When a Building Permit is Required

One of the most common questions in our business is “What triggers the need for a building permit?”  The law is not completely clear on this matter.  The California Building Code states “A written construction permit shall be obtained from the enforcing agency prior to the erection, construction, reconstruction, installation, moving or alteration of any building or structure.” 

That is a very broad definition and it encompasses most construction that occurs.  In California, you might not need a building permit for service and repair work costing less than $750 to complete (sometimes called “handyman jobs”). The law pertaining to these types of jobs is found in the CA Business and Professions Code 7159.10. http://codes.lp.findlaw.com/cacode/BPC/1/d3/9/10/s7159.10

Typically, if you are making a permanent improvement to your property, even something small like adding a porch, deck, or shed, it will require a building permit.  According to Bill Burnett and Kevin Burnett in their award-winning “Sweat Equity” column for do-it-yourselfers, “generally speaking, anything that you do to your house structurally and most electrical, plumbing and mechanical changes will require a permit and subsequent inspection.”  See “Permit requirements vary for home-improvement jobs” at http://www.sfgate.com/rss/feed/Bill-and-Kevin-Burnett-Sweat-Equity-503.php

The main reason for the permit process is public health and safety.  Your local Building Department has a mandate to check that things are built safely and properly.  In almost all cases, building department officials and inspectors are not trying to prevent you from doing your project; they just want to make sure it is done properly.  There is a good handbook, written in an easy-to-read format called “It’s Your Building Department”. http://www.documents.dgs.ca.gov/bsc/documents/2012/It’s-Your-Blg-Dept-Booklet.pdf  It was produced in February of 2012, so it doesn’t reflect the most recent code changes, but there are embedded links to more information on government websites.  The booklet was written specifically for elected city councils and city managers, but building owners will find the information useful.  It explains what Building Department officials do and what laws they follow.

The Building Department may issue a building permit for relatively straightforward projects “over-the-counter” at City Hall, without an appointment.  For simple residential work, occasionally the licensed General Contractor can take care of obtaining the building permit over-the-counter for the homeowner.  The permit fees depend on the size of the project and other local factors.  More complex projects that require Planning Department review will require the help of an architect to assist in the process and provide the required documents.

Don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish.  Avoiding the permit process to save the permit fee is to risk getting “red tagged” with a stop-work order and paying a costly fine on top of the permit fees.  The City or County may even require the work that has already been accomplished to be demolished.

Commercial buildings and institutional buildings (churches, medical facilities, clubhouses, etc.) should always contact the Building Department about construction work to be performed as a matter of public safety even for small jobs.  But again, the Planning and Building Department will determine what permits, if any, are required.  These projects also require drawings from a licensed architect, who will know what the current Building Code requires.

In my next blog article, I will talk about the consequences of buying a home that has been remodeled without permits.


Lorianna Kastrop
Vice President
The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects

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