Building permits. Necessary or Nuisance?

The state of California requires a building permit for just about everything, you cannot even upgrade a water heater without one. One of the earliest attempts to unify codes on the national level was the National Board of Fire Underwriters successfully promoting a “Recommended National Building Code.” Since then new laws and regulations have been added regularly, historically following some sort of devastation such as the 1933 Long Beach earthquake which destroyed 70 school buildings and seriously damaged another 120. In 1975 The Warren-Alquist State Energy Resources Conservation and Development Act were based on legislative findings that the rapid growth rate in the demand for electric energy was in part due to wasteful, uneconomic, inefficient, and unnecessary uses of power. The Legislature also found there was a pressing need to accelerate research and development of alternative sources of energy. It is because of these early code changes that California was able to continue to provide electricity to the ever growing population.

Recently though, it seems like the abundant amount of code changes are not stemming from genuine safety concerns, but the result of governing bodies looking for reasons to collect more fees from homeowners who are simply trying to bring their recent purchases up to date. The cost of a permit hardly seems to be worth the cost. Not to mention the ridiculously long lead time to obtain a permit from an already overwhelmed system. Does a building permit protect the homeowner or just line the pocket of those who had the money and power to force it upon homeowners?

We have many clients who purchase a property and are looking to make improvements. One of the first things we always do is a record search on the property because more often than not there is some structure that was previously improved without a permit. Some building departments are understanding of the fact that the current homeowners are not directly responsible for these conditions but in most cases, building departments are throwing the book at these clients. Every fee that can be assessed is and that is a tough pill to swallow.

For clients who were previously looking at a 4-week turnaround time for a bathroom remodel permit they are now looking at 3-4 months to permit their existing garage conversion. Beyond being frustrating, it often takes clients beyond the budget for their project. Faced with the decision of paying all the back fees, delaying their project and dealing with all the red tape, performing another improvement without a permit again seems very appealing. So, is a building permit necessary or is it just an expensive nuisance?

In truth, the purpose of a building permit is to ensure safety. Improperly installed electrical is not only frustrating when a breaker keeps blowing because there are too many outlets on one circuit, but some of the more dangerous scenarios are not even seen until it is too late and your house is on fire. But a licensed contractor will perform the work properly, right? So why involve the building department? Well I wish human nature was different but “People do what you inspect, not what you expect” (Louis V. Gerstner, Jr.). Unfortunately if a contractor is ok skipping this step and risking their license to perform work without a permit, what other corners might they be cutting? You can see if a light fixture is installed crooked or if there is a crack in the tile but do you have the expertise to know if the right concrete hold down was utilized? Something that would not come up until an earthquake. The integral safety aspects of any construction project are all the items that are, “hiding in the walls”.

The building code is always changing, often because of new research that provides safer, more efficient ( see CAL Green) installation methods and requirements. Despite the special interest groups and greedy governmental bodies, the building code (and those responsible for writing it) address design and installation of innovative materials that meet or exceed public health and safety goals.

Safety is not the only reason to obtain a permit. Any unpermitted work is not accounted for during a property value assessment. All the money you spent adding a master bathroom will be down the drain. Ultimately, investing time and money upfront via a building permit will save you a headache and potentially more fees (remember flying books) when trying to cash in on your investment.

As Tony Dungee said, “Integrity is what you do when no one is watching; it is doing the right thing all of the time, even when it may work to your disadvantage.” Even though obtaining a building permit (especially in an As-Built situation) may be a hassle, delay your timeline and increase your initial cost, it is more than worth the long term investment. Having the peace of mind that your contractor has the helpful accountability of the building inspectors for the all the integral parts of your project is invaluable. And when the time comes to retire or move closer to the kids, you can rest assured that you will get the maximum return on your investment.

Gannage Design & Construction strives to provide you with a beautiful home every time, but that starts before we ever pick up a hammer. Obtaining a building permit is not a nuisance for us, it is part of our successful process. Mikhail’s father Bob Gannage has been heard to say, “You can pay the price to do what’s right or you can pay the price because you didn’t, either way you pay, but it is always better to pay for doing it right.” Doing things the right way is always necessary.

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