Building Permits - Do I need one?
The thought of renovating your home and/or a portion of your home can be an exciting undertaking. In regards to permits, it is important to know what you need to do before you proceed with your project. Simply know that building permits primarily exist to protect the health & safety of the home's residents and visitors. It is fully understood that while it might be inconvenient to apply for a building permit, it can and will be worth it in the long run.
1. But how do you know if you need a building permit for the project you are planning?
Generally speaking, any structural or structural system changes requires a permit. This means adding on to the home or moving walls inside the existing structure, especially if the walls "bear a load" (ie: Load Bearing).
A few written and internet searchable general guidelines plus "common sense" can give you an idea of whether you will need a building permit or not. In most all cases, you will need a permit for any modifications you would like to make to your existing home. These can include electrical, sewer or plumbing updates and mechanical installations such as a Furnace, A/C Compressor and a Water Heater. They may and most likely will include changes to the roof line and roof plus any roofing tile replacement. Don't forget any addition of fireplaces and the "expansion" of pre-existing windows frames could very well require a permit.
On the other hand, there are some situations when a permit is usually not required. Cosmetic changes, such as new flooring, baseboards, crown molding or painting typically do not require a permit. Other types of modifications, such as building an exterior deck, replacing the "siding" on your home, or building a new fence or retaining wall, may or may not require a permit depending on your municipality/city building codes.
Exterior work such as cutting down trees, simple landscaping or adding a new walkway from front door to the street are all projects that may or may not require a permit - this depending on the design, location and the extent of the work. It does not hurt nor will it take much time to check with your local City and/or community Building Division Department in order to verify if your project is and/or will be in full compliance with local codes. And, Oh Yes, if you live in an a complex with a Home Owner's Association (HOA), always check and know what is outlined/stated in the Covenants Conditions & Restrictions (CC&R's) to make sure you are in compliance.
The greatest risk to non-compliance of permits is that, as the owner, you could be liable for any bodily harm to anybody in your property.
If unsure whether you need a permit or not, always check with your local Building Division only because there can be a lot of vagueness and differences between one city to other another. For example: Let’s say there are two identical projects in different parts of the city or county, some cities/municipalities can be right next to each other and could have different codes and permitting requirements for your project.
2. Why do we have building codes?
Building codes are put in place to protect the home's residents/visitors as well as the community at large. One commonly cited example of a building code applies to stair railings. Stair railings are required to have a sturdy handrail to help occupants go up and down. But in general, the vertical railing spindles/posts are also not permitted to have any gaps that are larger than 4" (inches). This regulation was put in place in order to prevent small children from getting their head stuck while playing and trying to go through the gaps (kids will be kids).
Building codes can also help make the community safe and clean for everyone. Examples of this include environmental efficiency regulations. Requirements for energy efficiency have changed drastically over the past decade, causing building codes to adjust accordingly.
3. Is a building permit my responsibility or my contractor's?
If you choose to hire a contractor, make sure you discuss with the contractor who will be pulling the building permits. Both the homeowner and the “state licensed” General Contractor can obtain permits, but it is always best for the licensed contractor to get/obtain/pull the permits. The contractor must provide a bond to the Building Division (of your municipality) to ensure that the work will be started and completed in a timely manner, constructed in accordance with the various city codes and the workmanship to be performed within the acceptable degree/quality of their craft.
4. Do you need a permit to build a storage shed?
In most all cases, a permit is not necessary. Unless the house in which the shed is going to be located is subject to a design review or is within a preservation district such as the house having been designated a Historic landmark. A building permit is usually not required for a one story detached accessory building used as a tool and storage shed or playhouse - this provided that the floor area of the accessory building does not exceed 120 square feet. If the shed is over 120 square feet, check with your local Building Division if a permit is required.
5. Do you need a building permit to replace windows?
If you are replacing a window which is subject to obtaining a permit, you will be required to make the new window comply with the Uniform Building Code requirements for egress windows.
6. How can I find out if I need a permit?
Again, the easiest way is to contact your local building department and ask... Different areas/communities have different laws surrounding building permits and building codes. In general, urban areas are more strictly regulated while the requirements in rural areas tend to be a little less regulated. Always make sure that you check the most up-to-date local Building Code versions and all guidelines applicable to your project.
Oscar Castillo : Broker Associate (San Diego, CA)
- Residential Brokerage