Special to The Washington Post

Here is the window that needs replacing, and a permit, as well. (Anne Marie Borrego)

To permit or not to permit: there’s really no question.

A colleague of mine said: “I feel like there’s a fine line between redecorating and remodeling,” and I think she’s right. There’s a lot you can do to your own home and suffer only aesthetic consequences. But once you start moving pipes, wires and windows, working without a permit could get you fined, or worse.

Alexandria’s brick sidewalks and historic homes make it a unique part of the area that I’m proud to call home. The city—and many of its residents—work very hard to maintain its look and feel, which means that construction here can be tricky if you don’t follow the rules.

Earlier this month, my husband and I decided to turn an unfinished part of our basement into a guest bedroom. So for the last week, while nothing’s happened at my house, I’ve thought about why it makes sense to get permits.

Permits are required by the city — and each city is different — for some of renovations we are making, including installing an egress window. You have to submit your plans to the city for review, which cost $200 in Alexandria. And there’s a fee schedule, which charges per $1,000 of construction costs. Because some of these fees can add up, some residents choose not to go through the permitting process when making what they think are just minor renovations, which is technically illegal. But I see it differently, and here’s why:

Avoid trouble with the local jurisdiction

A few months ago, a homeowner in Parker Gray was hauled before the architecture review committee in Alexandria for ripping out a rusty chain-linked fence. He had to pay an appearance fee of $250 and received a nine-page report explaining why his fence was historically significant. Forget the irony here and just think about the consequences of not asking “mother may I” for a larger construction project. Such a move could prompt fines or even a stop-work order. Then, not only do you have to make right with the city, you have to deal with an unhappy contractor who may have moved on to other jobs. Nightmare.

Avoid trouble with neighbors

Some neighbors are very interested in what you do inside your own home. I’ve known a few who weren’t afraid to peek in our windows to investigate. I’ve even heard of those who have called the city to tattle when none were posted, which can cause all sorts of problems in addition to awkward cookouts (see reason #1).


When my contractor visited the permit office, he was unable to find any for the basement work that had occurred under the previous owner. Could all the work on our finished basement have been done without permits? Likely. Probably due to current ceiling height requirements. When he told me, I felt sick.

Luckily for us, he knew how to handle the situation. The incident has taught me an important lesson about purchasing older, partially-renovated homes. If and when we move again, we’re going to ask if recent work was done with permits, and we may even go to the city to see them. It may seem like a small detail, but it could help avoid needless hiccups in future renovations, especially for those who know they want to renovate prior to purchase.

All this reminds me why I went with a contractor who knows the city in the first place. Yes, my husband and I could have worked with the city ourselves to pull the permits. But we’ve lived in Germany and have had enough bureaucracy-induced headaches to last a lifetime. It’s well worth the extra expense, as far as I’m concerned.

In the end, our contractor emerged after a few weeks with the permits. He noted that we may still get some gripes from the inspector about the ceiling, but I’m ready with bottles of aspirin in reserve if and when the time comes.

Next week: demolition—we hope!

Related: Alexandria’s permitting guidance

Related: First installment of: Our basement project

Anne Marie Borrego is the media relations director for a non-profit organization and a resident of Alexandria.

What is your experience with permitting? Share with us in the comments section.

Do you want to share your renovation saga? Email us at realestate@washpost.com.