Facts About Building Permits You May Not Know

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The building permit process can be labyrinthine. It's complicated by the fact that different jurisdictions have different rules, though most are drawn from the same International Residential Code. Despite the differences, here are a few facts generally in common to all building permits that you should be aware of:

You Should Be Able to Call Permitting Offices Anonymously

No, you cannot conduct all of your business with a permit office this way. But many homeowners who have initial permitting questions that they deem sensitive should be able to ask them of the permitting office by phone.

Owner/Builder Permits Allow You to Act as Your Own Contractor

If you decide to forgo hiring a contractor, it's possible in some jurisdictions to secure an "owner/builder permit" that allows you to occupy the home for a specified period (usually around 1 year) while contracting out the job.

You Run Serious Liability Risks When Operating Under an Owner/Builder Permit

As an owner/builder, you act as your own contractor instead of hiring one. Contracting out your build or remodel does allow you to save on that painful 15%-25% fee. Yet you also carry the burden of potential liabilities, many of which can be serious. Hiring a licensed, insured, bonded contractor better insulates you from these liabilities.

Easements Can Kill Your Permit

Does your property have an easement? Easements are surprisingly common. Wherever a power line, sewer main, sidewalk, or other common-and-continuous service passes through your property, you probably have an easement.

For easements, check your property's plat, available online at your county assessor's site or at its offices. Generally, no flexibility will be allowed to intended building on easements, unless they are minor additions like fences.

Stock Plans May Not Get Approved

Stock building plans abound on the Internet. Homeowners, instead of spending $1,500 minimum for custom architect-drawn plans, can buy ready-made plans for as low as $500-$600 for a 2 bedroom, 2 bath house with a garage.

But your local building permit office may not approve these plans. Even though the Internet plans may have been drawn by an architect, your office may require that the plans be created by an architect licensed within the state.

Setbacks May Be Required

Setbacks are mandated buffers between houses that help maintain a feeling of openness in communities, as well as provide for safety margins in the event of fires.

If you are building to the side, almost certainly you will need to be aware of your local building code's required setback distances. In impacted communities, where house additions may be built to the front, minimum setback distances will also be required.

Variances: You're Not Always Bound to Code

Even if local building code has a certain mandate, you may be able to override this mandate by applying for a variance. A variance is an officially-approved exception to zoning ordinances.

Often, a homeowner may wish to build a larger house on his or her lot than is allowed by zoning ordinances. By requesting a variance, the homeowner may be allowed to build that larger home.

You May Be Restricted in Ways Other Than by the Permitting Process

Another potential snag: conditions, covenants, and restrictions (CCRs), which are found in planned communities, subdivisions, or planned unit developments (PUDs).

CCRs act as a type of "shadow zoning ordinance"--ordinances within ordinances, if you will. They are on top of, and sometimes in conflict with, your municipal ordinances.

In Some Cases, You May Not Even Need a Permit

Not all building and remodeling events require a permit.

Building Permit Costs Can Eat Up a Surprisingly Large Part of Your Project Cost

It's one thing to pull a $55 permit to build a fence. But what about that kitchen or bathroom remodel? Or that addition or new-home build of yours?  Steep. Depending on where you live and on your local government's need for money (building permits are a great source of revenue), you might spend as much as $950 for a $50,000 kitchen remodel (Fairfax County, VA).

Be aware of building permit costs as you are budgeting your project.

Much of the information in this guide is derived from the highly recommended book by Kia Ricchi, Avoiding the Con in Construction. It's a slim, inexpensive book that will almost surely save you money when dealing with building permits.