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

Read up on licensed general contractors in Philly, the EZ Permit system, and historical landmarks

philadelphia rowhouse remodel(Above) “After” photos by Kingston Ko for Sweeten homeowner Nel’s rowhouse in Bella Vista

No two cities are exactly the same when it comes to renovating, and this absolutely the case for Philadelphia. As one of the oldest municipalities in the U.S., Philadelphia’s individuality can be seen in its broad mix of housing types. According to Sweeten founder and CEO, Jean Brownhill: “Philadelphia has a unique architectural mix, from historic rowhouses and trinities to modern condos.” 

However, with a unique housing supply comes a unique set of rules and regulations. Philly homeowners considering remodeling should be aware of these before starting a project. In this guide, Sweeten outlines what to know about renovating in this historic city: upsides, challenges, and remodeling tips specific to the region.

Sweeten matches home renovation projects with vetted general contractors, offering advice, support, and up to $50,000 in renovation financial protection—for free.

In Philadelphia, a licensed general contractor can file your 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? (Well, the easy answer is: it would be illegal not to have one!) But 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.

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 Philadelphia remodeling 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. (Take note: 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. 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.

Are you renovating a landmark or in a historic district in Philadelphia?

If you purchased a landmarked home in need of TLC, the city’s Historical Commission has strict regulations to follow. You most likely already know if your home is a landmark or in a historic district. But if you want to double-check, here’s a list. Are you altering the outside of your home (the roof, back, sides, and/or front)? In that case, your historic home project will need the blessing of the commission. This is 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. (This will come in handy, as they will likely be filing the paperwork!)

Tips for renovating Philadelphia’s rowhouses

The pride of the city’s real estate is its rowhouses. The side-by-side homes are more numerous than any other building type in the city. Many are now multi-family housing units. One common type of rowhouse is the three-story trinity, (tiny, three-story homes built for factory workers in the 1700s). You’ll also see larger, Victorian-style rowhouse structures, which were historically occupied by more affluent locals.

Rowhouses are so important to Philadelphia’s identity that the city actually created a manual for those who own them! The manual outlines why they are significant and how to renovate them. For example, it encourages rowhouse owners to consider the impact of facade renovations on the look of their neighborhood. (This even applies if the building isn’t a landmark or in a historic district.)

The manual shares a few more rowhouse-specific renovation tips. For example, it recommends using a modified asphalt—a specific type of material—for the gently sloping roofs, which most rowhouses have. The manual also covers serious construction changes, like adding a garage under the home. (Another upside: there’s plenty of general renovation advice in the manual that can relate to non-rowhouse owners!)

Ready to start a Philadelphia home remodel?

Since 2016, Sweeten has helped Philadelphia homeowners bring their remodeling dreams to life by pairing them with expert contractors in the region. Sweeten handles remodeling projects of all sizes: from simple bathroom updates in city apartments to transformative gut renovations in rowhouses or suburban homes.

Tell Sweeten about your project and get matched with licensed, vetted general contractors in the Philadelphia area.

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Want to see Sweeten’s handiwork in Philadelphia?

A full gut renovation of a Bella Vista rowhouse damaged by a massive fire.

A suburban Philadelphia kitchen doubles in size, with a fresh modern look.

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.

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