Breaking news and resources from across the industry.


Transform your space for the most dazzle—and the fewest dollars.


5 Questions to Ask Before Starting Your Next Home-Improvement Project

Posted on Mar 22, 2018 in:
  • Seattle Times HomeWork
  • Remodel
  • Homeowners

These discussion points can help you decide whether to engage an architect or designer in your project, and if permits apply.

By Melissa Irons, Irons Brothers Construction

Q: When remodeling, the world of permits and hiring a professional is a scary one. Can you walk me through the basics?

A: Most projects require design help and require permits. These initiatives not only maximize the investment you are spending on a remodel, but they also ensure that your project is built to minimum code and safety standards.

Design help, whether an architect or designer, can help you achieve the best product use in your space and within budget. Here are five discussion points to help you decide whether o engage a professional in your project, and if permits apply.

  1. When do I need design help?
    • If your project involves adding more square footage or structural changes.
    • If you are changing the use of the space.
    • If your project will affect egress and safety.
    • If intricate details are required for construction and installation.
    • If a specialty need is involved, such as aging in place or accessibility.
    • If you are reconfiguring spaces and floor plans in the living areas or basement.
    • When the project involves more than removal and replacement.
    • For assistance with color and finish detail selections. (Note: These will all most likely involve the permitting process as well.)
  2. When do I need a building permit?
    • When adding onto or expanding the current footprint.
    • When the project involves making structural or wall changes.
    • When changing unconditioned space to dwelling space (e.g., a garage conversion or basement remodel).
    • When changing the use of space, like turning a rec room into a bedroom.
    • When it affects egress and safety.
    • In commercial or multifamily properties, especially those with ADA requirements.
    • When the scope of work involves utilities (gas, plumbing, water, sewer, electrical, etc.).
    • If the project involves work not listed on the jurisdiction's permit exemptions list. (Check with your local building department on permit exemptions in your location.)
  3. What happens without a building permit?

    Check with your contractor or designer on the project scope and permitting needs. You can also find out when permits are needed by checking with the local building department.

    That said, without a proper permit:

    • Property sales transfer can become difficult.
    • Resale value can deplete.
    • Your homeowner's insurance could become void.
    • Safety hazards may be overlooked.
    • No code enforcement is conducted.
    • Your project may receive a stop-work order from the building department.
    • You can be assessed penalties and fines.

    It's not worth waiting to find this out until it's too late in most cases, so do your research and get the required permits!

  4. Can I get a permit exemption?

    Every building department is different, and so it's worth double-checking. Typical projects exempt from permitting include flooring, cabinet installation, painting and wall coverings, roofing, siding, fencing, countertops, and sheds and accessory buildings.

  5. Which projects should I assume will need a permit?

    Again, every building department is different, but in most cases, these projects require a permit: decks, garage or carport additions, large accessory buildings (cottages, DADUs), interior wall removals, converting a garage, attic and basement conversions, heated floors, and tub-to-shower conversions.

    Remember to check with local officials to confirm permit requirements and exemptions.

Using this information—along with resources from your building professional or remodeling contractor, design professional, or your local building department—will help you plan your project to create a successful outcome worthy of your time and investment.


Melissa Irons is operations manager of Irons Brothers Construction and a member of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties (MBAKS). HomeWork is the group's weekly column. If you have a home improvement, remodeling, or residential homebuilding question you'd like answered by one of the MBAKS's nearly 3,000 members, write to

Homeowners Blog Categories

Browse our expert-driven guides and resources.