Dear PoPville – How hard is it to work on your own house in DC (permits, bureaucracy etc.)?

Photo by PoPville flickr user Joe in DC

“Dear PoPville,

I am thinking about purchasing a house in DC in the next few months. But before I take the leap, I am curious how hard it is to work on your own house in DC. For example, I buy a place and it needs a new roof. Having done roofs before and given how small the footprint of a DC row house is, I’d consider doing the job myself. Or, perhaps I feel like painting my house. How many hoops am I am going to have to jump through to make improvement to my home (inside or out)? Are there certain things that only licenced contractors are allowed to do?

Thanks for any help PoPville might be able to provide.”

37 Comment

  • gotryit

    Please spend some time at for facts on permits. There is a homeowner’s center there that can help you get permits through when you need to so that it’s sometimes only a minor bureaucractic hurdle.
    Then again, many people in DC do work without permits, and only some get caught.
    There are some things that only licensed contractors can get a permit for – like anything plumbing related. But are you really going to get a permit to swap out a toilet or sink?

  • ah

    There’s a list of things you can do without permits on the DCRA website. And a list of things for which you can get a postcard permit (i.e., pay some money and print it out).

    Painting does not require permits
    Roofing does, but you can get it yourself.
    I believe only electrical/plumbing/gas requires a license to practice in that area. Of course, if you know what you’re doing DC isn’t going to get you for running a couple of new outlets.

  • I always do everything in my house except the roof, I never get a permit. 30 years and nothing happens.

    • Wait until you list the house for sale, and without a permit trail, your in trouble. Also, should you develop a problem, like a fire, your insurance company will null and void your policy because you never got permits.

  • If it’s inside and no one can see it, I ain’t gettin no permit. Sorry guys.

    • You will be shooting yourself in the foot if permits are required and you don’t–it will be impossible to resell your place.

      • gotryit

        That didn’t hurt me at all when I sold or bought my places. Where do you get this idea from?

        • Industry experience. It depends upon what type of work is done and whether permits are required, but potential buyers will want to know if significant and obvious projects were permitted. Or at least they should.

          • gotryit

            From my limited experience, there are enough buyers that only care that it looks nice, and passes the home inspection, which doesn’t generally cover whether the work was permitted – just that it looks to code.

          • But if you’re not up to code, and there’s no inspection record to cover the change, you are liable as the owner for any legal claims into the future.

          • gotryit

            Anonymous 3:17 – are you a lawyer? Do you have something clear you can point to on that?

          • I’ve been doing a complete gut and remodel of my home over the past 5 years. Some of it I did myself, some of it I had to get a licensed professional to do (electrical, plumbing, structural). No matter what the job was, Virender in the Homeowner’s center has always helped me navigate through DCRA. I highly recommend reading some of DCRA’s online materials so you can get your bearings, and then go in to the homeowners center to get some additional guidance.

          • no one can say whether it was you or some other previous owner. think about it. impossible to enforce.

          • This is nonsense. The only time anyone checks permits is when they’re buying a flip, i.e., selling within 6 months of purchase, and even then most first-time buyers wouldn’t think of it. If you do some work on your house in 2014 and sell it in 2019 no-one is ever going to care whether or not permits were pulled.

      • You are smoking something. While this is a technical possibility, there’s no way it is ever enforced, unless the homeowner has done something crazy like put his own addition onto the existing structure.

        Most non-flip work in DC is done well under the radar, and the housing market is singing along just fine.

      • watch me…

  • I have heard from a contractor (which I had no business relationship with) that it is usually not worth getting permits. People rarely get caught, and even if they do, the fine is usually cheaper than the permits.

    It’s also a misnomer that you can’t sell your house if something is not permitted, but if there are any real estate experts, I’d like to hear from them if this is true or not.

    • Anecdata here – I think it only becomes a problem after the sale, if the owner finds out because something went wrong. My house is in VA but I had a mystery leak for a long time and no contractors could figure out wtf was happening. One recommended I check and see if they had done the deck work without a permit, because it was somewhere around the deck meeting the house – if they hadn’t then my title insurance would pay out to cover repairs. So it wouldn’t be an issue for the former owner (unless the title insurance company has recourse; I don’t know if they do).

      I would imagine the only issue would be if a neighbor complained about noise/debris/etc and an inspector came out and ordered a stop work. Work inside the house shouldn’t prompt this though.

      Not an expert by any means but that was what I learned.

    • If you get caught, you face a long work stop order and up to $20k in fines. That will hurt you much more than getting permits, trust me!

    • justinbc

      It really depends entirely on the scope of the work you’re doing. If you go and dig out a basement and don’t get it permitted you’ll probably get royally screwed, either during construction or during the sale.

  • I did a gut renovation last year and things were overwhelming at first because no one told me I could just go to the homeowner’s center first. The homeowner’s center helped a lot in explaining the process. I hired a GC because I was doing a 203k renovation, so they were responsible for inspection issues, but I did also hire Theresa Pangelinian as my architect to draft quality floor plans and she did a great job. i actually met her at DCRA while I was on the run-around and she helped to point me in the right direction. After the initial learning process approval went quickly and then all I had to do was pay the whopping fee for permits and I was good. On a scale of 1-10 I’d rate my experience with DCRA a firm 7 after I got past the learning curve and the ridiculously high fees.

    My one warning is about the 203k consultant you pick! I picked a shady guy at first (who drives a yellow hummer) I can’t say his name for legal reasons, and got ripped off a thousand bucks and he tried to ruin my renovation process. I dropped him and cut my losses and hired Enyinna Anthony as my consultant and he was great.

    I also carefully picked my materials for the GC because my GC would cut corners if left unsupervised and then I checked on progress almost daily until the renovation process was complete. Good luck!

  • All I heard were DCRA horror stories when we bought a fixer upper (first house) in NW DC 12 years ago, know nothing about construction, permits, real estate or anything practical. Since that time, we’ve replaced the roof, don a 2 story addition, built a deck and garage – some of it on our own and some of it using contractors, getting permits for all of it. And most of the work was done before DCRA had the “Homeowner Center”, which greatly simplified things. But even before that, I found that if you are pleasant, appreciative and don’t act like a know-it-all, working with DCRA has been really easy. Don’t fall into the knee-jerk “I am above this bureaucracy” (because it’s really not that bad, and actually much of what is requested is quite reasonable), be your best self and you will be fine.

  • justinbc

    Most work on a house that does not change the structure will not require a permit. Those few things that do require permits you can probably still do yourself just fine and nobody would ever know (minor electrical / plumbing / etc). Almost all internal work can be done by yourself under the radar if that’s what you choose to do. Exterior work will depend on whether or not you’re in a historic district, and then it varies by district. As others have noted, it’s really worth doing some basic reading up to see what’s officially required and what’s not, and I’ve always been able to get a response via email within a few days on matters that are between the lines.

    • gotryit

      I agree with most of what you said except for “Most work on a house that does not change the structure will not require a permit.” I think the list of things at DCRA goes well past changes to structure.

      • justinbc

        Yeah that’s why I included some basic things that people think they can “do themselves” that technically require a permit. I think the general reasoning for DCRA is to protect other homeowners and future homeowners from your own faulty mistakes…although as we’ve discussed in the past I think that puts a little too much faith in the average contractor vs homeowner.

  • May be rare but i do know someone who did internal, un-permitted work, went to sell, and then went to sell – the buyer or agent realized unpermitted work had been done and she (the owner) had to get expensive retroactive dcra approval and pay a double mortgage for a few months – so it does happen

    • I think it is very, very rare based on what I see selling for $1 million in Capitol Hill. Like a previous poster said above, buyers pay no attention to detail: it just has to look like a magazine. They don’t check permits or even the actual property lines of what they’re purchasing. Several of those million-dollar houses were flipped in three months without all the required permits. One house had a basement dig-out without a permit and sold for $900K, and four months later, the new owners were pumping out water and adding a French drain.

      • Totally agree – buyers don’t check this stuff in DC. This city is full of people with pretty good incomes and not much practical construction experience. I have never heard of this bizarro example of a buyer trying to push for retroactive approval. If I were the seller and this was before a ratified contract, I’d tell them to fly a kite. If it was after ratification, I’d tell them to fly a kite, give them their earnest money deposit back, and I’d sell to someone else.

  • my husband and i have been dealing with a major house renovation, including converting the basement into a separate unit, without using a contractor. it’s possible, if you have the extra time and energy to spend navigating DCRA, managing your workers, researching and buying materials, etc. he managed to secure all of our permits but spent hours and hours online figuring out how to do the floor plans and make everything up to code, and sometimes full days at DCRA. we didn’t have the money for a general contractor or architect, so we dealt with it and got through the frustration and it’ll be worth it in the end (i hope!!!).

    • gotryit

      You can do it! It is hard work, but some people can successfully skip the GC. Good luck and enjoy once you get past the major hump!

  • Off topic, but the door opens into a pretty cool house that — many years ago — a kind owner let me and a colleagues I was showing around town walk through. Built by Samuel Morse for his son.

    • Thanks for the link! That’s my picture and I’ve always been fascinated by that house. A friend of mine said she went inside during a Dupont Circle house store.

  • We are redoing our small kitchen in an older, condo building. If you are in a condo check your association docs. Many require that permits are pulled to ensure that work is done properly, to code, and is for the protection of all the units. The general contractors we spoke with said that when people are caught doing work without a permit it is usually because a neighbor(s) have called to report it. Even if you are working under the radar, a dumpster outside your house, materials being delivered, extra noise etc all draw attention. Our project requires relatively minor plumbing and electrical but because we need to move the gas line a few feet we are getting permits. Keep in mind that if you have any issues after the fact and need to claim anything on your homeowner’s insurance, your insurance company will want to see your permits. Lastly, I would say from personal experience that for major work a new home buyer will want to see your permits. The people who purchased our last house wanted to see ours and we asked to see the permits on the new place we bought in DC.

  • I do gut renovations professionally here in DC. I am also a realtor and do most of my own purchases and sales of the properties I develop.

    Of the properties i’ve sold I have been asked only a handful of times by savvy agents for a copy of the building permit (well less than 20%). I think it’s a reasonable thing for people to request, even for a flip done by a pro. If I knew there was a lot of homeowner work done on a property I wanted to buy for myself personally I’d ask for permits. It’s very prudent.

    As others have mentioned above, If you go to sell and you can’t produce a permit all bets are off. Why risk it? Get the proper permits and inspections. Lots of things can be done by postcard permit now anyways, so the perceived hassle for many things is just not there. All major trades (plumber, electrician, HVAC, etc) have to get their own permits and they are used to it, so that hassle is off you as well.

    Where things get dicey is when you have to get a full building permit. If it is interior renovation work only (no addition) you should be able to walk that through the same day…provided you have an architect who is very familiar with what DC wants to see. An addition automatically puts you into a longer review process (2-3 months) for a permit, and that’s where frustration reigns. Key point: get an architect who is used to dealing with DC. There are architects that are used to just producing permit drawings for DC…they don’t really offer full service design just permit drawings. They are a good resource if you don’t need a lot of handholding. I know it sounds crazy, but many offer their services on Craigslist.

    I work with the DCRA all the time. Yes, they are frustrating. They are also very helpful. There is a learning curve, but it’s not too bad. The golden rule with all things DCRA is go when they first open. Things go very fast if you are there at 8:30 AM…wait til 930 and you’ll be there all day.

    I don’t qualify for the using the Homeowner’s center as I do this professionally, but i have called them for my personal home from time to time. They’ve been very helpful and responsive. They really are there for you and i’ve never had them not answer the phone.

    In general, i think buying and slowly working on your own home is very doable. Along the way you’ll have some frustrating things happen…tickets from DPW, inspection snafus, working outside the allowed hours and getting fined…the list is endless. It happens. Don’t sweat it. On the plus side, DC personnel try to work with you when they find out you are a homeowner so always let them know you are the homeowner…I get no such slack (nor should I get it).

    I say go for it. You won’t bang your head too much.

    Good luck!

  • If doing any exterior work, pay particular attention to the zoning regulations. You can determine your zone and read the regs online at These rules govern how much building footprint you can have as a percentage of your total lot size, how high the building can be, requirements for building setbacks, parking, allowable uses, and numerous other things that impact an exterior addition, even a simple deck.

    The permit process includes a zoning review.

    Keep in mind also building code requirements for fire rated construction, particularly in row house zones (r-4). Many unscrupulous contractors and house flippers are building additions and pop ups that do not meet code requirements for fire rated construction. There is little enforcement, but should a fire occur and your construction be deemed not to code for fire resistance, I suspect any adjacent property owner would have a valid claim against you, your GC (if you have one) and your insurance company (who might choose to deny coverage due to your failure to ensure code compliant construction).

  • Permits, and building codes, exist for a reason: to make certain that work is done properly, i.e., safely. Does anyone want to live in a house with plumbing or electrical work done improperly? Let’s have a house fire, or an indoor flood, right.

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