Legal Articles

Eric M. UpdegraffHome Improvement and the Permitting Process
By Eric Updegraff | Hopkins & Huebner, P.C. | Des Moines Office

A giant television industry has grown around home improvement shows.  The permitting process often looks easy on television because television producers cut that part out of the show.  Filling out paperwork does not create compelling television.  However, the most important step in any home improvement project is reaching an understanding about whether you can legally engage in the home improvement project in the first place.The consequences of failing at this first step can be severe.  Many individuals have improved their home only to find that it does not comply with local zoning ordinances.  Worse yet, they discovered the issue when they decide to sell their home.  At that point the zoning administrator has a right to order you to tear down or tear out your illegal home improvement.

The place to start in your inquiry is with your local municipality’s zoning administrator.  Most local governments have a department that can answer your questions about filing out an application for a permit for your project.

Sometimes filling out an application for a building permit is not enough to get your home improvement project off the ground.  Your home improvement project may not be a pre-approved use for your home and you may need to apply for a special use permit.  The project may violate rules about setbacks from boundaries or height restrictions on buildings and you may need to file for a variance from those rules.  In those circumstances you may have to file an application with a planning and zoning commission or a board of adjustment.

Photo of tools and DIY home improvement project booksThis process may seem daunting, but in fact can be accomplished with reasonable planning and understanding of local law.  A planning and zoning commission is a group of volunteers that reviews certain types of applications and makes recommendations for a board of adjustment about granting, modifying or denying those applications.  A board of adjustment is another group of individuals that makes the ultimate determination on those applications.  The key to getting approval from these organizations is an understanding of the terms of the local zoning ordinance as it applies to your property and, then, providing a compelling reason that you should be granted a special use permit or variance from that ordinance.

It is strongly recommended that you seek the advice of a qualified attorney about potentially difficult special use permits or variance applications.  It is very difficult for an attorney to help you after a board of adjustment or planning and zoning commission has turned down your application.  A qualified attorney can help you prepare for the ins and outs of attending the hearing and presenting your plans before the hearing.