Monday, January 26, 2015

How and When To "Pull A Permit"

In 1956 my grandfather paid $1,653.00 to have a free standing, 1 car garage built.  I've seen copies of building permits from this era.  They usually cost a minimal amount (like $18 for a garage) and were accompanied with a meager list of rules that needed to be followed during the process.  A lot has changed since then - construction projects cost a lot more and so do the permits.  But even more, the once simple building code has turned into a monstrosity that just about takes a lawyer to understand.
Never the less, we are all bound by these rules and regulations and need to do our best to stay compliant with building codes, which includes obtaining the proper permits.

But When Do You Need A Permit?

Permits are one of those things that we in the construction business take for granted.  After years of jumping through government hoops and filling out mounds of paperwork and arguing with secretaries about what should and should not be included in permit fees, we just sort of expect that everyone knows how get a building permit when they need one.  But even this assumption raises questions, so here is my attempt to answer the top questions in regards to building permits.

Q.  What is "Pulling a Permit"?
A. Your contractor buddy or brother in law or whoever told you to "pull a permit" was just using common terminology to let you know that he thought you should take the time to file for a permit with the local building department in regards to the project you are planning on doing.

Q.  Where do I get my permit?
A.  Permits are filed for a received from your local building department.  This however is a little more complicated in some areas.  Start by doing a web search for your city's building department (i.e. “Denver Colorado Building Department”).  Call them and ask if your address is within their jurisdiction.  If not, they can tell you who to call next.  The reason this may not be so straight forward is that some cities are unincorporated and are thus maintained by a county government.  Also, some specific items (such as electrical permits in the state of Colorado) are handled by a state board of inspectors.  So it could be City, County or State.  Just start small and work your way up until someone claims you.  Once you find the right municipality, just web search or call them to ask where their building department is located.

Q.  When do I need a permit?
A.  The specific and lawful answer to this question is taken from the IRC or International Residential Code.  I'm quoting the 2009 edition because that is what is currently accepted in my area.  Now bear with me.  If you really want to know the answer, then you have to know a few things first.

R101.2 Scope.  The provisions of the International Residential Code for one- and Two-family dwellings shall apply to the construction, alteration, movement, enlargement, replacement , repair, equipment, use and occupancy, location, removal and demolition of detached one - and two-family dwellings and townhouses not more than three stories above grade plane in height with a separate means of egress and their accessory structures.

WOW, what a mouthful.  If you take the time to break down this section of the building code, you will realize that the local building department is claiming the right to require current codes be applied to anything that falls under this explanation and that this short paragraph basically claims any construction, repair or replacement you might do to anything on, in or around your house, town-home or condo.  So basically, if you use a tool on part of your home, you need to do it according to current code, but when exactly do you need a permit?  Keep reading.

R105.1 Required.  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.

Now we are getting a little more detailed.  Here is a basic list (derived from above) of what work you must have a permit for
  • Addition to an existing structure
  • Construction of a new structure
  • Structural Changes to an existing structure
  • Major plumbing changes or repairs such as water heater replacement or bathroom addition
  • Major electrical changes or additions such as a full panel replacement or a finished basement
This still leaves a lot of gray.  What about replacing a light fixture or a sink, or repairing a ruptured water line or replacing a circuit breaker, or remodeling your kitchen or replacing a furnace or air conditioner.  We all interpret this code a little differently and draw the line at a different place and so do building departments.

The best and safest answer to this question is to stop by your local building department and ask them.  But be aware that it is getting more and more common to see previously unheard of permits being issues simply because someone in the building department saw an opportunity to charge a fee and keep their staff busy.  (Disclaimer: I'm not anti-government, I just think there is a lot of dishonesty in government and I don’t like it).  But without asking, you won't know for sure and you risk dealing with the consequences.

Q.  How do I get my permit?
A.  In most cases you will need to either download a permit application or pick one up from the building department.  The application will usually have a list of items needed for your particular permit but here is a quick list of what to expect.
  • Completed permit application
  • Drawing of work to be done (floor plan for sure, and additional views if needed for explanation)
  • Plan check fee (ask at the desk how much to make the check out for)
  • List of any licensed contractors you plan to use for the job as well as their license numbers
  • Valuation of work (how much is it going to cost you for materials and labor)
Q.  Why would I bother filing for a permit?
A.  This is perhaps the most common question I get asked about permits.  After all, it is a lot of work to pull a permit.  It is expensive and slows down the process, so why would a go through the hassle?  The basic answer is that you do it to protect yourself.  If you do a project and get half way through or even finish it and get caught, you may be forced to open up walls and expose work for the inspector to see before finishing your project.  Also, if you have a flood or fire that is caused by non-permitted work, it is possible that the insurance company could get out of having to pay the bill by proving that the work was not approved and therefore not necessarily safe.

The decision you have to make is where you draw the line.  Don't blow off a permit just because of time and money.  I'm a "small government" guy and believe most building departments way over-reach but I also believe we should operate within the law and change the law if we don't like it.  So if your project is bigger than just replacing a toilet or a few cabinets, consider making a trip down to the permit office to get things straight.  You might not be happy about the process or the cost, but at least you won't be sorry when you get caught without one.

And if you don’t like the current regulations your building department has, then vote for people who will make it better – it’s your right and your duty to do so.

What is your permit experience that others could learn from?

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