Do You Need a Permit to Build a Deck

When you’re planning to build a new deck for your home, it can feel like there are 1000 things to consider… colors, material options, layout, and more! But one other hugely important detail is permitting. As deck builders, we have a lot of experience in this arena; however, each state and municipality has its own rules and regulations, so we’re going to focus on the area we know best – Wisconsin. Let’s go through a few of the most common questions we get…

What is a building permit?

A building permit is a government issued document that gives you permission to build (or re-build) a structure. In this case, we’ll be focusing specifically on decks. Obtaining a permit makes your local government aware you’re building so they can ensure your structure meets their code / standards of structural quality, location, and safety.

Do I need a permit to build a deck in Wisconsin?

Short answer? Yes.

Long answer? It depends on your municipality, but still most of the time, yes. While Wisconsin has clear building codes that are applicable state-wide, there isn’t one across-the-board standard for who needs to pull a permit. Your best bet is to check with your local town or city to find out for sure. For example, in the City of Fitchburg, if a deck is going to be built less than 3 feet off of the ground, a permit isn’t required.

In our experience, permits are almost always required, so don’t bank on an exception.

When is a permit necessary?

Most municipalities have websites that list which types of projects require one. You can always search something like, “do i need a permit to build a deck in (your town, state)?” It will typically pull up your city’s permitting info within the first few results.

If you do need a permit, you’ll want to get it before you break ground. Otherwise, you can be charged 2-3x as much as the original permit fee for an early start penalty. And honestly, that could be the least of your worries…

What are the consequences of building without a permit?

There are really two big scenarios that can happen if you build without a permit… Both are less than desirable, so we’d highly recommend not skipping the permit process when one is required.

They can force you to take down the deck.

Huge bummer, right? In this case, if you want to rebuild, you’ll need to do so with proper permitting and inspections so they can ensure you’re code compliant. For example, your municipality can even require you to dig out and re-pour concrete footings. Not the most fun way to spend your weekend, am I right?

They can fine you and in some cases, fine your contractor as well.

The exact amount or frequency totally depends on where you live; however, to be really clear, we’re not just talking a one time fee. In some cases, you can be fined indefinitely until you tear down the structure. These fines can add up really quickly. Luckily, they’re really easy to avoid if you just get proper permitting in the first place!

What’s the permit process for deck building in Wisconsin?

With a licensed contractor, it’s as easy as paying them to build, deciding your deck layout together (with them considering code compliance & zoning laws along the way), and choosing colors / materials. On the back end, they will typically follow this process:

Put together structural drawings and site maps.

Structural drawings are to-scale renderings of your proposed deck. They’ll include overall dimensions as well as joist spacing and footing placement to indicate a WI code compliant plan your municipality can approve.

Site maps show where on your lot the deck will sit (with specific measurements) to ensure it meets your specific zoning district’s setback requirements

Submit the drawings and sitemaps to your municipality’s permitting department for approval.

Once we have everything drawn up, we’ll send it over to your permitting department along with the permit fee to be approved. Depending on where you live, this fee can be anywhere from $100-500. For our clients, it’s included in the cost of your project and isn’t something you ever have to worry about.

Assuming everything looks good, the permitting office will issue the permit.

Depending on where you live, the permit will either be a hard copy or emailed file. Once we get them, we’re immediately cleared to build. In some areas, you’ll be required to display the permit near the front of the house, but not always!

Comply with inspections.

For almost all deck building projects, you’ll have three inspections performed by the local permitting office. Their goal is to verify that you (or your builder) have followed local and state code requirements. The first inspection happens after footings are set. The second happens once framing is complete. And the final inspection happens once deck boards are fastened, railings are placed, and the deck is finished.

If you’re working with a contractor, they’ll call in these inspections at each step. However, if you’re building the deck yourself, you’ll need to request each inspection before continuing on to the next step. To close the permit, you’ll just need to pass the final inspection. Once that happens, the municipality will make record of it and mark it as complete.

Who should pull the building permit? The contractor or the client?

To legally pull a building permit in Wisconsin, you either have to be a licensed contractor or the property owner. So, technically, you can pull your own permit, but we recommend against it. Here’s why…

Understanding Local Building Codes and Zoning Laws

As a quick note, the overview of the permitting process may seem easy because it’s pretty simple. That said, there are a lot of codes and zoning regulations that impact each project. Because we have so much experience with the municipalities we build within, we know most of these like the back of our hands. This not only helps us make recommendations for feasible building plans, but it also helps expedite the permitting process because we don’t have to resubmit corrected information.

It’s not that you can’t learn the codes or zoning laws (such as how far your structure needs to be set back from your lot line), but it would require some time and research if you’re doing it yourself. That said, here are a couple of tools you can use:

The State of Wisconsin Building Code Appendix B: This is our building bible. We reference it regularly to ensure we’re code compliant. It’s an excellent one-stop-shop resource for deck code in Wisconsin.

For zoning, you’ll want to refer to your town / city’s zoning map and ordinances. You’ll need to find out what zoning district you’re in as well as the applicable ordinances (like setbacks) for that district. Often times, you can also find zoning ordinances for your municipality on Municode. Just be sure you’re following the rules for your specific zoning district.

As a reminder, we pull permits for all of our clients because it saves you the headache and hassle learning what your municipality wants when we likely already know it or can quickly find it.

Should you hire a contractor or DIY your deck build?

Ultimately, if you’re really handy and have some help, you can probably build your own deck! But, we’re contractors… Of course we’re going to tell you to hire a contractor because we believe there’s a ton of value in what we offer our clients, such as…

Code Compliance Knowledge

At the end of the day, there’s a lot of rules and regulations to follow throughout the process. Working with someone who deals with these every day can save you a ton of time and help you avoid costly fines and mistakes.

There’s also a little bit of protection here. Mistakes happen sometimes. For example, if we install a railing and it fails to meet code because there’s too big of a gap, it’s on us to reinstall it. If we can’t use the same railings anymore because of the way they were cut, we eat that loss. If you make that mistake, you’re on the hook for new material and the time to install properly.

Top Tier Craftsmanship

Think of something you do every single day. Chances are, you’re probably pretty good at it. We have built hundreds of decks, screen porches, and 3-season rooms. Our team are experts in the materials we use and the entire deck building process. We can help you design and build a functional structure with incredible craftsmanship.

Things like smoothly mitered corners, evenly spaced boards, and attention to detail on finishing touches like riser lights or railing gates can make all the difference. When you’re already spending a pretty penny on the material for your deck, you don’t want to risk wasting it with miscuts or installation errors.

Material Savings & Sourcing

One of the perks of working on a lot of decks each year is that we are able to negotiate discounts on our materials that we can then pass along as savings to you. In fact, while most contractors (or homeowners buying materials directly) will have large swings between different tiers of PVC or composite decking, our discounts help minimize the cost difference, allowing you to choose a material / color you really love.

During the supply chain issues that followed 2020, this was a much bigger deal, but we’re also able to get materials quickly. A lot of the products we commonly use are actually stocked by us to help us meet client deadlines faster!

Time Saved

Even if you’re the most talented craftsman, you likely have a job and family that rightfully take up most of your time. Building most decks (especially if they’re not ground level) takes more than one person. If you think about how often you have free time when you also have someone else to help, the pockets can be few and far between. Yes, building your own deck can save you money, but your time is worth something too!

If you want to be able to enjoy your deck with your loved ones, not spend months full of weekends building it bit by bit or worrying about whether or not the final structure will be code compliant, we’d love to help. Depending on your project and the time of year, our crews can generally craft an incredible custom deck within 1-2 weeks.

Want a free deck building estimate?

If you’re interested in a free quote for your deck build in Wisconsin, just click here and tell us a bit more about your project!