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Think Twice Before Making These Home Renovations

Geoff Williams

When you move into a house, one of the selling points is that you get to do home renovations on your own. As apartment dwellers know, if you want to paint your bedroom, you generally have to get permission, and depending how complex the operation is, you may have to cut through a lot of red tape. But your own bedroom? All you have to do is drive to the hardware store and pick out the paint. If you want to invest in your home and remodel your kitchen for $30,000, that's completely your right. It's your house--you can do almost anything.

That's an important word: almost.

You may be king of your own castle, but when it comes to certain home improvement projects inside and especially outside, you may still have to answer to your homeowners association or local municipality. So if you're thinking of doing any spring home-improvement projects, consider this a friendly heads up.

The following are projects that may come with possible ramifications if you don't follow the proper procedures first, such as getting a permit or checking to see if there are any regulations or guidelines you should be following.

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Painting. For the most part, you probably won't get in trouble if you paint your house, provided you don't live in a neighborhood governed by a homeowners association (HOA). These associations do anything from providing services, like mowing lawns, to keeping a certain order to the community, such as dictating what colors you're allowed to paint on the exterior of your home. That said, if you live in a house that was built pre-1978, before lead paint was outlawed, federal restrictions went into place in 2010 that dictate how one should paint the exterior of the house.

If you're going to hire a painter to paint the outside of your home, you'll need to make sure they are a lead-safe certified contractor, stresses Jack Dever, president of Dever Design & Build LLC, which designs and builds home additions and is based out of Willoughby, Ohio.

If you don't, there's a chance they might end up painting your home illegally. If you're painting it yourself, you don't have to be certified and won't be fined if you don't follow the safety guidelines that your contractor needs to, but since those guidelines are all about safety, you nonetheless might want to. The EPA has information on its website ( for people who plan on painting a house built before 1978.

Fences. Don't do this without first consulting a building department or, if you live in a small town, your county municipal government, advises Frank Foti, a licensed builder and an executive at Mr. Handyman International LLC, part of a national handyman franchise headquartered in Ann Arbor, Mich. "I've seen a lot of homeowners install fences and then later have to remove them and reinstall them ordering to code."

Digging projects. As most homeowners probably are already aware, experts generally recommend that you always call your utility companies--electric, water, cable--before doing any serious digging, like creating a swimming pool. For obvious reasons.

Decks. Even building a deck requires a permit, and permits aren't cheap, but then decks aren't inexpensive, either. A good rule of thumb, Foti says, is that the more elaborate the deck, the more expensive the permit.

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Fireplaces. As usual, consult your local homeowners association and/or your local municipality before you build one, or even tweak it.

"I've had colleagues, clients and friends try to add them on. They've had everyone from the fire department down to their homeowners association say no, and in some cases, after the fact," says Dani Babb, a Newport Beach, Calif.-based real estate consultant and author of numerous real estate books, including "Finding Foreclosures: An Insider's Guide to Cashing in on This Hidden Market."

Major landscaping projects. Even new trees should be considered carefully if you belong to a homeowners association, cautions Babb. "Often backyards aren't something homeowners associations care much about, but front yards--definitely," says Babb. "Often, you have to submit plans to the HOA with neighbor signatures."

She adds that many HOAs have an approved shrubbery, tree and even flower list. "Get this before you install, or you may be ripping out plants you just purchased," Babb says.

Why all the fuss? Everyone may assume their political positions now and think the best or worst of their local government or homeowners association, but the permits and paperwork usually come down to two things: safety codes and property values. Your neighbors could step onto a deck that hasn't been built properly, and it could collapse and injure everyone. Your local government is trying to prevent that. You may love the 20-foot-high fence or pink-striped house, but most everyone else won't, and it will almost certainly depress the value of houses surrounding it.

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"I always tell my contractors that we really should welcome the permits and inspectors, and that we shouldn't be afraid of them," says Foti. "It's good to have a second set of eyes and a third party observing."

Besides, if you don't get those permits, and nobody finds out you installed a deck on your own, problems are still inevitable. At some point, your home-improvement project will be inspected, studied and then either approved or disapproved.

That is, unless you never, ever plan on selling. After potential homebuyers look over your house, the next person to wander around will be--you guessed it--a home inspector.

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