of being 7′ and there is no way we could afford to dig out…for one inch. Everything else about our apartment is “up to code” for a rental, but that one inch is preventing us from seeking legal standing.

      • The yuppie mafia in Bloomingdale is really out of control.

      • justinbc

        “otherwise unstanding [I guess you mean upstanding?] citizens doing work on their houses without permits”

        So you’re asking for sympathy even though you’re admitting to breaking the law? Is that like in a murder sentencing when the lawyer says “but judge except for that one time he shot this guy he’s totally nice!”

        Oh, and the government shouldn’t be worried about whether you recoup your money on building out a basement, that’s not their business. They should be concerned with ensuring that it’s structurally sound and properly inhabitable.

        • Don’t you think you’re being a tad dramatic? While technically illegal, not getting a permit to do work on your house is hardly comparable to committing a murder.

          For something structural like this, I would argue that one should get a permit. If you’re doing interior work that is non-structural, I don’t see why it’s such a big deal to skip the permit process.

          • justinbc

            I’m not equating the acts, I’m equating the mentality. Saying that “aside from this one time I intentionally broke the law, I never break the law” should apply regardless.

        • I think you need to revisit the list of things that require a permit. Not just a postcard permit you can buy online, but one that needs 3-4 different desks review it. Its not just structural issues or something that is potentially dangerous. The whole postcard permit regime is bogus too. Replacing up to 25 8×4 pieces of sheetrock technically requires a postcard permit. Over 25, you have to go down to DCRA. You’re not allowed to replace a light switch yourself, even if you know what you’re doing.

          Honestly, if you are an individual homeowner doing the work yourself and the project has no bearing on your neighbors, dont bother with a permit. They will tie your shit up and take you out of work for days to do simple jobs. Some jobs (plumbing, electrical) you’re not even ALLOWED to do yourself.

          use your judgment. there are plenty of people who are plenty capable of doing jobs themselves. You need to be honest about your own abilities. If you hire a contractor, you really need to think carefully about this. There are many contractors that just dont know what they’re doing. If you embark on your own work, you should become familiar with the relevant building codes.

          If it involves digging out or demolishing load bearing walls, unless you are a structural engineer, you need to consult one.

          DCRA has made the permitting process incredibly burdensome and far too broad. Even with the homeowners center, many things cant get done without pursuing costly permitting processes. Everything goes smoothly if you hire someone who has relationships at DCRA. If you dont, getting a basic permit for a basic job becomes ridiculous.

          Related to this specific job: you’re digging out your front yard and compromising the structure of your house. for liability issues alone, this needs to be by the book.

          • my experience with the homeowners center at DCRA was exactly the opposite. It took about an hour to get historic review and permits pulled for a fairly extensive masonry job on the exterior of my house. They actually have an office specifically to make the permitting process easier for homeowners, and it actually does.

          • justinbc

            I’m actually very relieved they wouldn’t allow homeowners to do their own electrical work. I don’t want my neighbor doing a faulty job, screwing up wiring that could lead to a fire, and having that fire spread to my own home. Or replacing his own plumbing and having that leak into my roof (if I lived in a condo).

          • Dont get my wrong, Virender Bhogal is great. But, oftentimes his hands are tied by the bureaucracy. I’ve been there at least a dozen times. I’ve personally received several permits. Upon looking back on it, many of the permits have been unnecessary. I’ve also done a lot of work not permitted (i.e. I can replace a lightswitch myself or install a fixture without killing myself and I know how to install it to code). I’ve been rejected for permits unrelated to safety/structural issues, too. Trust me when I say DCRA is a mixed bag. Sometimes it works out great, but it is not equipped to handle homeowners well. In fact, even Bhogal will only answer the questions you ask and rarely offer advice (which I totally get) which cramps your ability to navigate the ins and outs of DCRA without hiring an expensive (yet well connected ) expediter. Sometimes an expediter is just not in the cards for small jobs.

          • Justinbc: Unfortunately, I think you over estimate the average electrician’s ability to be accurate, competent, and not make mistakes 40+ hours a week 52 weeks a year. A competent homeowner who knows what their doing can do a better job.

            After replacing several lights and outlets in my house, I’ve found an array of bad wiring from different time periods. Friends have as well. Without a doubt, my unpermitted electrical work has made my house MUCH safer. Loose ground wires, improper gauged wiring, in one instance I found the main ground to the house improperly secured (i.e. not even secured). I know these were done, at least in part, by licensed electricians.

            Like I said, people need to use their own judgment. I personally know I can do work to code and I trust myself to triple check and be consistently right. I recognize that there are a lot of homeowners out there who cant, but its not that hard. Read the code, understand the basics of electrical circuits, and you are ahead of the game.

            For what its worth, I wouldnt just have blanket trust in my neighbors either. But, I dont trust licensed contractors or tradesmen across the board either. Also, its important to note that unfortunately licensed electricians rarely get the necessary supplemental permits for electrical work.

            I think a lot of people on this thread vastly misunderstand what is going on out there. An educated homeowner can be trusted. In fact, in most jurisdictions homeowners have special exemptions. DC doesnt and I’ve heard it speculated because of the strength of trade unions.

          • justinbc

            Anon X: No, I do realize that electricians are not perfect. But I would still prefer the requirement for them to do work be there rather than having a whole host of untrained, inexperienced homeowners who think they know what they’re doing performing tasks which could ultimately damage my property along with their own. There are idiot contractors, and there are smart homeowners, but when you compare the odds I would bet on the liklihood that the average professional will do it correctly versus the average homeowner.

          • Broadly I agree with you. But, I think I have about equal faith in the contractor as a homeowner who takes on a project. I think there are a lot of people who are willing to do crappy work for pay and not many who are willing to do something that they just dont understand. I think thats probably the great equalizer.

            Your skepticism makes sense. Its a similar feeling I have and why I try to do any work I need done myself.

            The other thing to consider is that while I always stick to what the code requires, there are some aspects that are higher stakes than others. You should always do projects consistent with code, but sometimes the requirements are based on opinions and overrections.

            So, even if someone doesnt do something exactly to code, the risks are still pretty low that something bad will happen.

            In fact, I would bet that every house in DC has some aspect of wiring that is not up to current code. Based on my experiences, I would also bet that a huge percentage of houses have flaws that violate all common sense and are a clear safety hazard.

            When it comes to structural stuff, the considerations are much different. The earth moves, there’s wind, rain, freezing and thawing. You actually do need the expert. Of course, structural engineers operate at a slightly higher level than your average electrician.

            Thats why for this dig out specific question, the right answer is to consult an engineer and get a permit.

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