2012 Mar 19th

The HREN Home Improvement Series

Home Improvement photo

We frequently receive inquiries about residential renovations–from sellers looking to increase the curb appeal of their homes as well as from recent buyers hoping to make improvements that will enable their house or apartment to function better and feel like “home”.

Always eager to serve, I am introducing a new HREN feature: The Home Improvement Series, in which I will discuss many facets of the renovation process, viewed through the lens of the real estate market here in Hoboken.  What are buyers looking for?  Where is money well spent?  What clever solutions have I seen in my travels?

Working with me on this series will be my brother-in-law–the most recent addition to the Turoff Team–who has spent almost 20 years working as a residential architectural designer and project manager. He will contribute practical advice and technical know-how along with some of his spectacular design talent (to use his words…).

Between the two of us, we have plenty to say, but if you have any questions on the topic, don’t hesitate to submit them, and we will try to assist you.

Ready?  Let’s get started.

Question 1: I am planning some “cosmetic” renovations to my Hoboken Condo.  Do I need a permit?

As with so much in this life, one person’s idea of a minor task might strike someone else as a substantial project, and while you know what you mean when you say “cosmetic”, there are specific guidelines defining what scope of work can be undertaken without a permit.  Hoboken residents are governed in this arena by the city’s Construction Code Office which, in turn, administers and enforces the New Jersey Uniform Construction Code.  When you plug “cosmetic renovation” into the Universal Code Jargon Translator, the phrase that pops out is “Ordinary Maintenance”–the tasks that any homeowner can undertake in the course of maintaining their home.

Alteration to the number or configuration of rooms will always require a permit. While some minor alterations to walls can be considered “ordinary maintenance”, it is a good idea to check with an architect or contractor before you start swinging your hammer. No modification of any structural wall or element is allowed without a permit, and the extent to which non-structural walls can be altered without a permit varies from case to case.

Any work that involves any change to the path of Egress–the emergency escape route from your home–requires a permit.  This includes any change to the dimensions or configuration of the hallways or stairs, any change to the configuration of the home’s entry doors or egress windows–windows that lead out to  fire escapes, fire ladders etc.

Within these parameters, however,  there is a fair amount of work that can be considered “cosmetic” renovation work, largely related to interior finishes–painting, installation of ornamental trim, re-finishing floors, replacement of doors–and minor plumbing and electrical work: repairs and replacement of faucets, bathroom fixtures, electrical fixtures, receptacles,etc.

Beware the “Slippery Slope”


One phenomenon that you will encounter in any contemplation of “minor” construction projects is the “slippery slope”.  Yes–replacing the water controls in your shower is “ordinary maintenance” under the NJ UCC.  But any changes to “piping arrangements–the hot- and cold-water pipes inside the walls–is not.  You can replace your old shower handles and valves with new ones without a permit, but if you decide that you want to add a hand-held shower–great for washing the dog–and a second shower head–for a romantic shower a deux–and maybe a rain head and a couple of body jets, you will need to re-work the plumbing pipes in your shower, and the code requires you get a permit.   Plumbing and Electrical tasks are the most likely to lead you down a slippery slope and for that reason–and for safety’s sake–I encourage you to engage the services of a licensed plumber or electrician for all but the most basic tasks.  A professional will know when your goal involves work that will take you out of the realm of ‘ordinary maintenance’ and into the Permit Zone.


In coming installments, we will take a look at these “ordinary maintenance” tasks in greater detail and look at some of the ways you can “renovate” your home, one small step at a time.

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  1. Jeff

    Lori – Thanks so much for starting this series! As a recent first time home owner this is really helpful information. I’ve actually been surprised at how difficult it’s been to find info about what you can and can’t do without permits.

    What is your advice as far as dealing with the condo board/management company? We are planning on installing new floors, cabinetry, and appliances in the kitchen as well as refinishing wood floors. It doesn’t sound like any of this will require a permit but do you believe this kind of work is something that typically needs to be cleared with the association?

    I have also heard that when you go to the city for a permit this raises eyebrows and you end up with an inspection that can lead to tax increases as you’re improving the value of the property. Is this a legitimate concern? There’s been anecdotes that the city sends people around to look for construction debris in the garbage to issue stop work orders, send inspectors, etc. As a rookie in this arena these are the very things I worry about.

    Thanks again for this blog. It’s been a great source of information. I was one of those who wrote in with these types of reno questions so this is really helpful!

  2. Lori

    Jeff – happy to help.

    The City of Hoboken is extremely strict about building permits. If you are re-doing your kitchen, which is essentially what you are describing, you absolutely need to obtain permits. You probably also need approved architectural plans. I suggest you visit the construction office on the first floor of City Hall to confirm this. I believe that just about anything that involves plumbing or electrical work requires permits. This is a safety issue and taken very seriously.

    When you obtain permits, it does not ‘raise eyebrows’, it causes the tax assessor to be notified that you are doing work which improves the value of your property. When you complete your final inspections, the assessor will visit your property and evaluate the improvement. Yes, your assessment will likely be increased, as it should be. Properties with higher assessed values have a higher tax burden. That is how taxes are supposed to be applied.

    Yes, the City does send inspectors out to investigate these things. If caught doing work without permits, you can be subjected to hefty fines. The City can actually require you to remove the work at your expense. I have known of instances where an owner “got away” with doing work without permits only to be unable to sell their property when prospective buyers found out. So I urge you, if you are doing any work beyond painting, go to City Hall and do it by the book. It’s simply not worth the risk otherwise.

  3. Lori

    PS – as for your condo association, every building is different in terms of what they require. Most associations require that all unit owners obtain all necessary permits, as does your mortgage lender. There are also rules about the hours and days when work can be done. You need to check with your management company or association.

  4. Jeff

    Thanks again. It sounds like the best course of action will be to speak to City Hall and make sure everything is done on the up-and-up and be ready to pay the tax man.

  5. homeboken

    Great photo in the path station Lori!

  6. Lori

    Thanks!

  7. JC

    thanks for starting this up. Just curious…you mentioned an owner “got away” with work only to be unable to sell. How did this buyer do its homework to find this out? thanks!

  8. Ron

    Keep in mind that the only way to get a permit in this town is through a fully licensed contractor. That’s right, even if you are handy and can do some jobs yourself, you can’t.

    This town is insane when it comes to permits and renovations. They sure do make sure everyone gets paid along the way as well – Hoboken has a corrupt reputation for a reason.

    You can do most cosmetic stuff yourself without permits. No buyer will question new backsplash or go through the lengths of pulling permit records. But “cosmetic stuff” is a very gray area so I would call town hall for guidance. I would definitely get a pertmit for anything involving adding/removing walls, electrical work and plumbing….that’s what they really care about since those areas can potentially impact neighbors.

  9. Craig

    I love this addition to the site and I’m looking forward to reading it. That said, I don’t think it’s accurate to state anything involving plumbing or electrical requires a permit. If you’re replacing an existing light fixture or facuet, or swapping out the leaking supply and drain lines under your sink for new ones, you don’t need a permit. I’ve had two hot water heaters replaced by licensed local plumbers without need of a permit. I also replaced a single faucet vanity with a dual one without a permit. It was again done by a licensed local plumber without opening the wall and instead simply connecting the additional faucet and drain to the existing external supply and drain lines. Based on these experiences it seems it’s a toss-up as to what requires a permit and what doesn’t. That’s why you leave it to the pros to decide.

    It appears to me you don’t need a permit unless you’re moving or adding rough-in fixtures or changing structure that differs from the original architectural plans. If you’re installing new appliances, a new countertop, and a new backsplash in your kitchen, you don’t need a permit. But if you’re gutting your kitchen and are changing its layout from the original architectural plan, you’ll need one. Likewise, you don’t need a permit to replace an old hot water heater, but you would need a permit if you move its location or add another one.

  10. Lori Turoff

    I have made inquiries at City Hall to see if I can get some specific clarification on what needs a permit and what does not. I am sure some of the answer depends on whom you speak to. In the old “Al Arezzo” days, he would tell you that hanging a picture hook needed a permit. Of course, you pay the city for the permits. Not exactly corruption but excessive regulation, maybe.

    I’ve heard conflicting things from different, very experienced local contractors. I would suggest that it is always better to be safe than sorry. Just go to the building department, advise them of your intended work, and see what they say. In fact, see if you can get it in writing if they say you don’t need a permit, just in case it ever comes back to haunt you.

    The UCC, however, does say that replacing specific fixtures in the same places does not require a permit. Most people, when they redo a kitchen, end up moving things.

    In answer to how the buyer found out work was done without permits – it wasn’t a buyer, it was me. First, I had a listing agent actually tell me that work was done by the seller without a permit. Dumb agent.

    Just today, I was showing a property with a brand new kitchen, new floors, and ridiculously low taxes. That right there raised a red flag for me. If the work was done legitimately, the taxes would not be half the normal amount. If anything, they should be higher than average due to the renovation.

    Any buyer who is concerned can go down to City Hall and ask to see the plans for the address. If there are no plans – beware.

    I will post further when I get more info.

  11. Craig

    “I’ve heard conflicting things from different, very experienced local contractors. I would suggest that it is always better to be safe than sorry. Just go to the building department, advise them of your intended work, and see what they say.” – Lori

    The problem with going to the building department is that you’ll get conflicting answers there too depending on who you speak to as you pointed out. If professional contractors are confused, I have little faith a clerk in city hall without licensed industry experience would have a clue. My solution was to only use Hoboken-based contractors who have been in business a long time and know the deal. At least if they’re wrong about not needing a permit for their work and it comes back to haunt you, you know where to find them to rectify the situation. For work in my own unit as well as for building common areas in my capacity as HOA president, I’ve used local companies like Hoboken Glass, R.E.D., and L. Pini & Sons as of late with great results while doing some work myself and having pros check it.

  12. Nathan

    Hi all–my name is Nathan, and I’m the shadowy “brother-in-law” referenced in the post, and co-author of its contents.

    I’m not prepared to comment on what will happen if an inquiry is made directly to an employee of the Hoboken Construction Code Office, as the majority of my experience is with the Department of Buildings in New York City. I do know that no bureaucracy could be more capricious in its interpretation of what should be straightforward regulations than the NYC DOB. While the Truth is alleged to set one Free, I cannot promise that it will help in a conversation with code officials. Nevertheless, it cannot hurt to be familiar with the regulations which are being discussed. The New Jersey UCC states explicitly that plumbing/electrical fixtures can be replaced in existing locations on existing piping/wiring without a permit. The code also states explicitly that Kitchen Cabinets can be replaced/installed without a permit. Installation of counter-tops and back-splash finishes does not require a permit, nor does replacement of Kitchen appliances in existing locations. Removal of existing Kitchen floor finish may or may not require permits, depending on the presence/absence of ACM (asbestos containing materials), and the installation of new tile/vinyl/wood flooring can be done without a permit. It is, therefore, entirely possible to renovate/upgrade your Kitchen without a building permit. Typically, however, a full renovation includes the relocation of the sink/dishwasher. It is also not uncommon–once the work has started–for a homeowner to decide to add items such as under-cabinet lighting, additional down-lighting, filtered or instant-hot water taps etc.–see “slippery slope” above. With any project, one of the most important steps in the process should be thorough planning prior to the commencement of work. As an architect, I naturally favor the use of architects in this planning process, but whether or not professionals are involved, the value of exploring all the options and making as many decisions as possible before you begin cannot be over-stated.

  13. The HREN Home Improvement Series | Hoboken Real Estate News « mugomurec

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  14. Jeff

    Nathan – Can you advise on which sections of the New Jersey UCC would be most useful for us amateurs to familiarize ourselves with if we are undertaking mostly “cosmetic” renovations to a condo. The sheer amount of regulatory jargon in the hundreds of pages of code is quite daunting and a cursory search didn’t turn up the explicit references to cabinets, appliances, countertops, etc. that you mention. (Entirely possible I’m not looking in the right place).

    The Hoboken construction code site is rather vague but the language they use makes it sound like you can get away with doing most non-structural, non-plumbing, and non-electrical work without any sort of permit. I’d like to think that’s the case but I don’t really believe it. Additionally, just walking in to city hall and speaking to them about it seems like it might put you unnecessarily on their radar.

  15. Nathan

    Jeff–Absolutely. It seems like you have already found the UCC, but for general reference, the address is:

    http://www.state.nj.us/dca/divisions/codes/codreg/ucc.html.

    The various stipulations regarding “ordinary maintenance” are contained in Sub-chapter 2: Administration and Enforcement; Process, specifically section 5:23-2.7.

    The specific language regarding Kitchen cabinets can be found on page “4 of 50″ under 5:23-2.7, C) 2-vi, which is the sixth itemized item of allowable tasks and reads:

    ” vi: The repair or replacement of any non-structural member such as a partition railing or kitchen cabinet;”

    The language regarding replacement of electrical and plumbing fixtures follows in sub-sub-sections 2 and 3.

    When reading code jargon, I find that it’s like staring at one of those 2-D drawings that becomes 3-dimensional when you let it go out of focus. Don’t read for comprehension, just relax and let the words flow over you. After two or three passes, it begins to make sense…

    As I said in the original post, the Hoboken Construction Code office states that they administer and enforce the NJ UCC, so I’m not sure what the “Hoboken Construction Code” is, other than possibly a re-packaging of the UCC.

    I’m not comfortable advising you NOT to consult with the relevant municipal agencies, but I certainly understand your reluctance to do so…

  16. Jeff

    Thanks again Nathan. You’ve given a great starting point. By “Hoboken Construction Code” I was just referring to the small bit of info on the City of Hoboken website:

    http://www.hobokennj.org/departments/business-admin/construction-code-office/

    I’m sure I’ll be making visits to city hall to make sure everything is done above board. I guess it’s better to make sure things are done right the first time than potentially run into trouble later.

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