It’s fair to say most homeowners don’t have a great understanding of the permitting process, underestimating the layers of bureaucracy involved, the timing, and the cost.
Step 1 - Finding out if your project needs a permit and if so, what kind.
Some facets of improvement do not traditionally require permits.
Flooring, cabinetry, painting, exterior hardscape, low voltage landscape lighting, non-water proof tile and stonework (countertops, backsplashes, wall veneers, etc.)
Those that do fall into one of two categories: Over-The-Counter and Plan-check
An Over-The-Counter permit does not require plans or a plan-check process. It only requires an accurate description of the work to be done and often a count of new fixtures being installed. Then a permit can be payed for and issued immediately at the Building department counter.
A Plan-Check permit is for any project whose details the city deems necessary to review in terms of zoning, architecture, and structural compliance. Plan-Check permits require the submittal of plans for review.
Step 2 - Always begin with the first circle of compliance - CC&R’s (Covenants, Codes and Restrictions), ie: the dreaded Homeowners Association
There may be building limitations on your property that have absolutely nothing to do with city zoning or building codes. A CC&R is a limiting legal agreement you entered into when you purchased the property. For example, a Homeowners Association may have the right to review and approve your color choice for exterior paint. Paint color is never a building code or city zoning issue.
A remodel plan that the city would otherwise find completely acceptable can be rejected if it doesn’t get HOA approval.
Step 3 - Make an appointment with your local Planning/Zoning Department to sit down and discover all the limitations imposed upon your property and all the various governmental entities that have jurisdiction.
Possible restrictions and compliances:
Square footage, height, contours, grading, set backs, energy compliance, combustible materials, utilities, open space, urban/wildlife interface, high fire exposure, neighborhood averages, view restriction, etc.
Entities other than the Building Dept who may have jurisdiction:
Planning Dept., Hillside Commission, Coastal Commission, School District, Fire Dept., State ordinances, County ordinances, city ordinances, voter initiated ordinances, etc.
Step 4 - Based upon what you’ve learned from the Planning Dept you’ll begin the process of obtaining approvals from the relevant entities. ONLY THEN will the city be ready to accept your plans into plan-check
Step 5 - Plan-Check
Plan-check can take anywhere from a just a few days to many months. The speed at which plans move through plan-check depends upon several factors:
•The size and complexity of the project.
•The size of your local building department, number of plan-check engineers, and their current work load/back-log of projects.
•Whether or not your city subcontracts plan-check to a private firm.
• How well the “story” of your project has been written in the plans.
•The number of plan-check notes made on your plans requiring correction and re-submittal.
Step 6 - Approval and Issuance of a permit
Don’t waste plan-check time just sitting around. Use it to refine details and hone contractor estimates.
In most cities, once a permit is issued you’ll have one year to BEGIN construction. Otherwise it will trigger a renewal fee and possibly a re-review.