Building permits. I think they should be added to the list of things in life that can’t be avoided. Death, taxes and building permits. When you really think of it, building permits are kind of like the culmination of the other two. They are a tax to be sure, and they often make you wish you were dead, if only for a brief dark moment.
A common surprise to homeowners is that all new work has to be done to current code. So the idea that you can just rebuild something the way it was before is usually wrong.
In reality however, I think most people are glad we have them. I know I am. Building permits are a necessary part of the process that keeps buildings safe, keeps neighborhoods beautiful and ensures that homes and buildings will stand the test of time without falling apart.
Necessary as they may be, the actual process of getting a permit is not much fun. There are many headaches involved and if you’ve got a permit application in your future, maybe this list of 15 of the worst of them will help you be a little bit more prepared for the enhanced interrogation you’re about to endure.
“What do you want to do?” is the first thing the building department is going to ask you. It’s kind of misleading because they don’t really want an answer. Not verbally anyway. If it was possible for you to just not talk, that would be preferable by far. They want you to SHOW them what you’re going to do. They want plans. They like pretty drawings. So if you want to start right off with a headache, show up with no plans at all and go ahead and try using your words to describe how you’re going to put a new garage out there to block your view of the neighbor’s dog kennel. Or, if you want to play it smart, bring some very detailed plans.
No Site Plan
Here’s a common stumbling block question: “Where’s your site plan?” If you’re wondering if that has something to do with a website you want to build, stay with me. A site plan is a birds eye drawing (not picture) of your property, all the existing buildings, the property lines and the work you want to do. It should show things like wells, septic tanks and driveways. You should probably leave off things like unpermitted storage sheds you may or may not have built last month. If your entire project is indoors, and you really want to avoid headaches, do a site plan anyway! If your project involves a new addition or structure, a site plan is a must.
Plan Review Comments
Have you ever shown a contract to a lawyer and asked them to look it over? Have they ever handed it back and said, “Looks great. Have a nice day!” No. That hasn’t happened, ever. Plan reviewers are the same way. They have a job to do and that job is to show you what’s horribly wrong with your plans. So even if nothing is wrong, something is wrong. Just be prepared for some sort of comments. Even the most perfect set of plans usually has something to add, take away or adjust. If you’re ready, it won’t feel like a headache. Right?
I have something to tell you. Are you sitting down? Your whole house remodel and room addition with a swimming pool permit might take more than one day to obtain. I know. It’s frustrating. The first step is usually a zoning review. This is where the site plan is so important. Does your proposed structure fit within the allowed “buildable” area on your property? Are you proposing something that is a “conforming use?” Essentially that means if you want to build a garage apartment to rent out on Airbnb and nobody else in your neighborhood has a garage apartment, you’re in for a headache. Zoning controls what you can build and where you can build it. Good times. This can take anywhere from five minutes to five weeks.
Once zoning is approved, your plans will be checked for building code compliance in plan review. This process usually takes longer and it’s somewhat dependent on the local economy. If things are booming, the plan review team will be swamped and you should expect to wait weeks. If you’re in a smaller municipality or the new construction market is cooled off, then this might only take a couple of days. I’ve seen it take three months.
Finally you reach a point where there’s nothing left to fight over. You’re done … but not yet. After clearing plan review your permit gets in line again and waits for processing. You didn’t really want to start this year anyway.
I would think this goes without saying, but every time I’m in a building department there’s always “the guy.” The guy is clearly agitated because he (or she) is being forced to a) take a number and b) take a seat (and I suggest you always do it in that order). There’s mumbling about taxes and government workers and a ridiculous process. Usually there’s a laminated placard on the wall warning all concerned parties “don’t be ‘the guy’... trust us.” Why? Because the guy never, ever, ever, gets a permit. So just wait quietly and be nice. Less headaches that way.
Owner as GC
Building departments really prefer it when you hire a licensed contractor. Less headaches for them that way. If you want to be your own GC you can usually do that, but be prepared to swear under oath by all you hold dear that you will, in fact, be present on that project if/when an inspector shows up. If you want to avoid headaches, just don’t talk about the reality that you will actually have to leave the house at some point.
Licensed General Contractors
If you hire a general contractor, you’re going to want to go with the licensed variety. The funniest thing I see in building departments is when the “contractor” asks the homeowner to go with them to get the permit because they aren’t actually licensed and need you to sign the above referenced paper that says YOU are the general contractor. Headache potential seems clear.
Some building departments want you to tell them who your subs are from day one. If that’s the case in your town, you’ll need to get all of your bids and make your choices before even going for the permit. This means your electrician, your plumber, your HVAC company and sometimes even more. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Last, but not least in the licensing issues, is license jurisdiction. If your state has state-level licensing, then this might be easy. Just get a state licensed contractor. But not all states do it this way and the result can be chaotic. Some counties have five, six, seven or more incorporated towns and cities within them and your contractor has to be licensed in the right one. If he or she isn’t, it can be a headache.
Current Code on Old Houses
A common surprise to homeowners is that all new work has to be done to current code. So the idea that you can just rebuild something the way it was before is usually wrong. New electrical, new structure (even if it’s a repair), new windows and doors, etc. all have to be to current code.
Life Safety Codes
In the same vein as above, the new work area and any rooms included in your permit have to be brought up to current safety codes. Some jurisdictions will require the whole property be brought up to code on certain issues such as fire alarms. It’s a good thing really, but can be an unexpected chunk of extra work.
If you happen to live in an area where the current code is substantially more stringent than old codes, you could be forced to bring the entire property up to code. Florida, for example, has what’s known as “The 50 Percent Rule,” which essentially requires the whole house be brought up to code if the total remodeled area or value is in excess of 50 percent of the existing home. If your home is currently built below the newly required flood elevation this could mean the whole, entire, house has to be lifted up a few feet higher in the air. Now that is a headache.
Land Use Codes
Touched on above under zoning, another big code issue is land use. I was in the building department the other day listening to a zoning official tell a woman who owned a horse boarding facility that she could keep her horse trailers on her property but she couldn’t let her boarders keep their trailers on her property. This kind of code impacts home offices, additional kitchens (mother-in-law suites), building height limitations and much more. These codes are hard to know about until you ask, but they are also hard to get around.
There you have it, 15 of the biggest permitting headaches that you might face during your remodeling project. But don't worry: While this list may make the entire project feel not worth pursuing, the reality is that a well-designed, managed and finished project will always be worth the hassle that the building department will put you through. At the end of the day, when you’re sitting in your newly remodeled space, you might even be able to laugh when you think about the hoops you had to jump through to make it happen!