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5 years ago, we began the process of building our own home from scratch. The initial phase was just research and exploration. We’d find a parcel we liked, and we’d start calling around to see what we could and couldn’t do on it. We downloaded zoning guides from the county it was in. We’d view the property lines, topography, and more on the local GIS website.
As a result of what we learned during that phase of the build, I’m pretty passionate about planning your build properly, starting with those very first searches and “what if” questions you might have.
Because of that, I get a lot of emails from readers, and the biggest concerns they always have are:
“How do you deal with building code? What happens when you need to get permits? What if I end up doing it all wrong????”
Trust me when I say I GET it.
So I’ve put together this quick guide for you to figure out how to get started working through the requirements for your personal building project. Stick around, because at the end I’ll give you access to a FREE PDF GUIDE to help you go deeper into this process.
Getting Started With Building Permits and The Code
1. What permits will I need?
Depending on where your property is located you may or may not be required to obtain different kinds of permits. For example, you may have to pull separate permits for:
- appeal/permission from zoning board (as required)
And there may even be permits beyond these basic types in your area. The requirements can vary wildly even just a few miles apart, which is why it’s so important to do your research upfront.
Whether you have to obtain permits or not, remember this one thing:
Not all buildings require a permit, but ALL buildings should be built to current code standards. This will help cover you in your ability to get insurance and to finance your build either fully or partially as we did.
2. How do I know what permits are required for my area?
The first thing you need to figure out is what is required for YOUR property, in no uncertain terms. There are a number of different agencies that might be involved, from Planning and Zoning to the Health Department. Since every county and state is different, it is important to start this process early.
If you don’t know who to talk to, your best bet is to start by searching for governing agencies in your county and state. Here are some Google searches you can perform:
[YOUR COUNTY, YOUR STATE] building permit
[YOUR COUNTY, YOUR STATE] planning and zoning
If your county has neither, try finding your county government’s central office phone number and work from there.
Questions to Ask the Permit Office
Find the phone number for the offices that pop up and CALL THEM to speak to an actual human being. Then ask them:
- What are the procedures for someone who wants to build a home in this county as an owner-builder?
- Are there different requirements for my city and/or zoning?
- What permits are required?
- Who is the inspector I need to speak to, if applicable?
- What forms will I need to fill out?
- What requirements will I need to meet as an owner-builder?
- Who else will I need to talk to, and how do I contact them?
- How much will the permit cost?
- How long is the permit good for?
- What other information will I need as an owner-builder?
You will undoubtedly come up with additional questions depending on the answers you get.
Here’s some of what our county required from us as owner-builders:
- Perc test for septic
- Failed perc test = “Fill and Wait” septic system and a septic pumping contract for one year
- Approved septic permit in order to get the building permit
- Building permit, overseen by the county inspector
- Signed affidavit saying that we would be doing all of our own plumbing and NOT contracting that out
- Multiple inspections through the build
- Temporary and final electrical inspections with a separate electrical inspector
- Final inspection to obtain an occupancy permit
We found out all of this information by talking directly with our county building inspector. Since we had a very unconventional building method (cordwood masonry) we had quite a few in-person meetings with him during the planning process to make sure that we’d be able to build in a way that satisfied code AND got us the house we wanted.
3. An important note about working with building inspectors
In the realm of homesteading, I meet a LOT of people who say things like, “Building inspectors are a waste of time! They just want your money! It’s government bureaucracy at it’s finest! It’s just keeping the little man down and taking away my freedom to do what I want on my land!”
I get where you’re coming from, believe me. Part of the reason many of us choose this lifestyle is the prospect of self-sufficiency and increased liberty. BUT, this kind of thinking is short-sighted.
Do you know what I’ve learned in the four years that we’ve known our inspector? He’s a real person. A person with decades of practical hands-on knowledge in the building industry. As a result, he knows what the codes are and WHY they’re important from a building standpoint. It isn’t to keep the little man down. It’s to make sure you build a safe home. It’s to make sure you end up with something that will last you forever, be an asset to you, and not an uninsurable burden.
THE BUILDING INSPECTOR IS YOUR FRIEND, NOT FOE. They WANT you to succeed in building your home because when you do EVERYONE wins. I’m actually really glad we had him on our side because he was able to guide us along the way, offer advice, and give us a lot of practical knowledge. Is every inspector as lovely as ours is? No, of course not. Some will feel like a roadblock, but that shouldn’t deter you from pursuing this homebuilding dream of yours.
Of course, once you’ve figured out your permit situation you have to actually build to code.
4. How do I make sure I build to code once I have my permits?
This requires you to do research for each individual part of your build. In our book The Owner-Builder Home Planner there is a rough list of tasks you’ll need to complete. This is not a hard and fast list of requirements, as they will vary from house to house. You may have some extra tasks depending on the types of materials you choose to use. And honestly, this is why this book isn’t designed to say, “Here’s how to build your house.” There are so many variations in designs that it would be impossible to do so.
What to do instead? Break your final design out into a list of tasks as chronologically as you can. Then look at what you’ll need to do to complete each one, what materials you’ll need, and so on. As you look at each task, you should search for what code requirements you’ll need to follow.
Here’s how to find out what your code requirements are:
- Ask your inspector. In many cases, they might have print-outs of different requirements with diagrams you can add to your binder for reference.
- Ask local builders and skilled trade workers. This is where having friends in these fields can be super helpful. For example, we consulted a friend who is a master plumber. He helped guide us in developing our own layout and riser drawings so we’d know how to put it together ourselves.
- GET A CODE REFERENCE BOOK: Sure, you can buy the entire IBC for $140. OR you can get an illustrated guide for around $20-40. Some you might want to check out include Residential Code Essentials (2018), 2018 Home Builders’ Jobsite Codes, and the Dewalt Electrical Code Reference (2017).
No matter what book you get, make sure it is the most recent version of the code (or codes, as the general and electrical codes are sometimes adopted at different times in different states) that you can get.
If you opt to use a draftsman or architect to design your home, they SHOULD be well versed in the current building code standards. But make sure you ask! More to the point, make sure you ask if they are knowledgable about the codes in YOUR state.
Take some time to contact people in your area to verify what you do and don’t need to do, and then write ALL of that info down in your planner. And remember, even if you’re well-versed in building lingo don’t just assume you know what the requirements are. Always verify.
Get the cheat sheet of this post below to start making sense of your building project!
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