When Shorewood homeowner Erik Timmerman decided to renovate his bathroom, permits and inspections took over his life. “We had more inspectors visiting the first six months than family,” he quips. Building permits for major construction or renovation projects are one thing. But many area communities require permits for the most minor repairs – from installing […]

When Shorewood homeowner Erik Timmerman decided to renovate his bathroom, permits and inspections took over his life. “We had more inspectors visiting the first six months than family,” he quips.

Building permits for major construction or renovation projects are one thing. But many area communities require permits for the most minor repairs – from installing a light switch to replacing a leaky faucet – making home improvements more costly and more of a headache.

Shorewood building inspector Russell Falkowski defends the permit policy. “Our ultimate goal is to make property safe,” he says.

But Dr. Jonathan Treisman of Shorewood disagrees. He says permits don’t protect homeowners from bad work. “An electrician did incorrect work on our house and instead of the village going after the electrician, they went after us,” Treisman says. “And when part of our furnace was installed with the wrong part, the village inspector passed it as correct. We were left to get it corrected on our own.”

Sure, individual permit fees seem inexpensive; to install lights and switches, it’ll cost you $1 in Oak Creek, 75 cents in Shorewood, 45 cents in Hartford and 50 cents in Menomonee Falls. However, many communities have a minimum on fees. In Shorewood it’s $55 – that means if you want to install one light switch, it’ll cost you $55.75. The minimum in Hartford, Menomonee Falls and Oak Creek is $50.

And failure to procure a permit will cost you. Shorewood charges a triple fee if you don’t get a permit before starting work. And when work is done, if you don’t call for a final inspection within 15 working days, the punishment is $35.

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How do they catch you if you don’t pull a permit? The city of Milwaukee has the biggest area to police. Todd Weiler, certifications and communications coordinator for the Milwaukee Department of Neighborhood Services, says inspectors keep an eye out for discarded items like water heaters as they’re driving around town: “There are about 100 people a year they find who don’t get electrical permits. Plumbing is about 150 a year.”

And the penalties are steep. In Menomonee Falls, it’s twice the permit fee for your first offense; triple the fee for a second offense. (Keep that in mind if you decide to skip their $10 icemaker permit for your refrigerator.) Whitefish Bay charges four times the permit fee – as does Milwaukee, which also tacks on an additional $322 citation.

Communities that require certificates of compliance take it even further. Glendale, Brown Deer and Shorewood charge about $100 for the privilege of having inspectors check your home inside and out before it can be sold. If the house passes muster, the owner is issued a certificate of compliance. If the inspectors find any work done without the required permits, or by unauthorized persons, the owner is fined.

Len and Gloria Parker experienced this when they sold their Shorewood home 16 years ago. “We had to spend about $13,000 before we met the inspector’s requirements so we could sell our house,” Gloria says. “It left a bad taste in my mouth.”

Some communities are more do-it-yourself friendly. Mequon and Brookfield allow homeowners to do their own plumbing, and Wauwatosa is homeowner’s heaven: Residents can replace both electrical and plumbing fixtures without a permit.

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But for those stuck in communities run by the permit police, Shorewood resident Jack Harris perhaps says it best: “You almost have to take out a permit here to breathe.”

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