Once you decide to undertake a home improvement project, you’ll invest time and energy determining your budget, your floor plan layout, architectural style, and whether your project’s scope necessitates the involvement of a contractor, architect, or both. But it’s important to consider an additional, and equally critical consideration: whether your project will need a building permit, and if so, how to go about obtaining it.
Why Do I Need a Building Permit at All?
A building permit is an official approval issued by the local government agency that allows you or your contractor to proceed with a construction or remodeling project on your property. It is intended to ensure the safety of current and future owners and their occupants as well as enforce compliance with local standards for land use, zoning, and construction.
Do All Types of Projects Require a Building Permit?
Not all construction requires a building permit. Whether your project needs a permit depends on what is required by your building department, who enforces the California Building Code (CBC) as informed by local ordinance. Generally speaking, a building permit is required unless the work is specifically exempted by the California Building Code. The projects most likely to require a permit are those that change the structure or use of a building or have the potential to involve life-safety issues. For example, you will likely need a building permit for:
• Roof replacement.
• Sheds larger than 120 square feet.
• Building or altering detached structures, such as garages.
• New ADU’s or converting existing rooms or garages to ADU’s.
• Plumbing, electrical or mechanical improvements.
• Kitchen or bathroom remodels.
• Alterations or additions to the residence.
What Work is Exempt from Obtaining Permits?
Exemptions from permitting are allowed for certain work, and these vary for each jurisdiction. Generally the following are typically exempted:
• low fences.
• retaining walls up to 4 feet high not supporting a surcharge (e.g. sloping ground, buildings, driveways, etc).
• minor electrical and plumbing repairs without replacing existing wiring or piping.
• painting, wall papering, tiling, carpeting, and similar finish work.
• movable fixtures, cases, racks, counters and partitions up to 5 feet 9 inches high without electrical.
• one-story detached building used for storage or a children’s playhouse with a floor area up to 120 square feet and without electricity, plumbing, or heating.
My Project Appears to be Exempt: What Else Do I Need to Know
Building permitting is administered by the building department, which enforces the building codes. Local ordinance is administered by the planning department. Local ordinances may in fact override the exceptions to getting building permits in certain instances. Examples of these overriding considerations include conformance to required setbacks from property lines and/or right-of-ways, enforcement of Coastal Zone provisions, or special environmental conditions such as riparian corridors, etc. It’s therefore important to check with both building and zoning counters at your local planning department since work exempted from building permitting may require another type of permit or technical review: a check-in with zoning staff can provide you with this information.
How Do I Get a Building Permit?
The typical steps to obtaining a building permit are:
• Preparing drawings for the project: if your project is extensive, you will likely need to hire an architect or other qualified professional to draw the project as it will be constructed and demonstrating compliance with building and zoning regulations.
• Completing a permit application: many jurisdictions nowadays admit of downloading, filling out, and then electronically submitting the application for permitting. For other jurisdictions, or if you need some hand-holding to fill it out correctly, and an in-person visit to the building department may be in order.
• Making submittal of the plans: for smaller projects many jurisdictions will allow you to receive an in-person approval at an “over-the-counter” review. Larger projects variously are submitted either online or at an in-person meeting depending on the practices of the local jurisdiction. After that the local agency may take several days or weeks to review the plans, although this process may get extended even further if the regulatory review requires subsequent corrections and revisions.
• Obtaining the permit: Also called “pulling” the permit, in cases where a permit is required, you will need to obtain it before you conduct any construction on your property.
• Scheduling inspections: as you perform construction, you will need to schedule inspections throughout the process so the city can verify that you are acting according to your plans.
• Complete your project and obtain final regulatory approval.
The specific process and exact steps will vary according to the practices of your local regulatory agency, so make sure to check your local zoning and permitting requirements before starting on your project. It’s also important to note here that if you’re working with a contractor, they should be well-versed in which projects require permits.
Who Arranges for the Permit?
If you retained a contractor for your project, the Contractors Licensing Board recommends that the contractor be the one to “pull” the permit. This is a good idea because typically the person who pulls the permit is responsible for administering the permit through finalization. If you pull the permit, you will be the one responsible for the correctness of the work, scheduling inspections, answering to inspector’s requirements, and otherwise administering to the permit through the course of construction. Contractors are also often familiar with the process and the city’s inspectors, so the contractor’s preexisting relationship with the city can work to your benefit.
What If I Skip Getting a Permit?
If your project requires a permit, as cumbersome as the process may seem, it is generally far simpler to obtain one rather than dealing with the enforcing agency should it find out you should, but didn’t, obtain the requisite permitting. In this event, the city or county (i.e. agency) might:
• open a code compliance case against the construction project for not having the appropriate building permit.
• shut down your project.
• compel the project to obtain the proper building permit within a set time frame.
• levee increase permit fees over those normally assessed.
• require you to tear down a portion of your work (for example, remove a wall to see what’s behind it) if there is a question as to whether the work was done according to code.
Construction done without permits may be excluded from your homeowners insurance, possibly even presenting reason for denial in the event of a claim. Unpermitted construction is quite often disallowed in a property value appraisal, and in the event of sale of the property you might be compelled to bring it up to code as a condition of sale. The worst thing would be if this were to happen when you’re in the middle of selling your house, which is when such issues often come to light.
Summarizing, although it may be tempting to skip the permit process, it’s rarely a good idea. Permits help maintain consistent and safe building practices, so contact the local building authority before you get started. The permit may not cost as much as you think, and you won’t have to worry about getting caught later.
For Further Reading:
• Angie’s List has a good overview of this topic at: https://www.angi.com/articles/do-i-really-need-building-permit.htm.
• The Spruce article, “When Do You Need a Permit for Your Remodeling Project?” is presented at: https://www.thespruce.com/most-popular-window-styles-1822931.
• “Home Improvements That Require Permits”, an article by Investopedia, can be found at: https://www.ecohome.net/guides/2263/high-performance-windows-what-to-look-for-when-shopping/.