Breakdown with Mark Irons: The permit process
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!