Additions & RemodelsConsumer Guides

Planning for Building Department Approval

There is more to building than sweat and sawdust. Whether building a custom home, adding a bonus room over the garage or remodeling the kitchen, your friendly local building department must be taken into account. You must anticipate their input, and add to your schedule the necessary time for approvals, processing, re-drawing of plans and re-working the changes required to meet code. Codes for each step of construction , including framing, electrical, plumbing, etc., vary from city to county, and individual inspectors within a single department can interpret the codes differently. Understanding the time and steps required to take a project from plans through approval can help you decide how to proceed.

Q: I want to add separate mother-in law quarters onto my property. What is the first step I should take?

A:You have two choices. You can hire an experienced general contractor familiar with the process, or you go it alone. In either case, the first step is to go to the building department, discuss the project, and ask for which approvals will be needed. It is important to have a list of specific questions to ask, write down the answers to each question, and have the person answering the questions sign the list off. I recommend going through these steps before having plans drawn by the builder or an independent residential designer to save time, money and frustration.

Q: What kinds of questions should I ask?

A:The most commonly overlooked step which can cause delays is not finding out which other departments must approve the project before the building department will even consider looking at it. These other departments can include Redevelopment Agencies, Environmental Planning, Fire Districts, Transportation , Water and Sewer, etc. You must be prepared for the time it will take for your plans to pass through all the different departments.

Also, be sure to ask a lot of questions about fees. Most building departments have lists explaining every city or county fee required. Don’t forget to consider school district fees, which you may need to research and pay separately before a building permit is issued. You may discover that a 1,100 square foot structure will cost thousands of dollars more in fees than a 990-square-foot building, due to sizing breaks in the fee schedules.

Q: I want to totally remodel a 22-year-old kitchen, but I don’t plan to move any outside walls. Do I still need to go through such a complicated process for this project?

A:Though the approval process for this kind of job is much quicker, the building department should still be consulted, as well as a contractor. For instance, if you find that moving the kitchen sink to another part of the room and adding a second sink in a new island in the middle of the kitchen will add thousands of dollars to the cost of the project, you may change your mind about the design. Making this change before plans are drawn will obviously save a lot of time and money.

The planning process determines each subsequent step of the entire project. Take the time to do a good job from the start, and you’ll save time and money and get what you want.

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