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Do I need a building permit for a backyard shed in Harrisonburg, Virginia?

Updated: Mar 19

An in-depth look at when you do and when you don’t need to secure a building permit for a backyard shed.

No matter where you live, before building a structure, make sure you’re complying with local zoning and building codes. These codes and laws are adapted for both safety and community purposes. They make sure that all structures, whether you live in them or not, are safe to occupy or protect their contents and that they don’t infringe on the rights of adjacent landowners. Sometimes, the law requires the homeowner to secure a permit for the work to be done. This post discusses the reasons behind permitting, what happens if you fail to secure a permit, and whether you need a building permit for a backyard shed in the city of Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Why do we have building permits anyway?

A building permit is like a permission slip. You submit your plans for work to the city, they give you a permit to begin that work, then an inspector comes to make sure the work was done according to the Uniform Statewide Building Code before giving you permission to use the space.

Depending on the size of the project, an inspector signs off on the job at various stages of the work. This provides assurance that each stage—framing, electrical, masonry—is done correctly according to code. A simple backyard shed wouldn’t require so many visits from a building inspector but a garage may.

What happens if I don’t get a permit?

Failing to secure a building permit for a backyard shed when required can result in some pretty stiff consequences. First, if the city finds out about the project after it has begun, you could have your permit fees doubled. If they find that completed work wasn’t done according to code, they could require you redo the work, resulting in loss of both time and money. Finally, if you go to sell your home in the future and the lack of permit is discovered, you may still be required to secure one before being allowed to sell your home.

Do I need a building permit for a backyard shed in Harrisonburg, Virginia?

That depends. First, let’s start with the myth:

FALSE: If your building is under 256 square feet, you don’t need a building permit.

This common misconception is a half-truth. The whole truth is a lot more complicated. Here is the text verbatim from the “Exemptions from application for permit” section of the “Virginia Residential Code Requirements Pertaining to Accessory Structures.”

One story detached structures used as tool and storage sheds, playhouses, or similar uses, provided the building area does not exceed 256 square feet (23.78 m2) and the structures are not classified as a Group F-1 or H occupancy.

Note the text in bold. If you intend to use your shed as anything other than what’s highlighted in bold, you need a permit. If you want a summer kitchen, guest cottage, in-law suite, backyard home office, or anything other than a tool or storage shed, even if it’s less than 256 square feet, you need a permit.

What are the finer points to consider?

This size exemption for storage sheds is only one part of the permitting puzzle. There are a number of other considerations. Primarily, a building of any size must comply with Virginia Residential Code Requirements. If you’re building your own storage shed, it’s up to you to research what those code requirements are. If you’re buying from Ulrich Lifestyle, rest assured, we have that under control. But let’s look at a few code requirements that some other shed builders might not take to heart like we do.

Treatment of wood-based products—In some instances, the wooden components of your backyard shed must be either “naturally durable wood” like cedar or “preservative-treated in accordance with AWPA U1” or pressure-treated. What are those instances?

  1. Wooden floor joists closer than 18 inches or wood girders closer than 12 inches to the exposed ground. Fortunately, all Ulrich Lifestyle buildings include pressure-treated floor joists and girders. If you’re shopping around, that’s a great question to ask other manufacturers.

  2. All wood framing members that touch concrete or masonry exterior foundation walls and are less than 8 inches from the exposed ground. If you plan to set your building on concrete, you want to know this. 

  3. Sills and sleepers resting on a concrete slab with no moisture barrier.

  4. Siding, sheathing and framing less than 6 inches from the ground or less than 2 inches above concrete or similar surface exposed to the weather. All of Ulrich Lifestyle buildings included treated wood siding.

Foundations and footing requirements—While your backyard storage building doesn’t require a permanent foundation, there are still a few rules to follow. The general rule from Section R403.1 of the building code reads:

All exterior walls shall be supported on continuous solid or fully grouted masonry or concrete footings, wood foundations, or other approved structural systems that shall be of sufficient design to accommodate all loads according to Section R301 and to transmit the resulting loads to the soil within the limitations as determined from the character of the soil. Footings shall be supported on undisturbed natural soils or engineered fill.

Tool sheds under 256 square feet do not require permanent foundations but still need to be tied down for wind. Other exceptions include:

  1. The building eve is under 10 feet.

  2. Floor level to grade doesn’t exceed 18 inches.

  3. You anchor the structure to withstand wind loads as required by code

  4. Supporting structural elements touching the ground are level, on solid soil, and if wooden, preservative-treated.

  5. The structure is constructed of light-frame materials or wood or light-gauge steel and not slate, tile, brick, or masonry.

When it comes to footings, if your building is greater than 600-square-feet, or has an eve height of greater than 10 feet, the footings must be below the frost depth for the City of Harrisonburg of 30 inches.

What about zoning permit requirements for storage buildings in Harrisonburg?

A zoning permit is different from a building permit. Where a building permit has to do primarily with how the shed is constructed, a zoning permit regulates where the building is placed. Here are a few things Harrisonburg wants you to consider about zoning permits for sheds:

  1. Every property is in a zoning district that has a classification (R-1 and R-2 for residential and B-1 and B-2 for business ). Each zoning district has its own “blanket requirements.”

  2. A few blanket requirement for residential zones:

  3. Your shed must be in the rear yard.

  4. It must sit at least 5 feet from the side and rear property lines.

  5. The building cannot take up more than 30 percent of the required rear yard.

  6. Accessory buildings should not be placed in any recorded public easements or fire lanes.

Is there anything else to know?

There are a few other items you may want to consider before signing off on a new backyard storage building.

  1. The same zoning and permitting rules apply to temporary structures, such as while remodeling your home or to store your things while moving.

  2. Your storage building must be detached from the main house.

  3. If you want electricity or plumbing, you need a building permit and a permit for the utility.

  4. If your building is for commercial purposes like an office that the general public will visit, you need a permit.

  5. Any garage used to store vehicles needs a non-combustible floor.

For more information …

For more information about building permits for backyard sheds in the city of Harrisonburg, visit their website at

Also, regardless of size, contact the zoning department at 540-432-7700 to ensure your proposed building meets setback requirements and doesn’t encroach on any easements.

If you want more information about how Ulrich Lifestyle helps their customers jump through these permitting hoops, contact a trained storage professional near you.

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