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Breakdown with Mark Irons: The permit process

Submitted by on 1, February 10, 2011 – 12:02 am4 Comments

By Mark Irons

The question people most often ask me about smaller home improvement jobs is this: “Does this job need a permit?” Except for painting, the answer is almost always yes. The process of pulling permits imposes on our time and our wallets, but the inconvenience can be kept to a minimum if you are well prepared. Here’s where you can go for help.

On the Community Development page of the city’s website (http://www.cityofalamedaca.gov/City-Hall/Community-Development) you can find links to information about permits and code requirements including explanatory articles written by head Building Official Greg McFann. Under “Why do I need to get a permit?” McFann explains:

Despite the perceived hassle involved in getting City approval, the permit and inspection process is in place to assure everyone’s adherence to minimum standards to safeguard life and limb and property and public welfare and to uphold the design standards of the community.

On the Permit page of the site (http://www.cityofalamedaca.gov/Business/Permit-Center), the Community Development Department’s ePortal allows online access to information about permits, including permit history for any address and ongoing status of open permits such as inspection results. Contractors with current Alameda business licenses can apply for over-the-counter permits online. Property owners must apply in person for all permits on the first floor of City Hall, which is at 2263 Santa Clara Avenue.

Permit fee schedules are not available online, though, and the city’s fee structure is quite complex. It is based on a minimum filing fee of $43 for each trade, such as building, electrical, or plumbing. These base fees are compounded by additional fees for specific line items, such as an electrical sub panel or a water heater, plus additional clerical and use fees. For example, to replace a hot water heater, the costs include a base filing fee of $43, plus a $63 line item for the water heater, plus miscellaneous fees, for a grand total of $120. A very basic kitchen makeover will total about $1,500 for filing all trades plus other fees.

There are two basic types of permits: Over-the-counter permits for basic repairs like replacing a water heater, and design review permits, for projects which entail exterior modifications such as decks or window replacement, and for larger projects like additions. Design review projects are in turn classified as either major or minor.

There are specific fees for each design review classification in addition to the permit fees mentioned above. Minor design review is a flat $33 fee. Major design review projects have a minimum planning fee of about $350, but applications requires a deposit of $1,400. The review is billed at an hourly labor fee of $125 staff time, plus clerical costs for things like photocopying. A very well organized plan may be approved for a minimum fee and the additional $1,000 deposit will be returned. Review fees for very complex projects or a sloppy plan drawn on the proverbial napkin may exceed the minimum deposit, with a balance due before the permit is issued. A substantial addition is not likely to be approved for the minimum fee, but the point is that it pays to be well organized before starting the design review process.

A permit for a very basic kitchen or bathroom remodel is issued over the counter and only requires a basic floor plan, which should indicate placement of utilities and inclusion of an electrical diagram for lights and switches. Larger projects require more elaborate drawings, including detailed floor plans and multiple views of the building called elevations. If you do not plan to hire a design professional or haven’t gotten that far, plan on making a preliminary trip to the building department to browse the various written guidelines available in the reception area. If you have further questions, it is best to sign up to wait for a consultation with a permit technician or the planner of the day.

For those who run afoul of the city for unpermitted work, the penalty is a four-fold permit fee. Because of real estate laws requiring full disclosure of work done without permits, the city has created an amnesty program for people who turn themselves in, in which case the penalties are waived. However, all unpermitted work must be brought up to code if it is substandard. At the discretion of the buildings inspectors, verification that work meets the code may require opening walls or other stages of reverse construction to allow adequate access for inspection. This may even extend to removing concrete to expose steel in foundations or to reveal plumbing under slab floors. (See additional articles by Building Official Greg McFann for further detail).

So before you start your project, breathe deeply, do your homework, check your budget and collect your patience. Good luck!


  • Nancy Hird says:

    Thanks Mark for this informative article that explains the permt process in our city. Members of The Alameda Architectural Preservation Society frequently find work in progress that is not permitted and try to work with the owners of the projects to educate for completed work compliant with design and material guidelines. While this may seem to some that a king can’t do what he wants to his castle, the surrounding home values are maintained as is the quality of life for all Alamedans. Ultimately, life safety issues are addressed which shuld be the highest priority of the property owwner.

  • Jill says:

    You make it all sound so straightforward, Mark. Having pulled permits for all kinds of work from earthquake reinforcement to an addition, I will say that inconsistent standards make this process pure hell. One person in the department will tell you that what you want to do is OK, and another will make you jump through hoops and pay additional charges for the same thing. When you’re in the office trying to get your permit, you will overhear contractors, who clearly know the right people, getting their plans stamped then and there when you’ve had to go through all kinds of trouble to get the same thing approved in the past (and I know someone who’s an architect, so all of my documents are through and detailed). You do what one person asks, and the next person will want something else. I am one of those paranoid people who are afraid to do work without permits, but I completely understand why so many people avoid the permit process and take their chances.

  • Susie Q says:

    I agree completely with Jill! A simple hot water heater replacement required multiple inspections because the inspectors could not agree on what was required. I learned to ask for the same inspector each time. It is especially difficult when the planning and building departments do not communciate very well with each other. A recent remodel required the intervention of Councilperson Lena Tam to get the building and planning departments to sit in the same room with contractor in order to figure out what actually needed to be done and how, this after months of daily visits to planning dept., emails, and phone calls. Thank you Lena Tam.

  • Gregory McFann Building Official City of Alameda says:

    Mark thank you for a very fair and well written article about the permit process. You were exactly right when you stressed doing your homework. Obtaining a permit can be a daunting and sometimes complex process. However, it should always be fair and consistent. You might be pleased to know that we are developing a simplified fee structure for the ten or so top permit types we issue. These permits will include mostly over-the-counter permits(about 85% of all permits we issue are issued over-the-counter)including kitchen and bathroom remodels, re-roofs, windows, decks, furnace and water heater replacements. We are constantly looking at ways to improve the way we do business so any suggestions you or others might have are welcomed.

    Jill Susie Q and or any others who have been frustrated by the permit process, I encourage you to contact me directly. I am always happy to help resolve roadblocks or whatever else I can do to improve the process. We fully understand the dread most people feel when faced with obtaining a permit. Should you run into an obstacle let me know and I will see if I can resolve it or at least explain why we require what we require.

    I look forward to hearing from you.

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