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November 27, 2017

The legal hurdles you need to know for making home improvements

Real Estate Matters: Our expert answers your questions

Winter is almost here, but that doesn’t mean you should put those home improvements on hold. In fact, this is the best time to start planning your next renovation. 

What homeowners often forget is just how long the process can take in terms of planning and acquiring the necessary approvals to start construction. This gets us to our latest Real Estate Matters reader question.

Q: What governmental permits and approvals do I need when performing improvements to my property?

 – Jordan R., Fishtown

A: Whether it is erecting a deck on the roof of your house or placing an addition onto your house, you may need the assistance of real estate professionals as part of obtaining approvals from the City of Philadelphia prior to performing these property improvements.


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First things first, at the very least, you should consider retaining the services of an architect who will lay out what you want to do in the form of plans and drawings. You may also want to hire a structural engineer if your proposed property improvements could affect the structural integrity of your house.

As for governmental approval, the primary point of contact will be the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I). Under most circumstances, you will need to obtain both zoning and building permits from this city department prior to starting work on your house.

Prior to submitting the zoning permit application with L&I, you may be obligated to obtain the approval of the Streets Department as well as the City Planning Commission.

When submitted, the zoning permit application must specify the existing and proposed use for the entire structure and a detailed description of the proposed work.

Furthermore, depending upon the circumstances, you may be required to submit a fully dimensioned site plan and elevations as part of the zoning permit application.

All zoning permit applications require a non-refundable filing fee of $100 ($25 for one- and two-family dwellings) at the time of the application submission and payment must be made by check.

A plans examiner will review the zoning permit application to determine if it complies with the Philadelphia Zoning Code. You will then be notified when your zoning permit is ready for pick-up or that your zoning permit application has been denied. This review may take up to 20 business days.

If the plans examiner concludes that your proposed work does not confirm to the confines of the Philadelphia Zoning Code, a Notice of Refusal will be issued. If you wish to appeal this administrative ruling, you must file an Application for Appeal to appear before the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) and request a variance to the Philadelphia Zoning Code.

Assuming your zoning permit application is granted, you will then obtain the zoning permit from L&I and then apply for a building permit with L&I.

The filing fees and processing time for a building permit application is very similar to that of the zoning permit application.

If the cost of the proposed work exceeds $25,000, the plans and drawings submitted as part of the building permit application must be signed and sealed by a registered design professional.

In addition to submitting the requisite plans and drawings, prior to obtaining the building permit, you must illustrate that your contractor has the appropriate insurance coverage. In doing so, you must provide L&I with a current, valid certificate of insurance for your contractor. The Certificate of Insurance must indicate current coverage for comprehensive general liability, workers compensation, and automobile liability.

Generally, your contractor who performs the work should be a licensed contractor with the city. However, work may be performed by an owner residing on the premises of an existing one- or two-family dwelling or by a registered Home Improvement Contractor maintaining a Commercial Activity License in the City of Philadelphia.

Once the building permit application is granted, you will obtain the building permit and the work can commence.

While this governmental approval process may seem complicated, with diligence and perseverance on your part, after construction is complete, you will soon be able to enjoy the improvements made to your house.