In its simplest form, a building permit is a piece of paper that allows you to demolish, construct, alter, or repair a building. It is typically issued by a local government agency after drawings and other details have been submitted and approved. In case of simple repairs, sometimes a permit is issued ‘over-the-counter’, meaning the application does not need review and is approved on the spot. Building departments are generally located in or near a city’s City Hall. If you live in an unincorporated area, call your local county government for more information. The Contractors State License Board has an extensive listing of building departments in California.
Many people think of a building permit as one single document that will cover all the work they want to do. In reality, and depending on the scope of the project, you may need anywhere from one to six separate (but related) permits:
- Building: demolition, framing, structural, glazing, etc.
- Mechanical: work related to heating, ventilating, and air conditioning
- Plumbing: pertaining to water, gas, and waste lines
- Sewer: for new or replacement sewer lines
- Right-of-way: for parking a debris box on a public street
Note: for commercial or specialty projects such as restaurants you may need additional permits.
When You Need One
Most cities have adopted a definition written by the International Code Council that explains when a building permit is required. As an example, the City of Berkeley, California, explains this on its web site as follows:
“Any owner or authorized agent who intends to construct, enlarge, alter, repair, move, demolish, or change the occupancy of a building or structure, or to erect, install, enlarge, alter, repair, remove, convert or replace any electrical, gas, mechanical or plumbing system, the installation of which is regulated by this code, or to cause any such work to be done, shall first make application to the building official and obtain the required permit.” See the International Code Council for more information.
There are some exceptions. You don’t need a permit for fences less than six feet tall; small sheds (up to approx 100 square feet; check with your building department for specifics); cabinets and counter tops; driveways, including associated reinforcing steel and concrete work.
How They Are Of Benefit
Being issued a permit means that your proposed work and the way you plan to accomplish it have been approved and will meet current building codes. At certain stages an inspector will visit to review and hopefully approve the work that’s been done. Upon completion, the inspector will visit again for a ‘final inspection’ and sign the permit card accordingly. If you have a contractor doing the work, make sure you receive the original signed permit card so you know the job has been approved.
There are no set fees, and cost varies from one locale to the next. For small projects you may be charged a minimum fee. Sometimes permit fees are based on a percentage of the value of the project, while at other times fees are calculated using the square footage of the area that is being built or altered. Generally, building departments can give you an idea of cost prior to submittal of an application.
There may be other charges, too. For example, the City of Berkeley used to require only a sewer permit if you wanted to replace it. An inspector would come to make sure the work was done correctly, sign the permit, and that was the end of it. But because the City wants to raise revenue, it now requires a $150 ‘Certificate of Compliance’ for every sewer replacement. This is silly, of course, because compliance is already established when an inspector approves the work and signs the job card. Another example is related to testing. If your work includes stucco removal and meets certain other conditions, you may be required to have the stucco tested by an independent laboratory for the presence of asbestos. The cost of this is generally low, but it does add another item to your budget and to-do list.
What If I Make Improvements Without Permits?
Imagine you remodel your kitchen. You add electrical circuits, move around plumbing, replace wallboard and install new cabinets and appliances. The job is almost finished when one day you find a red piece of paper on your front door that reads ‘Stop Work’. Your local building department will likely give you the choice of returning the kitchen to its original state, or apply for a permit and show that the work was done to code. Many building departments will charge you double the usual fees as punishment. Inspectors have a good deal of latitude in how they will let you prove that the work is code-compliant. However, if they sense that you do not know what you are doing, they may require you to remove cabinets, wallboard, and even flooring, so wiring, plumbing, and insulation can be exposed and inspected. Is this hassle and expense worth the risk?
Some counties conduct so-called ‘pre-sale’ inspections. Before properties can be sold, building inspectors retrieve whatever building permits are on file for the corresponding addresses. They then compare what they see in the field to their records. If they notice any significant upgrades or added square footage not reflected in their files, you will be required to take steps similar to those outlined above.
Another good reason for obtaining a permit is that when the time comes to sell your property, it will be reassuring for prospective buyers to know that improvements were made with the blessing of local authorities.
From a contractor’s perspective, I never recommend to clients that they undertake projects without the necessary permits. It is important to me that the construction process is transparent, above-board, and flows smoothly. I deal with inspectors on a frequent basis and do my best to maintain good relationships. This makes my and their jobs much easier, and is of benefit to my clients as well.
Have you worked without a permit? What was your experience?