This fall we’re working on a story about open-air demolitions and environmental issues, in collaboration with WBEZ’s Curious City. Here’s a quick explainer for those curious about their own renovation projects.

By Manny Ramos

Will your project require a permit? (Photo: unstoppabledrew/Flickr)

Will your project require a permit? (Photo: unstoppabledrew/Flickr)

When can I renovate without a permit?

If you are planning on tearing out that shagadelic, mustard-colored carpet that has welcomed visitors since the late-’70s, you’re in luck! Chicago does not require a permit for changing interior finishes such as basic flooring, crown molding, or painting. Cabinetry work is also permitted so long as it’s not working with any electrical or plumbing connections. Any non-fire-rated interior doors, porches smaller than 50 square feet, and fences five feet high or less are also OK for renovation without any permits, for any type of building.

Residential-only buildings are allowed more freedom than other types of buildings to work without permits. No permits are required for replacing toilets, sinks, faucets and tubs, and major appliances like water heaters, boilers and furnaces, in dwellings with four units or less. Walls can also be renovated without a permit as long as less than 1,000 square feet of drywall is replaced, and the underlying structural, plumbing, electrical or ventilation systems remain untouched.

For more information on when permits are not needed, the city’s website is a good resource.

If I do need a permit, how does that work?

Most permits fall under what the city calls the Easy Permit Process, an expedited application for renovations where architectural planning isn’t needed. The process requires three applications: Aldermanic Acknowledgment Letter, Certification of Primary Residency by Owner and a Certificate of Responsibility. If a contractor plans to demolish a building, a Wrecking Permit application must be submitted, and there are specific electrical and plumbing permits as well. The Easy Permit Process must be submitted in person at City Hall, but usually takes only one visit.

The Standard Plan Review is a process for more substantial renovations like converting a single-family home to a multi-unit property or a complete gut rehab. This is completed online, and the city provides applicants with a Project Manager to assure everything remains compliant with city ordinances. The plans must be submitted by an architect or expeditor, and property owners should make sure all of their contact information is correct so they can receive updates. All drawings and floor plans should be submitted along with the necessary applications for a project manager to review.

So, can I get started yet?

Before you can get your Property Brothers on by poorly swinging a 15-pound-sledgehammer at a wall, all permits must be approved. Steep penalties await those who jump the gun; the city can issue a stop work order if a project lacks necessary permits or if the permit holder is working outside of the approved items listed on the permit.

The city will issue a fine of up to $1,000 if construction continues without permits. For a second offense, the fine jumps to $6,000, and then $10,000 for every offense thereafter. There could be penalties of community service of no more than 100 hours and no less than 10 hours. Violators can also be incarcerated for no less than three days and no more than six months.

If you have any complaints about a demolition or renovation project occurring in your neighborhood, report those concerns by calling 311.

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