Doing your own home renovations means understanding the legal requirements, such as permits, and the consequences of doing poor work.
You own your own home and decide to do some renovations. You get a couple of quotes from local contractors and are in shock over what it all adds up to. You think to yourself: “I’m not paying that. I’ve got some tools. It doesn’t look too hard. I can do this myself. (That bird house I built back in school was perfect). Plus, there’s a ton of stuff on YouTube to follow. What could possibly go wrong? I don’t even think I’ll bother with a permit. That sounds like a lot of hassle and is just a formality.”
The Regulatory Framework
The Alberta government has the power to pass laws to make sure things are built safely. The Alberta Safety Codes Act is the starting point. This statute (written law) and its regulations:
- create a safety codes system that regulates the construction of buildings, elevators, amusement rides, ski lifts (and other rope systems), the installation of fire prevention, pressure and private sewage disposal systems, and how electrical, gas and plumbing work is to be done
- create a formal group of experts called the Safety Codes Counsel and give them duties, including figuring out what the standards should be in the areas of construction the Act applies to
- give owners, designers, manufacturers, contractors and sellers of property duties to make sure they comply with the Act
- create a system for inspection, enforcement and penalties to make sure the rules are followed, and allow the province to delegate much of this work to municipalities
Provincial statutes usually include a power to create regulations that will set out the details of how the work of the statute will get done. Those details often change, and the process for changing regulations is easier than the process for changing the statute. As of May 2022, there are over twenty regulations under the Safety Codes Act. Many of those regulations say that a set of standards developed by an expert group applies in Alberta. For example, section 1 of the Building Codes Regulation (one of the regulations under the Safety Codes Act) says “The National Building Code ‑ 2019 Alberta Edition, published by the National Research Council of Canada as amended or replaced from time to time, is declared in force with respect to buildings.” That National Building Code is over 1,400 pages long and contains many rules regarding how buildings are to be built. There are separate sets of regulations for each of the areas covered by the Safety Codes Act.
A homeowner doing renovations has a duty to make sure their work complies with the Safety Codes Act. The way to do that is to obtain the proper building permit, if one is required. Many municipalities can issue permits, and in other places there are designated agencies that issue permits. As part of the permit process an official will inspect and approve the work done at various stages of construction. That approval is your confirmation that the work has been done in a way that meets the requirements of the Act.
But can a homeowner apply for a permit themselves and do their own work? Yes – for some types of renovations in some types of homes. For more dangerous work, for example anything dealing with gas lines, a permit can only be issued to licensed tradespeople. Also, some homeowner building permits can only be issued for freestanding homes, not apartment-style condominiums.
When is a building permit required? A permit is not usually required for cosmetic upgrades such as new paint or flooring. It is always best to check the local requirements. There are differences between municipalities. For example, in Calgary no permit is required for a deck less than 23-5/8 inches above grade. In Edmonton, the rule is 24 inches. A backyard fence in Calgary can be 6’-6” without a permit. In Edmonton, the rule is 6.1 feet (roughly 6’-2”). The safest practice is to always assume you need a permit until you verify you do not with City Hall. All major municipalities in Alberta have excellent websites providing information about when building permits are required and when they are not. Simply search the name of your municipality along with ‘building permit’. If you are still unsure, call or visit your municipality’s planning department and ask.
Homeowners should also be aware that for some types of renovations they may need a development permit in addition to a building permit. Building permits are meant to ensure construction safety. Development permits are meant to ensure compliance with the municipality’s land use bylaw.
The consequences of not obtaining a permit can be severe. An inspector or the court might:
- order you to stop work in the middle of the project
- tell you to remove the work that has been done
- levy an administrative penalty (fine) against you
You also might get less for your house if you decide to sell it, or not be able to sell it at all.
Risk of Being Sued
In Alberta, people can sue others in court for negligence. For a negligence lawsuit to be successful, an injured person (the plaintiff) must prove:
- the defendant (that’s you … the homeowner who did their own renovation) owed them what is legally called a ‘duty of care’. Let’s assume this is true.
- the defendant breached the ‘standard of care’ that applied (more about this in a minute)
- they suffered legally recognised damages. That is, the work you did hurt the plaintiff in some way, either physically or financially.
- their damages were caused by the defendant’s breach of the duty of care. Again, we will assume this is true.
For example, let’s say a homeowner does shoddy electrical work (with or without a permit). The house later burns down, injuring someone. To what standard will the court hold the homeowner? A standard of care is what a person is measured against when the court is asking the question ‘Did the defendant do enough?’. Usually, the court will use what is called the ‘reasonable person’ standard. What would a reasonable person with similar skills have done? But a court could impose a stricter standard on a defendant doing their own renovations in two ways. First, the court could say the defendant was holding themselves out (pretending to be) an electrician, so they should be held to the standard of what a reasonably competent electrician would have done. Second, the court could say, given that the work was obviously dangerous and beyond their skill level, the defendant had a duty to expand their own knowledge by consulting with an expert, someone who knows more than they did.
The best defence against a negligence claim is always … wait for it … don’t be negligent. If you decide to do your own renovations, get the proper permits. The required successful inspections are evidence that you did the work properly. If permits are not required, only do work that you know how to do and do it competently. If you come across something that you do not know how to do, get advice or help from an expert. Or better yet, hire an expert to do that part of the job.
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The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LawNow or the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta.
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