Renovating in Philadelphia? Here’s What You Need to Know

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Photo: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

No city is exactly the same when it comes to renovating. Sweeten, a free service matching homeowners with the best screened general contractors for major renovations, expanded from NYC to Philadelphia in 2016 to help residents create their “home, sweet home.”

“Philadelphia has a unique architectural mix, from historic rowhouses and trinities to modern condos,” explains Sweeten founder and CEO, Jean Brownhill. “We’re excited to help residents create their dream space.”

Begun by industry experts with 20+ years’ experience in architecture and construction, Sweeten has identified some areas in which renovating in Philly differs from other cities.

“Many of these homes are crying out to be renovated.”

A Licensed Contractor Can File Your Building Permits

Unlike New York, where an engineer or architect must file building permits, a licensed general contractor can do the job in Philly. If a contractor files the permit, actually the most likely scenario here, the contractor will need a commercial activity license and a contractor’s license from the City of Philadelphia. A contractor license requires a certificate of insurance, at least one supervising employee to have completed OSHA 30 training and a tax clearance form, which proves the contractor filing the building permit application does not owe the city any money. (If they are in debt to the city—i.e. with taxes—the application will be rejected.)

If a contractor is doing more than $500 worth of work for you, they will need a contractor’s license. Why is a general contractor with a license the wise choice? The easy answer is it would be illegal not to have one. It’s also for the good of your project, as it ensures the contractor knows how to run a safe worksite and has adequate insurance.

“The rules are put in place to make sure homeowners get a quality contractor,” said Jon, one of the Philly-based contractors who is in the Sweeten network. “There are thousands of GCs. Many do good work but some don’t.”

As part of its multi-point screening process, Sweeten makes sure any contractor in its network not only has a license, but also has experience with your type of project and budget parameters, and is local. To check if there’s a Sweeten contractor near you, click here.

Smaller Jobs May Qualify for EZ Permits

While other cities might require building plans for even the smallest jobs, Philly doesn’t. The city’s EZ Permits system allows some building, electrical and plumbing permit applications involving single-family homes to be submitted without plans. Projects that get the EZ Permits go-ahead include installing flooring, replacing roof coverings, putting in certain pools and spas, or adding a rear deck that is less than 216 square feet. Any buildings on the Philadelphia Historical Registry will not qualify for EZ Permits regardless of the project’s scope.

If your project does not fall under EZ Permits and the budget exceeds $25,000, three sets of building plans must be submitted—all signed and sealed by a design professional registered in the state of Pennsylvania. Of course, filing your building plans comes with a host of other stipulations. The Structural Design Criteria form is also required if your renovations are substantial, such as moving a load-bearing wall and reframing windows and doors.

Historical Commission Involvement

Did you buy a landmarked home in need of some love? Good for you. Not surprisingly, the city’s Historical Commission has a reputation for being strict, so get your ducks in order.

It’s likely you already know if your home is a landmark or in a historic district. If you want to double check, here’s a list. Your historic home project will only need the blessing of the commission if you are altering the outside. That means roof, back, sides and front. This is a little different from other cities, where only renovations on the street-facing facade of a historic building are subject to additional approvals. If your project involves a historic home in Philly, then a general contractor, engineer or architect who has some experience working with the Historic Commission will be very helpful, as they will likely be filing the paperwork.   

Philly’s Unique Historic Homes Come with A Manual

The pride of Philadelphia real estate is its rowhouses. The side-by-side historic homes (of course, many are now multi-family dwellings) are more numerous than any other building type in the city. Rowhouse type can vary from the three-story trinity, which are tiny three-story homes built for factory workers in the 1700s to Victorian-style structures for the more affluent.  

“Many of these homes are crying out to be renovated,” said Jon, the Sweeten-vetted contractor. Rowhouses are so important to Philadelphia’s identity that the city even created a manual for those who own them, outlining why they are significant and how to renovate them. The manual encourages rowhouse owners to consider the impact of any facade renovations on the look of their neighborhood, even if the building isn’t a landmark or in a historic district. There are also practical tips such as using a modified asphalt (a specific type of material) for the gently sloping roofs that most rowhouses have. The manual also covers serious renovations, such as how to add a garage under the home. There’s also plenty of general renovation advice in there that can relate to those non-rowhouse owners.

Whether you’re renovating an entire brownstone or an apartment within one, historic buildings have great character. We love Janet and Jerry’s rowhouse and Arthur and Kate’s modern take.

Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, scope, and style. Follow the blog for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation on Sweeten.