When is a Permit Required?

Ask the Expert When is a permit required?
by John R. Schneider

Q. As a new association board member, I would like to know when a contractor has to obtain a permit. We currently have to replace a sewer line damaged by tree roots, plus we’re adding some additional lighting to the common area. Some contractors have told us no permits are required, and others have said they are required, and that the association must get them. Who is right?
C. W., Hayward

The permit process is one of the most important parts of any construction process and the one often misunderstood by both home owners and contractors. Requiring permits and inspections is the only way a municipality can ensure that work to a building will meet minimum levels of health and safety. Work not done to code can compromise the safety of a structure, present significant disclosure issues when the property is sold, and may effect insurance coverage in the event of an accident or property damage resulting from the work performed. These exposures to liability are the main reasons all work should be done with permits.

The requirement for a building permit is in the 2007 California Building Code which states;
“§108.4.1 Permits. 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.”

This applies to work done by anyone, whether a contractor, home owner or association. There are four types of permits required in residential construction; building, electrical, plumbing and mechanical permits. The instances when a permit is not required are listed in the California Building Code but it is always wise to check with the local authority. Though the work might not require a permit Section 108.4.1 continues with this admonition;
“Exemptions from permit requirements shall not be deemed to grant authorization for any work to be done in any manner in violation of other provisions of law or this code.”

A simple repair to a water line, exterior siding, or to a roof covering would usually not require a permit. However, replacing a section of damaged sewer line, re-routing a water supply line damaged by tree roots, adding additional lighting to a common area, or replacing a furnace or water heater would usually require that a permit be obtained.

A permit allows the municipality to inspect and approve of work being performed before it is covered up, and once more when the job is completed. You’d think that replacing a sewer line would be straight forward but there are several things that must be checked to ensure the work is done properly. I’ve seen many repairs where improper fittings were installed or the piping was not installed on a firm compactable base. These conditions could restrict the proper drainage of the piping or allow the piping to sag and crack when it is backfilled with dirt. Once covered over these conditions would have not been visible to anyone, and it could take months before signs of a failure were visible. Having a permit gives a municipal inspector an opportunity to inspect the work before it is covered over and concealed.

The California Business and Professions Code require licensed contractors to have permits (when required) for all work they perform, but it does not require the contractor to actually obtain the permit themselves. The property owner or the association they are working for may obtain them. Although an owner or association can obtain permits for most work performed by contractors, there are several good reasons why they should not.

When a person applies for a permit, they fill out and sign a legal document (the permit application) stating that they are either the owner-builder or contractor for the work, and assume full responsibility for the work done. This includes making sure the work meets all applicable building codes and ensuring that inspections are called for and the work is approved by the municipality.
Reputable contractors know they are responsible for obtaining permits, and they will include the costs for permits in their bids. Contractors who want the owner or association to pull the permit, or state that a permit was not necessary usually do so for one of three reasons. The contractor is not licensed, and therefore cannot obtain a permit, they don’t want to include the cost of permits in their bids to look more competitive, or they know their work would not pass inspection. Any reason not to pull a permit should be a red flag for the party paying for the work, unless the work being performed does not require it.

It should be emphasized that obtaining a permit does not mean the work is automatically approved by the Authority having jurisdiction. A contractor might obtain a permit, but never call for an inspection. At the job completion, the association is left with work that was never checked or approved by the municipality. The ultimate responsibility of ensuring the work is code complying falls on the permit holder. Don’t assume that responsibility by agreeing to take the permit out for the contractor, and be aware that obtaining a permit is only part of the permit process.

For a permit to be complete, the building department must called for a rough inspection before the work is covered up (with dirt, siding or sheetrock), and then a finial inspection to look at the finished job. If a person does not call for a rough and a final inspection, the permit will become invalid. This means that the work was never approved by the municipality. If the job extends over several months, and an inspection is not called for within 180 days of obtaining the permit or since the last inspection, the permit will be considered void, and a new permit will have to be obtained and paid for.

The cost of a permit is based on the valuation of the work being performed, which includes labor and material. Municipalities are allowed through adopted ordinances, to charge fees for services they provide. The fees charged for permits must cover the administration costs of reviewing and approving the plans, and the costs of providing the required site inspections. Over the years, cities have developed data for costs to provide permit and plan checking services for various sizes and types of projects. Typically, the cost of a permit runs about 1 ½% to 3% of the estimated cost of a project. On smaller jobs, the cost for a permit will be closer to 3% of the job, and on larger jobs, the permit cost will be much lower. On very small jobs or jobs with specific replacements such as a water heater or furnace replacement or a section of a sewer line, the permit fee will be a set price.

If you don’t know what permit or inspections are required for a certain repair or modification that the association may want to do, call or visit your local building department and ask. Be sure to inquire if there are any local ordinances or design requirements that may affect your job. Not only will they try to answer your question, they can usually supply you with printed information about specific requirements for various aspects of work and what the potential permit costs will be.

John R Schneider is a licensed General Building Contractor, and certified Code Specialist. Since 1985, he has been president of All About Homes, Inc., an East Bay consulting company that specializes in the investigation of construction related deficiencies, the management of projects, and the facilitation of disputes between owners, associations, and vendors. Mr. Schneider is a member of the ECHO Maintenance Panel. Questions or comments can be directed to Mr. Schneider at jrschneider@allabouthomes.com.

© 2010, by John R. Schneider, all rights reserved.

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