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November 20, 2017

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Homeowners who’ve violated building codes may get amnesty in May

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Yasmina Chavez

Laurence Rayborn, a specialist with Ruiter Construction LLC, helps remove old A/C ventilation air ducts from the attic during a weatherization project at Allen Ford’s home Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016. HELP teams up with contractors like Ruiter Construction LLC to assist NV Energy customers in low-income households with A/C repairs and upgrades. Were Rayborn to take on this kind of work by himself, he would need a permit.

Do I need a permit to do this?

If you are a homeowner with a hankering for DIY projects, you should be asking yourself that question anytime you think about picking up a sledgehammer.

The range of projects that require permits to complete may surprise some homeowners, but the Southern Nevada International Code Council (SNICC) is hoping to enlighten folks this May as part of Building Safety Month. The annual worldwide public safety campaign is designed to raise awareness about the crucial role building codes play. And for residential homeowners who have completed work without a permit, the month also can provide a way to retroactively get in compliance.

Throughout May, Henderson and Clark County are running amnesty programs that waive late fees and penalties for residential homeowners who self-disclose projects they completed without obtaining proper permits.

Additionally, the city of Henderson is hosting a “Homeowners Night” May 17 from 6 to 8 p.m. at City Hall to answer questions about permits and assist residents wherever they are in the DIY process.

North Las Vegas and Las Vegas already offer year-round amnesty for residential homeowners who self-disclose work that should be inspected.

In Clark County, permit fees range from $150 to $400 depending on the project. Penalties for getting permitted retroactively can double those amounts, and additional fees can be tacked on if building code enforcers are called to your property to investigate a complaint about noncompliant structures.

“The goal with the amnesty program is to educate and not penalize people,” says Stacey Welling, a public information officer for the county. “We know many people don’t realize they need a permit.”

In addition to putting themselves at risk of fines, homeowners who've violated code also may run into issues when they try to sell their homes.

Changes that are merely cosmetic typically don’t need a permit. That encompasses projects like replacing your front door or windows, wallpapering, and changing out carpets or fixtures. Modifications that are structural or electrical in nature — meaning they have a higher capacity to potentially harm people if done improperly — typically do require a permit. Most people know that in-ground pools are on that list, but so are patio covers, garage conversions and water heaters/softeners.

And sometimes the necessity of a permit depends on specific factors of a project.

Say I want to build a shed or playhouse in the backyard of my home, which is located in a non-HOA neighborhood within an unincorporated part of Clark County. Do I need a permit to do this?

Depends.

If the floor area of my desired Barbie-themed dream playhouse is 200 square feet or more, then yes. If the square footage is 199 square feet or less, then no — unless the structure incorporates any kind of plumbing, mechanical or electrical features. Then, yes.

Similarly, in Clark County, fences above 6 feet in height require a permit to build, but shorter ones don’t.

Say I move to an incorporated part of Clark County. I would have to look up the specific codes for North Las Vegas, Las Vegas, Henderson, etc. While local municipalities in Southern Nevada often have the same codes, they don’t have to. And the permitting fees and processes vary.

Officials understand it can be confusing.

“It is always safer to ask than to not know if something requires a permit,” advises Valarie Evans, the city of North Las Vegas' building official. So, when in doubt, “Check with your local building department.”

Other common work that homeowners complete without the necessary permits include garage conversions, block-wall repairs, installations and replacements of furnaces and air conditioners and (some) retaining walls. Often, people aren’t even aware they need a permit, especially the folks who do it themselves instead of hiring a contractor. Sometimes, though, homeowners are aware but simply want to avoid permitting fees, which they might see as a cash grab by the government.

That’s the wrong way to look at it, officials say.

Majid Pakniat with the city of Henderson explains that the Building and Fire Safety division in Henderson is self-sustaining, which means fees are based on the cost of the work associated with various projects. They aren’t a cash cow and provide an important service, he says.

“We all live, work and play in buildings,” he says. “It is comforting to know that there are groups of professionals who work hard all year to make sure our buildings are safe.”

The International Code Council — the association that develops the codes and standards typically adopted by federal agencies, states and municipalities — introduced Building Safety Month nearly four decades ago in order to recognize these types of professionals.

The theme for Building Safety Month 2017 is “Partners in Community Safety and Economic Growth.”

Too often, says LGA architect and SNICC member Alexia Chen, people take for granted the safety of their built environments, especially here in the United States. They assume the floor underneath them will not cave in even if the building was built decades ago, or that their quality of life won’t be impacted by noxious odors from a business that moves in next door. But those assumptions only exist because uniform, enforced building codes do.

“That’s generally the biggest issue — the perception,” she says. “People should look at building codes and permits as a tool to help them build things safely, instead of as a hurdle to get through. They are trying to help you, not antagonize you and slow down your project.”

Chen recalls visiting her native Taiwan and noticing the bathrooms consistently smelled worse than those in the United States. She asked a local manufacturer of air ventilation systems if building codes dictated what size systems had to be installed. They didn’t, meaning building owners often were putting in systems designed for smaller spaces with fewer stalls.

“Sometimes it’s things like that,” she adds. “The building won’t fall down because of it, but it definitely doesn’t make the environment nice for users.”

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