The submittal consists of providing required plans and details for a local building jurisdiction’s review before it will issue a permit. Often there is little choice but to hire a professional (or an assortment of professionals) to create the required plans and navigate the process.
On the other hand, if the job is minor or you think you can do the work yourself, the following advice will give you an idea of what to expect and how to navigate approval.
In either case you’ll need to determine who is responsible for managing the process, from the first submittal to the day your permit is approved and ready to be issued. What follows is a general explanation of the submittal stage and an overview of possible requirements to receive a permit.
In some cases it may be as simple as filling out a form at the building department. If you are changing out an existing water heater, for example, a permit can be provided over the counter in a single visit.
In other cases the requirements and extent of the process can be complex and time consuming. Possible steps are nearly as varied as the types of projects that might be imagined, but there are some general requirements you should be aware of.
When you meet with a reputable professional or make the initial trip to your building jurisdiction, explain the details of your project. If you are planning to remodel a bathroom, you will need to communicate the proposed scope, specifically noting any electrical changes, plumbing modifications and certainly any revisions to walls or ceilings that might have structural ramifications.
Then start taking notes. List the precisely defined submittal requirements in the most comprehensive manner possible.
Depending on the scope of your project, your local planning department will likely be the first step in the process. The extent to which your local planning and building departments are interdependent can vary. In some cases the plan checker may be one and the same, meaning the same local official will check to confirm planning requirements are met before moving on to the building requirements. However, in most situations, the two departments are somewhat autonomous and might even exist in different buildings. I have seen communication issues arise between these two departments, while in other cases they seem to work seamlessly together.
The general mission of the planning department is to manage growth in the community it serves, shaping physical development while ensuring conformance to adopted general plans, zoning ordinances and planning codes.
The department will review any change to your home’s footprint or exterior massing, as well as added exterior structures such as trellises, cabanas, pools, patios, fences and retaining walls. The planning department is concerned not with the structural integrity of the building but whether it conforms to community planning codes, ordinances and zoning laws.
There will be a very specific manner in which the plans are to be submitted. Although there’s an extensive list of possible required details, typical requirements include a certain number of copies, specific page sizes, a site plan and elevations for the project.
Whatever exterior modification you are considering, there will be rules and guidelines. These usually exist for the protection of the neighbors and include height restrictions for trellises, which are likely 10 to 12 feet high, and setbacks that specify the distance your addition must keep from each property line, which could range from 5 to 20 feet.
There are risks to ignoring the process. In one instance we provided consultation for a friend whose new sport court had to be physically modified, including via saw cutting and substantial concrete demolition, because it did not conform to city guidelines by a few feet. A neighbor complained, and the proper steps had not been taken to ensure conformance.
If you have a homeowner’s association, you should mention this to your planning department. It may direct you to your association’s design review board instead. Keep in mind that although there are advantages to homeowner’s associations, they can impose restrictions on aesthetic changes to your home and to permissible types of exterior additions. Building jurisdictions sometimes will not review plans until they’re stamped and approved by an HOA.
If your project does not conform to your zoning ordinances, there may still be an option at your disposal. A variance seeks an exception for reasonable projects that do not technically conform to zoning guidelines. It can be a time-consuming, sometimes costly process, consisting of a number of approval steps, possibly including public hearings from the likes of planning commissions and county supervisors.
For heritage sites and homes under the jurisdiction of homeowner’s associations, a design review board inspects plans from an aesthetic standpoint. Neighbors could be contacted and have an opportunity to debate the project at these forums and before the governing bodies described in the variance review above.
The building department administers and enforces local building construction regulations. It reviews and checks plans for conformance to building codes, issues permits and prescribes and carries out inspections over the course of permitted project construction.
The extent of regulation can be mind melting. There are rules and then there are rules governing the rules. Even though you may have passed through the planning department, and the HOA if applicable, the building department has still hardly glanced at your plan.
Some of these requirements may have been submitted at the planning stage; you will have discovered the order of submittal requirements by speaking with your local planning and building department early in the process. If you are working with a professional familiar with local requirements, producing what is required should be practically second nature to that person.
At every step of the way, there can be costs for the permit review, and they can be substantial. By the end of the process, you may have paid school fees to your local school district for added square footage, utility fees for changes affecting usage of water and power, and sewer fees for added plumbing fixtures. There can be review fees, inspection fees and development fees, all tallied up and required at different stages in the process.
High fees are not always the case. Small changes that do not add to the square footage of your home can cost in the low hundreds of dollars. But I have seen large new projects that incur total jurisdictional fees well over $100,000, so be sure to get some sort of estimate on likely fees up front, and document that estimate for your own protection.
Planning your project, and researching the required submittal details and costs early on, can make all the difference between a swift, efficient approval and a long, drawn-out ordeal.
Communicate plans for your project with as much detail as possible early in the process, and develop a plan to create the required submittal documents.
There is nothing worse than completing the first step of a project (say, a new pool) and then discovering that the second step (a gorgeous cabana meant to flank the water’s edge) is noncompliant. These things really happen, so define your full plan of action, whether it’s a bedroom addition by an architect, a design professional’s complete landscape plan or a bathroom you hope to update with your own hands.