Permits, Codes, Licenses -- and WHY YOU SHOULD CARE!

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Permits, Codes, Licenses -- and WHY YOU SHOULD CARE!

Post by sharward »

I decided I would start a new thread on the generic topic of building permits, building codes, home occupation permits/licenses, etc., and the importance of these items as they pertain to building studios. Over the last several months I've become a more vocal proponent of "going by the book," so this thread will hopefully become a good place to direct people.

First off, I'm not a building code expert. I don't even consider myself particularly knowledgeable about code. I'm therefore hoping this thread doesn't turn into a general code Q&A.
    What are building codes?

      Building codes are laws and ordinances that dictate how buildings are to be constructed, typically with an emphasis on safety, strength, and maintenance requirements. They are typically divided into various parts: building code, electrical code, mechanical code, fire code, etc.

      There are several publishers of code. For example, there's International Residential Code (IRC), Universal Building Code (UBC), and California Building Code (CBC, which is a derivative of UBC using the same numbering system). Here in the US, codes vary from place to place. For example, my city has adopted the California codes from 2001. It is your responsibility to determine what building codes apply to you in your municipality.

      Building codes change over time. In general, they become more restrictive. If your house was built fifty years ago, then whatever building codes were in effect at that time applied at that time. However, any new construction you do today will need to meet code in effect today. You're usually not obligated to bring old construction up to current code, but sometimes certain construction activities will cause you to have to "step up" to new code. For example, in my city, any construction requiring a permit also requires smoke detectors to be installed in sleeping rooms, even if sleeping rooms are not involved in the construction.

      Which leads me to my next topic...
    What is a buliding permit?

      A building permit is a document issued by your municipal building department that represents permission to build something. One obtains a building permit by completing an application, paying a fee, and submitting plans to the building department. The plans are checked for code compliance.

      Sometimes the planning division is consulted to verify that the work being proposed is an acceptable fit for the surrounding area. Often there are local ordiances that govern what kinds of facilities can be built in a particular area -- zoning, districts, planned community standards, etc.

      Once a permit is granted, construction can legally begin. However, at various phases in the construction, inspections are required to verify that code is being followed. Common inspections include concrete slab forms, subfloor, framing and rough electrical (often combined), insulation, roof, and final. Not all permits require all inspections -- it depends on the nature of the work being done. Inspections typically involve a fee.

      Just because a permit is issued does not guarantee that the plan will meet code. The plan checker is responsible for verifying that the plans will meet code, but violations can be missed or may be too vague in the drawings to detect. It is your responsibility to make sure code is followed during construction so that you'll pass your inspections. Otherwise you may have to redo some of your work in order to pass your inspection and move to the next phase of construction.
    This all seems very complicated/expensive. I know people who have built without permits. It doesn't seem like a such big deal. What's the worst that can happen if I build without a permit?

      Ask your local building department. You'll likely learn that there are severe penalties for building without a permit. For example, my city levies a fine of four times the permit fee, plus they can order complete demolition of the work, since they had no opportunity to verify compliance with code.
    I'm willing to risk that. Is that all that can happen?

      No. Suppose there's a fire. Your insurance company may refuse to pay the claim because of the unpermitted construction, especially if it can be asserted that your didn't follow code. Even if your construction didn't cause the fire, it may have contributed by allowing it to spread faster. Besides -- any evidence that you did things correctly may be destroyed by the fire.

      The scenario is much more grim if you consider the possibility of injury or loss of life.
    What are noise ordinances?

      Noise ordinances are laws that govern the types, intensities, and other considerations of allowable noise levels in a community. They vary widely from place to place. Many municipalities have a "two-prong" approach to noise regulations:
      • An objective standard may specify the number of decibels allowed at various times of day and for specific durations. It's a "pass/fail" system that would require code/law enforcement officials to have instruments to verify compliance.

      • A subjective standard may use such language as "reasonable and necessary" as defined by "persons of normal sensitiveness." Such "wishy-washy" language is generally easier to enforce and harder to defend against.
      If your municipality maintains both standards, it is your responsibility to maintain compliance with both standards.
    What is a home occupation permit?

      A home occupation permit is sometimes required by local governments for any home-operated business. If you plan to charge money for services provided at your home, you have a business, and you may be required to have a home occupation permit in addition to a regular business license.

      Home occupation permits govern what kinds of businesses are allowed in your neighborhood. For example, if you are freelance writer, that's probably allowed, but setting up a print shop in your garage with two full-time employees is probably not.

      Home occupation permits typically restrict how many customers can visit you in your place of business, when deliveries can be made, etc.
That's all the time I have for now... Hopefully I'll be able to add more over time. And by all means, if you have insights, clarifications, or more information you'd like to share, please do. :-)
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I agree!

Post by tmix »

Please heed Sharward's words.
I have sat in on planning and zoning meetings for my "Hobby building" and watched with horror as person after person came in with buildings built (including 3 car garage sized) trying to get "forgiveness" rather than "permission" only to see them denied and instructed to demolish or move or otherwise spend HUGE amounts of money and effort on bringing the buildings into compliance.

It is no laughing matter, you take a large risk financially if you live in the city controlled boundaries if you disregard protocol.

Tom Menikos
T-Mix Studios
Mansfield Tx
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Post by AVare »

Great stuff! I hope it gets stickied. :)

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Post by len-morgan »

I must second (third?) sharward's remarks. I was quite concerned about being held to a standard that "real" builders wouldn't have to or that their idea of proper construction would conflict with the acoustic requirements (for example, air gaps between ajoining walls). If I had been building in my garage for my own personal use, I probably wouldn't have bothered but this is in a comercial building I've bought just for this studio and I want to have the public use it so with sharward's URGING :-), I decided to "do it legal."

As it turns out, the inspector has a niece that he thinks is the next LeAnn Rimes and the fire chief is also a cowboy poet that has wanted to record his stuff for some time. My investigation into getting permits (cost $25.00) got me two customers. I'm ahead before I've even put hammer to nail.

My "plans" were simply a line drawing of the existing building with my new walls drawn in and a paragraph describing the construction (2 x 4" walls with studs 24" oc). I didn't have to have complete framing plans or electrical fixture locations and such. When I asked if this was necessary, the inspector said that it's not their job to design the project. If I build it correctly, they will approve it. I'ts my job to see that the design is up to code.

I also went to Amazon and bought the building code books. Please note that these books are not Tom Clancy thrillers! There are matching books such as "The IBC Explained" which is a book that explains what the IBC code book means (yes - a book to explain another book). I learned a lot skimming through these (I don't lead that exciting life! :-) ) and avoided a lot of simple mistakes like how high electrical outlets need to be from the floor or how wide doorways had to be to meet ADA requirements.

Regarding the ADA (American's w/ Disabilities Act), it should be noted that most city building departments/inspectors/fire department inspectors etc WILL NOT tell you if you don't meet ADA requirements. It's not their job to enforce this. 100% compliance with the building codes does NOT mean you are also ADA compatible! Granted, most people here are not building in separate buildings and aren't planning to have the "masses" trapse through their homes or if you are in a commercial building, chances are it already was ADA compliant when it was built. In my case, I'm in an old building so I've just made sure my door ways and such COULD meet ADA rules if anyone complained.

You should also check and see if your city's building code and ordanances are on-line. Even though I live in a small town (21,000 people or so), they have all the rules available on the Internet. I was a little concerned about the noise ordanance because it did not list a spec that I had to meet - just if I bothered somebody. That kind of vague description could leave me in the position of having a nearby neighbor not liking the car I drive and just complain about the noise to "get even." I asked about this and the city clarified that while indeed ANYONE could file a complaint, a policeman would be called out to verify it and HE would make the determination if I was making too much noise. Needless to say, all police officers and their families will get a special discount rate at my studio. :-)

This is far too long a post but I think it's important to get the point across. How many of us are building on a shoestring budget that doesn't include tearing down and building again because we didn't get a permit. Sharward's advice "cost" me $25.00 so far (it'll probably be $100 or so total after the inspections) but I can sleep better at night knowing I'm doing the right thing and will be "friends" with the city.

Thanks Keith! My build diary will start soon here. I'm in the demolition phase right now (kicking out the previous tenant and tearing down the false ceiling) and securing the site a little better (there's 21 feet of pane glass along the whole front of the building).

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Post by sharward »

Len, thank you for your post and "thirding" of my remarks. I'm very pleased with all the support this thread is getting.

Excellent points about ADA too.

Construction Engineer and forum member Rod Gervais messaged me privately with a suggested clarification that I share with you:
Rod wrote:The building codes are established as a "minimum" standard for construction. They are not a gold standard.

A lot of people believe that if they do everything in the codes they are "over-building" - but reality is that they are just barely getting by.

Great point, Rod! 8)

And, back to ADA -- Rod actually made some great points about ADA in this thread. Don't make the mistake of assuming ADA doesn't apply if you operate a home business! :shock:
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Post by knightfly »

Added to the main REFERENCE area, 9-29-05 -

Another handy book, just bought one last week -

Construction Pal, by Paul Rosenberg


There's a whole series, but this is probably the most useful... Steve
Soooo, when a Musician dies, do they hear the white noise at the end of the tunnel??!? Hmmmm...
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Post by z60611 »

Building Permits - Why ?

Yes some small towns or rural communities the inspectors don't know much.
Yes in many cities you can sell a home that has an addition and other unpermitted work without problem.
Sometimes it's just plain rediculous ... ost4855362
Nevertheless, this post is about how it's Building Permits are supposed to work.

Building Code is based on a coroner's inquest. Someone mucked up, died, and rules were made to prevent that. The rules are usually local to you, so you won't find rules about dealing with 100' of water pressure or how to hold back sandstorms unless they happen in your area. For example, in Toronto, Scarborough has more issues with Termites than the rest of the Greater Toronto Area (a half dozen cities near Toronto), and more of their building code and inspections check for that.
Competent inspectors know the code, and have engineering degrees, and have experience in the industry and have seen problems. I would be an idiot to be maimed for the rest of my life for something that happened to someone else before. There are few things that I care about after I'm dead, but one of them is I do not want to be mentioned on the The Darwin Awards. ... genumber=1
I took the morning off this past Friday to wait for HD to delivery (45) sheets of drywall. The guy was 45 minutes late when he arrived I walked outside to wait for him to forklift the stuff off the truck. Just then I saw a white SUV drive by with some sort of city symbol on the side! The guy in the SUV came back, walked up to my garage where I am storing the drywall and asked me what I was doing. I should have asked for ID or something when I told him I was drywalling my basement he read me the riot act because I didn't have a permit to work in my basement!!!! I got a written violation and I had to submit drawings and fill out an application for the necessary permits with-in 24 hours. Now I have to wait for these guys to get back to me on inspections both structural and electrical. Now I have to wait for the inspections and re-inspections in case they find something they make me fix.

Having them inspect and certify the structural integrity and mechanical portion of the basement covers your hind end in the event that you make an insurance claim for your house being destroyed. There are plenty of code books out there that outline specific things that must be done during installation and construction to ensure the safety of yourself and others, as well as the house.

I'd consider this a good thing that you got caught, especially if you ever plan to sell your house. I'd hate to be in your shoes explaining to the local inspector why you have a finished basement w/ no permit, and then having to explain to the potential buyers that you'll have to tear the basement up for it to be inspected... I have heard of those in my area having a lot of trouble selling their homes when they have finished their basements w/out a permit

Without the inspections my insurance is useless and the future value of my home is suspect if I don't have permits for my work. I also had significant engineering and structural work done so it gave me peace of mind to know that another set of experienced eyes were looking at my contractor's work. Keeps the contractors honest too.

from ... ll&tipID=6
If you've ever had work done on your home, you know that many jobs can be done quickly and inexpensively without the need for a permit from the government. Some renovations on the other hand require a permit by law and are a good idea to make sure the work is done right. A lot of homeowners will just trust the contractor when he says a permit is not required as it is assumed that they are the experts.
In my experience, work serious enough to require a contract, that also has no building permit, well that's the first indication of likely shoddy work.
Plumbing - When moving a plumbing fixture to a new location or installing a new one, you need to get a plumbing permit. Just like electrical, plumbing is a complicated process, requiring proper ventilation and sealed joints. (e.g. installing a toilet or shower requires a drain vent out the roof).
Structural - I see it all the time. People doing their own home renovations and making a mess of their own homes. It's common for someone to tear down a wall to add more space to a family room, only to find out when the wall is all but demolished, that it's a load-bearing wall and is required by law to maintain the house's structural integrity. Any time you take down or put up a new wall, you need a permit. In the episode "Botched Basement" we meet home owners Geoff and Lorraine who paid a contractor to lower their basement by a foot. The contractor didn't obtain a permit and because of that, was able to get away with doing shoddy work. After their basement started to leak two weeks after the job was finished, they called me and I came in to fix the problem. Make sure your contractor gets a structural permit if they are doing any building or demolition.
HVAC - Another problem I run into often is contractors who are good at one job or another but still try to be a jack-of-all-trades. They might attempt to install heating or air conditioning and really don't know what they're doing. It is critical that your contractor gets an HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning) permit if they are relocating or adding new duct work. Protect yourself. Ask to see your sub-contractor's valid license before work begins. (e.g. My house the HVAC guys moved the natural gas line, and the notch they cut into two 2x8 joists was 4"x4" deep).
If you are unsure about whether you need a permit, call your local permit office. Getting a permit ensures that the work is done to the proper building codes and is safe for you and your family. Think of it as a second opinion on one of the biggest investments you'll make. Your home.

As an electrician, I have to deal with permits and inspections all the time, including the "does-this-job-require-a-permit?" debate. While it can be a pain, I stlll appreciate the process.

Whether done by pro or homeowner, the work the specialty trades do (electric, HVAC, plumbing, framing, etc.) can have dire costs when done improperly, in both human safety and potential loss-of-property.

The permit process can save countless hours and dollars by catching errors in the planning stage, in both methods and materials, before the work is done and, perhaps, redone (a real pain!).

The point is that, while the professional is legally responsible for his work and consequences, the homeowner often has to be protected from himself. As in most areas, homeowners may do their own work.

The permit application is a revenue source, sure, but it also can stop dangerous work from even beginning. Plans can be a pain to produce, but they force one to plan out the details.

Around these parts, as in most areas, the permit fee includes the inspection costs. No permit, no inspection, no chance to stop shoddy and potentially dangerous work, and no legal recourse.

On more than one occasion, I've stopped someone from burning down their own, or a friend's or relative's house. A recent one was a guy who was going to run a range circuit using #12 (because it's cheaper than #6).

It's true that inspectors often assume the pro will do work the amateur might overlook. It's not unfair, it's reasonable. How many homeowners know about, say, box fill, or grounding requirements, or . . .

I've had an inspector look at a breaker panel I made up, and passed the entire house, even before he knew I was licensed (my ex father-in-law's gutted and rebuilt house - he pulled the permits)

I've also had inspectors check every single box for everything, actually measure cable stapling spacing, etc., even after knowing I was licensed. There's no one rule (so to speak), and every inspector has his own way.

For the most part, I'm on a first-name basis with almost half of the inspectors in my area, as well as the two main head inspectors (city and county). They'll check a few main things, like grounding, etc., but they know my work.

Overall, I like the process more than I hate it, because either the homeowner has to be protected from himself, or he has to be protected from the professional. In either case, it's nothing personal (unless you piss him off!)

Oh, one other thing; it's not workmanship (in the asthetic sense) that the inspector cares about, it's the safety factor. It's up to the customer to insist that fit and finish be done to his standards. Be assertive; it's your money!

The inspector is a second opinion, and the right opinion, rather than the contractor's.

The last good thing about permits is if the previous owner of your house was a DIYer, wouldn't it be nice to know that someone checked the idiot's work? Isn't that better than having a fire or collapse or polutants slowly or quickly kill or maim you and yours? The first few idiot electrical examples I've heard done that I can think of are no grounds, double ground rods, using the ground wire as the opposite 120V phase for a 240V wire, connecting both ends of a wire to different breakers in the same panel, etc.

"The applicant, their heirs, executors, administrators and assigns will indemnify and save harmless the Town of Oakville from any claim, action, damage or loss whatsoever, arising from operations carried out under this permit."

BTW, if you intend not to get a permit, make sure you get your home depot deliveries on a weekend when the inspectors aren't driving around.

Noah's Ark 2005:

In the year 2005, The Lord came unto Noah, who was now living in United
States, and said,

"Once again, the earth has become wicked and over-populated and I see
the end of all flesh before me.

Build another Ark and save two of every living thing along with a few
good humans."

He gave Noah the blueprints, saying, "You have six months to build the
Ark before I will start the unending rain for 40 days and 40 nights".

Six months later, the Lord looked down and saw Noah weeping in his yard,
but no ark.

"Noah", He roared, "I'm about to start the rain! Where is the Ark?"

"Forgive me, Lord," begged Noah. "But things have changed. I needed a
building permit. I've been arguing with the inspector about the need for a
sprinkler system.

My neighbors claim that I've violated the neighborhood Home Owner's
Association zoning laws by building the Ark in my yard and exceeding the height

We had to go to the Planning and Zoning Board for a decision.

Then the Department of Transportation demanded a bond be posted for the
future costs of moving power, overpasses and other overhead obstructions, to
clear the passage for the Ark's move to the sea.

I argued that the sea would be coming to us, but they would hear nothing
of it.

Getting the wood was another problem. There's a ban on cutting local
trees in order to save the spotted owl. I tried to convince the environmentalists
that I needed the wood to save the owls. But no go!

When I started gathering the animals, I got sued by an animal rights
group. They insisted that I was confining wild animals against their will.

As well, they argued the accommodation was too restrictive and it was
cruel and inhumane to put so many animals in a confined space.

Then the EPA ruled that I couldn't build the Ark until they'd conducted
an environmental impact study on your proposed flood.

I'm still trying to resolve a complaint with the Civil Rights Commission
on how many minorities I'm supposed to hire for my building crew.

Also, the trades unions say I can't use my sons. They insist I have to
hire only Union workers with Ark building experience.

To make matters worse, the Customs and Immigration Agency seized all my
assets, claiming I'm trying to leave the country illegally with endangered

So, forgive me, Lord, but it would take at least ten years for me to
finish this Ark."

Suddenly the skies cleared, the sun began to shine, and a rainbow
stretched across the sky.

Noah looked up in wonder and asked, "You mean you're not going to
destroy the world?".

"No", said the Lord. "The Government has beat me to it."

The odds of doing it ALL right yourself (structural, plumbing, insulation, electrical) are about 30%.
The odds of having a contractor do it ALL right are about 50%.
The odds of it being right if an inspector also checks it are about 95%, not just because the contractor works harder knowing it'll be inspected.

An inspector is a second opinion, and a very experienced and trained second opinion.

I recently had my roof reshingled. According to the city a permit is not required. I hired a roof inspection company anyway. This somewhat insulted my roofer, at least until he saw the report with pictures. Of the eight items mentioned in the report, the one that most comes to mind is what the roofer said with his head bowed low on the way out, "I can't believe we missed a shingle and left bare wood on your roof." That inspection cost me $400, which is excessive for an inspection IMO, but my goodness what money it certainly saved. I treated the inspector's report as an opinion, and the roofer's as another opinion -- where the roofer and the inspector agreed (which was most of the items) the roofer did the repairs the next day, one item there was nothing we could do anything about without replacing all the shingles, and the other two the roofer strongly disagreed with the inspector citing multiple reasons which sounded good to me.
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Post by sharward »

Thanks very much for the contribution Z. Long for sure, but rich with great examples (and humor :lol:) that we all need to take seriously.
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Post by z60611 »

Quote of the day
"Plans are done. Time to go permitting."
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Post by sharward »

Rod weighed in on the "to pull permits or not to pull permits" debate over on the AVS forum at the beginning of the year. See his post there. In a nutshell: "My advice is ALWAYS to pull a permit - and it always will be."

(I discovered this while reviewing one of the links in z60611's post above. Great thread! 8))
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Post by z60611 »


Construction Pal, by Paul Rosenberg arrived today.
I was expecting another how to guide like "Precision Framing" by Guertin & Arnold. Construction Pal is more of a little pocket reference guide.
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Post by sharward »

Here's an example of an apparent homeowner do-it-yourself basement conversion that was so poorly done that a termite and ant infestation developed:It's important to note that Andy didn't do the work that caused the damage -- rather, his own studio project has been impacted by the discovery of damage caused by shoddy (and presumably unpermitted) work by a previoius homeowner.

Special thanks to Andy for a terrific job of documenting the discovery so that we all can benefit.
"Converting a garage into living space requires a city permit . . . homeowners insurance won't cover a structure that's been changed without a building permit . . ." --Sacramento Bee, May 27, 2006
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Post by Kathy »

I've been waiting for you to give me a lecture on this one, Keith. I know how you feel about it and as of right now I don't have a permit.

We may go see him very soon.

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Studio Needs vs. Code - Need Help

Post by InTheBasement »

Have been wrestling with this issue for awhile now. The problem is that, in this area, new building codes are anti-studio. Here is a prime example: code now requires large windows to be cut in any basement doing anything. The number and location of the windows is dependent on the size and geometry of the basement. In our case, the basement is a simple rectangle 26' 9" wide x 40' long (and not very high which we'll discuss later if we get to construction) . Built in the 50's, it has 5 very small windows in wells scattered around. These would be replaced, per code, by windows large enough to meet a 15% "light everywhere" requirement and an escape route. Estimates for this to be done are $10k which contributes nothing to the studio but takes away badly needed funds. If the windows were cut, they would need to be plugged negating everything anyway. We have also talked to several contractors who have said "no exceptions have ever been granted". Oh, and there is no grandfather clause: you touch the basement, you cut the windows. Thoughts on this conundrum greatly appreciated; much TsIA. :(
rod gervais
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Post by rod gervais »

z60611 wrote: I recently had my roof reshingled. According to the city a permit is not required. I hired a roof inspection company anyway. This somewhat insulted my roofer, at least until he saw the report with pictures. Of the eight items mentioned in the report, the one that most comes to mind is what the roofer said with his head bowed low on the way out, "I can't believe we missed a shingle and left bare wood on your roof." That inspection cost me $400, which is excessive for an inspection IMO, but my goodness what money it certainly saved. I treated the inspector's report as an opinion, and the roofer's as another opinion -- where the roofer and the inspector agreed (which was most of the items) the roofer did the repairs the next day, one item there was nothing we could do anything about without replacing all the shingles, and the other two the roofer strongly disagreed with the inspector citing multiple reasons which sounded good to me.


And other folks,

Just a bit of info.......... when it comes to roofing - if you are ever in doubt about the work that was completed, or if you have differing opinions, another avenue you have is to contact the roofing manufacturer and tell them there is doubt -

they will send a rep down to inspect your roof to see if it meets their installation requirements - they do this for free because (in the end) they have to warrant the roof for the 20 or 30 years - even if it was installed improperly.

SO you do have a free service that you can use - but this is only available when there is a dispute - as in the case of Bob here.

If they sign off on the roof - then you have nothing to fear.


Ignore the man behind the curtain........
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