How to Get Permits for Your Home Improvement Project

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Getting a building or planning permit through a municipality is often time consuming and costly. Here are some helpful tips to get you through the process quickly and at a low cost.

Initial consultation

A lot of people start by talking to an architect or a designer without understanding their options. These professionals will charge you for information that the city or county can tell you for free.

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Go to your governing municipality’s planning office, tell them what you’re thinking about doing and ask what your options are. Bring an aerial photograph of your property (Google maps) and sketches of your existing house and what you’d like to do. Take measurements of all of your rooms, the perimeter of your house and your structures and measure from your structures to your property lines (typically your fence line).

If your project is feasible, ask about the process. They will tell you either no permit is required or that a building permit is required and possibly planning permits such as a zoning clearance, design review, minor use or conditional use permits. Every municipality is different, so make sure to ask about the submittal requirements, review and processing times, cost and helpful tips to get you through the process quickly.

Many municipalities charge a flat fee for a combination plumbing, electrical and mechanical permit. To save on permit costs, it’s usually best to have one building permit for all of your improvements. Most permits don’t expire for six months and are renewed automatically with each inspection, so you’ll have time to get to everything.

Before you get a permit

Before you consider getting a permit for your home improvement project, be sure to obtain all of your existing permit records for the property. As part of the permit process for your new project, you may be required to obtain permits for any existing unpermitted improvements on your property. Permitting after construction is often much more costly and complicated.

To obtain records, contact your municipality’s planning or building department and ask for copies of all planning and building permits. Additionally, visit the county assessor’s office for the construction records on the property. The assessor’s construction records are often more up to date than the records from your local municipality.

Choosing your designer

If you’re required to do plans, you’ll need an architect or designer. A municipality may require an architect for your plan submittal. Architects are licensed by the state and are usually better overall, but they cost more.

Once you’ve got a few leads, ask each person what projects they’ve worked on, how many permits they’ve obtained and the timeline for each one. Also ask for three references from clients they’ve worked with and contact them.

Be aware that some architects and designers have a tendency to provide incomplete plans and respond to only a portion of the permit comments provided by officials. This will slow down your process dramatically and will increase your costs because many municipalities are on a deposit system and most designers and architects charge by the hour. If possible, get a price quote for the job with penalties for lengthy processing times. Regardless, get involved with the process, review the plans and the municipality’s comments and make sure everything is addressed prior to resubmittals.

While obtaining a permit may be a challenging process, the permit certifies the work is done correctly and helps the resale of your home. Getting involved with the process and ongoing communication with your designer and permit processors will help you get through the process quicker and for less cost. A friendly demeanor goes a long way with public officials. Good luck!

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