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Advice about Building Permits

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Contractor wants me to get the permit

August 2009

I just moved to El Cerrito and need to change my single pane windows to double ones. I found a certified/licensed contractor and understand that I need to get a permit. The contractor wants me to get the permit (otherwise, he will charge $100 to do so); however, after talking to a Building Officer, I understood that if I get the permit myself, I will be responsible for the renovations, not the contractor.

I am writing to kindly ask people to share their experience (replacing windows / El Cerrito). How long and how complex was the process of getting the permit and having the inspector come? I'd appreciate any recommendations for a building inspector (or officer) to talk to or ask questions. Also, any opinion about who should get the city permit and be responsible for the replacement? I just wanted to save the $100, and my friends told me that it's the contractor's job to get the permit (charging or not) and schedule the inspector's visits. Thanks for any insights! Selena


Selena wrote: ''... contractor wants me to get the permit (otherwise, he will charge $100 to do so); however, after talking to a Building Officer, I understood that if I get the permit myself, I will be responsible for the renovations ...''

I don't think you got the whole story. It seems your contractor was trying to do you a favor (saving you $100). The problem is that when a homeowner is the applicant s/he must fill out an ''Owner/Builder'' form and commit to insurance coverages. This is to ensure that unlicensed people, like your brother, are covered in case you are doing the work yourself. If you hire a licensed contractor, s/he is still liable for poor work.

That said, $100 is not much and saves you headache and anxiety, which can amount to much more if you end up seeing a psychotherapist and/or chiropractor! AB


This is a response to the person who just moved to El Cerrito. I've lived in El Cerrito for more than 30 years. I had all my windows both upper and lower floors replaced by A-Taylor Made Window (great service, excellent quality). I was never bothered by having to get a permit (they probably took care of it). I've recently had a new deck put in and the contractor was the one who arranged for the permit and inspection by the city inspector. I think your contractor doesn't want to be involved with the 'hassle'. Get a new bid and a new contractor. Just my 2 cents. Been there, don't do that
Window replacement, in my opinion, was one of the easiest jobs I ever did on my house. As far as the permit, your contractor should pull this for you. You pay for it, but your contractor should pull it. In my opinion, I cannot recommend you go up to Martinez and pull your own permit. It makes me mad because my tax dollars are at work, but that office is not set up for commoners. It is WELL WORTH the $100 to have him do it. I don't know how to comment on the liability vs. who pulls the permit. That does not even make sense to me. Anyway, a red flag is thrown up for me that the contractor does not want to pull the permit. Never had a contractor say that to me before and it requires more investigation. good Luck

Getting a variance in Oakland for legal headroom

November 2008

Our 1912 Oakland house is listed with the county as a triplex. We are zoned for multi-unit dwelling. We live in the upstairs. The two other units were formerly in the basement (which is actually above ground with windows all around and 2 different doors out to the driveway). One unit is mostly intact (kitchen, bathroom, room with closet and 2 doors/2 windows), while the other was mostly removed by previous owner (there's still some drywall here and there, plumbing connections, and a toilet, although cement floor and no finished ceiling). As far as I can tell, most of this space is not legal headroom, varying from about 7ft to almost or perhaps legal headroom (unfinished). So, if we wanted to re-create the units, how hard is it to get a variance for our slightly insufficient headroom? Can we be grandfathered in somehow? How does one go about getting a variance?


My design company has successfully negotiated a project in Oakland that did not have the headroom required. This was not as a variance but rather as an ''Alternative Materials and Methods Request'' (AMMR) for a space that already existed under the one-story house, which we wanted to connect with an internal stair. As such it did not require public hearings and was therefore much less expensive than a variance. It was however still a hassle and major time-sink, as I recall. AB

How long does the permit process take in Oakland?

April 2008

We live in rockridge and are working with an architect on plans for our house remodel-major remodel-going up (adding two rooms on the top floor and a bathroom) and remodel the kitchen, among other things. My questions are all along the lines of how long should this process take through getting the initial work permits?

1. How long is the variance permit process? You put in your request for a variance...how long until you know it's okayed or not?

2. Design review: How long does this take? Do you just go into the permit office once and they accept it or not-and if they don't then you go away, fix the drawings, and go back the next day or do you have to wait a certain amount of time? Once they approve the design, it it then a go?

3. When does the public approval process happen? After the design review and the plans are approved? how long does the public have to react and what is the process if theres an issue?

4. I am working with an architect who doesn't do cad-he draws everything and seems glacially slow. Does cad really speed things up? Are all architects slow or can a different one have the plans done in 2 weeks rather than the 3-4 months it's apparently going to take this guy to get us our plans to the point we can have the design review?

Finally, any architects you can recommend. We don't have a ton of money but time is of the essence and would like to find someone who is faster but not horrendously expensive. Thanks! tired of waiting in rockridge.


I'm no expert on building remodels, but....

1. You want a variance? Expect a year or more to get through the process with no guarantees of success.

2. Design Review is completely separate from a building permit. The review boards generally only meet once per month. The Building Inspector's office will talk to you on consecutive days. If you need design review and a zoning variance, that's a two step, multi-month process.

3. Public comment occurs as part of the planning review process: Zoning (your variance) and design review, which has more to do with appearance, air, light and view issues. Neighbors can weigh in at any time during these. The public process is over before you can go for the building permit. Generally, there is a 30 day comment period, then the hearing(s). Don't expect to be done with one hearing. The Bay Area is infested with NIMBYs, half of whom are either lawyers or self-styled design experts.

4. CAD does not speed things up. Your Architect may be very busy (possible) or you may have unrealistic expectations about time frame. If he had no other work, and the remodel wasn't extensive, then 2 weeks might be possible. Given your description (the words ''Variance'', ''Design Review'' and Public Review'' are big red flags) I doubt it.

I've been associated with a tear down of an existing house and construction of a new one in San Mateo County where we are in the 2nd year of work, and still have yet to go before the Coastal Commission or the County Building Department. That project has had 3 Architectural firms, a Civil Engineer, a Surveyor, Geotechnical Engineer, Septic System Designer and us Landscape Architects working (not full time by any means) on various aspects of the permitting and design. The Planning Review alone generated 16 typed pages of comments!

Unless you are convinced that your Architect is being non-responsive, starting over from scratch...which is what you would be doing, is a drastic option. Please understand that getting permits in the Bay Area is a huge time sink. Ray


I am an architect in Oakland.

1. The time required for a variance can vary pretty widely depending upon what you are seeking and how busy the planning department is. I would expect a variance to take at least 2 months (likely longer.)

2. Design review can also vary. I would expect 1 - 3 months. The planning department might approve with C,conditionsC. or they might require revisions and resubmission. There is no required waiting period that I am aware of but the re- review of revisions will take additional time.

3. Typically, the public comment process happens during Design Review. Neighbors are notified of your project and given 17 days to comment. If none of your neighbors complain and everything else is OK, you receive approval. If there are comments, you might need to make changes.

4. CAD can speed up the process but there will be a significant number of decisions to be made prior to submitting for design review: Massing, materials, exterior lighting, etc. Issues of views, shadow casting, and parking, will need to be addressed. All of this takes time. 3-4 months might be too long but I suspect that 2 weeks is too short.

Good luck with your project. Bill


Worried about previous owner's unpermitted work

April 2008

We purchased a single family house with a second kitchen. We knew it wasn't permitted, but we were new home buyers and didn't really know what that meant.

Now we need a new heater. We want it done correctly with permits, but we are afraid to let a city inspector in the house because they will find out about the second kitchen.

We need a good contractor who can advise us how to get permits for the kitchen that already exists. We want to do the right thing, but we don't want our perfectly usable kitchen torn out.


In my experience, in most cities, inspectors will not require you to get permits for work previously done without permits, particularly if you just bought the house. It's at their discretion and if you're easy to work with on the job you're currently doing, they're not going to be bad guys about it. They often don't even look at other rooms from where you're doing the work and wouldn't necessarily assume a remodel was done without permits unless they see it and it's really obvious. I'd suggest you have as a contingency that you might need to bring your kitchen up to code, and don't volunteer it to the inspector, but obviously do the work if s/he requires it. You never know, it might be very easy to get the work permitted, depending on how well the previous owner had the work done. If there was electrical work done, I'd always suggest you have it permitted and inspected because it's a real life safety issue, as opposed to some other work that is more cosmetic. Laura
You shouldn't worry about inspection problems with your ''illegal'' kitchen. It is what is known as ''grandfathered in'' and as such is rarely addressed by the inspector unless there are some very obvious code violations that will impact the safety and health of the occupants. The inspection will typically address only what the permits are for and other issues such as working properly placed smoke detectors and title 24 lighting requirements. BTW,You will probably need a new circuit for your heater and lighting for the heater location as well, to give it a look. I've done many permitted remodels with older situations that didn't meet code and I've never had anything built prior to the permit application torn out. Erich

City permits for small jobs?

Sept 2006

Okay, a question normally reserved for shady backroom whispers with friends only, I ask BPN for advice on the following; We live in Alameda, and are wondering if anybody here has sold a house after doing small jobs without permits. ie. small deck, window replacement, that kind of thing.

We are wondering if there is a substantially punitive process for this from the city if/when you sell; some friends say 'don't worry, its chicken-feed', some say, 'they'll take your first-born'. If not in Alameda, experiences in other East Bay cities would be welcome too.

Any work will be done professionally and properly. Having worked in Bay Area construction for years, a lot of the work I was exposed to, I can assure you, was shoddy at best - all permitted. We know you're supposed to get permits, you're supposed to drive 55 too, but the question stands and I'm sure others would like to get feedback on this too. Thanks anon


My understanding is that when you sell you are 'suppose' to disclose all information regarding any permanent changes to structure. If you disclose, and have this in a document that you and the buying party sign, legally I do believe you are okay. While I am not an attorney, I have made numerous do-it yourself changes to my home and have a friend who IS a real estate attorney and this is what he has advised me.

Permit to build a deck in Albany?

June 2006

Hi- My husband used to build decks for a living and would like to add a deck to our backyard- we've heard that the permit process in Albany can be quite slow- has anyone had the experience of building a deck without a permit? Would you recommend that we obtain one or is it kosher to go ahead and build a deck without one? Your advice is appreciated! Curious in Albany


As an Albany resident, I have done projects with permits and without. The permit process for a deck would probably be pretty straightforward and very fast - the long permit delays are for things like adding on or changing something significant about the house. The permit will insure that the deck will be built to code (probably not a real risk for you since your husband builds decks professionally...). The risk in not getting a permit for you then is probably that a neighbor might report you. Also - if and when you sell the place, you would probably have to disclose that the deck was put on without a permit. Done it both ways
While permits for extensive remodeling can be lenghthy, permits for a simple project like a deck can be done right at the counter at city hall. ruth

Help! We remodelled an illegal addition w/out a permit

Feb 2006

Hi. We own a fixer upper house in Oakland. We discovered that some shingles in a back room were rotting. A nephew and his friend offered to reshingle that area. When they took the shingles off, it turned out some of the structure underneath was rotting too, they replaced the rotting wood. Well the rotting wood was under a window and they offered to change it...so you see how it went. Well, they worked into the evening one day too many, we work evenings too and did not realize they were annoying the neighbors who complained to the city. An inspector came and placed a stop work order. By then the windows were in place and the re-shingling 75% complete.

It turns out the addition was built without a permit. We've been penalized and have to pay double for any permits we get. We have to legalize the whole thing not just the repairs we were making.

We've been told that in the process of getting the addition legalized they will inspect the whole house and we will have to fix everything. We've met once with the housing inspector and he sincerely hopes we don't lose our home.

So you see, we're in a pickle. We did not build the addition and did not know it was not legal. We are guilty of being naive and even neglectful about finding out about the permits (apparently you can't do much of anything beyond paint and roofing without a permit). We will pay for the permits we should have gotten if the double fines don't make it impossible. Does anyone have any experience working through a situation like this without losing their home? What does the double fine apply to, just what we replaced or the whole structure or the whole house, and for how long? Can we be penalized for having an addition we did not build? If we can't afford to do the permits will the city pursue this? Will the fines continue to increase? What recourse do we have? Can they force us to sell our home? Can you recommend someone to help us figure this out? Anon


First, I have a referral for you. Her name is Tessie Cuy and she is a mortgage broker/real estate agent. Her website is http://www.emerynetwealthgroup.com/. Her phone number is 800-337-7694. Her e-mail is tcuy[at]sbcglobal.net She has many contacts, including lawyers, who may be able to help you sort this up. As you can see on the website she has a course on how to avoid losing your home to foreclosure. If you are worried about losing your home she may be the person to talk to. Let her know that I sent you.

Second, once you get the lawyer ask about diclosures from both the buyer and seller. I am shocked that no one told you that these additions did not have permits. Someone should have told you and they may be liable for not telling you anything.

Third, it seems to me that you are being forced to remodel. I would be very surprised if you do not qualify for a construction loan. This will help you make sure that the additions are up to code. But you need a good broker that can help you with the transaction so you can afford all the construction.

Fourth, check out www.100plus.info. This is my website. I have a workbook on how to plan a remodel. If you like it send me your shipping info and I will send you one free.

Do not despair. The reason why I wrote the workbook is that I went through a nightmarish remodel. I also thought that I would lose my home at one point. We still have our home and the project was finished. You did the right thing by asking for help. There will be plenty of people that will help you here. A.


Getting a variance for addition in Oakland

Sept 2005

I would like to add a bdrm/bath onto my small ranch style home in Oakland. An architect drew up the plans which have been repeatedly denied by the zoning dept. for set back issues. The problem is that the city is requiring a 20ft setback on the rear of the property, which is standard. What is not standard is the shape of my property, it is shaped like a slice of pie, with what would be the "backyard" on the side of the house, so there is not 20 ft in the rear. (The house is placed on the corner edge of the wide end of the "slice".) We have asked that the city consider the backyard similar to a side yard and allow building within 5ft. But they have refused. If I were to build in compliance with city's determination, the addition would completely eliminate the entire garden space of the property. The addition, as planned, would not interfere with any other resident's sun, air or privacy as there are no other houses within approx. 100 ft of the property lines. If the! city would come and see the property they would understand the situation, but I apparently they don't do that.

I guess I am at the point now of requesting a variance. Has anyone gone through this in Oakland? Should I use an attorney? This is really stressful because I am in the process of adopting and need the space but cannot afford to move. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. oaklandgrrl


Getting a variance is not necessarily a big deal. The zoning rules are designed to provide for a general conformity across the entire City. However, not all locations and projects are the same. Consequently, the zoning rules can sometimes require things that don't always make sense. Also, at this step of the process, realize that it is not really the Planning Staff's job to grant a variance. For the most part, they strictly follow the zoning regulations as written. Staff is refusing to consider what youC-re asking not because they don't like you or your project, rather it's because they are just following the zoning rules.

So apply for a variance. There is never a guarantee of getting a variance, but it can't hurt to ask. Generally, if what you are asking for makes sense, you'll likely get the variance.

I received a zoning variance in Oakland last year. I didn't need an attorney. Your architect should be able to take care of everything, mine did. My situation was a driveway location. Strictly following the zoning rules would have meant locating the driveway (and garage) in the center of the property rather than one side or the other. It just didn't make sense and would have resulted in a really poor design.

In your application, mention the hardship you would endure by strictly following the zoning rules, talk about the benefits of being granted a variance and how it would be a better and more valuable project, how it just makes sense, how you would not be getting anything special compared to your neighbor's properties, how the variance would not create a burden to your neighbors. If there are any properties nearby that have a similar situation, use them as examples. If you can get a letter of support from your neighbors, that can help, too.


Permit = Higher Tax Base?

Sept 2004

If one does some interior remodeling that would normally require a permit to do, does that trigger a reassessment of your property value and subsequently raise your taxes? Tx. Curious Prospective Remodeler


Yes, permit = higher taxes, at least in Oakland, so I'd be shocked if it was different in, say, Berkeley. When you apply for a building permit they ask the cost of the remodel for this purpose. Of course, you can always underestimate, since they don't ask for documentation... anon
If you aren't adding any square footage, it probably won't affect your tax assessment. Someone from the assessor's office will come out and look at it, and ask if any square footage was added. Our kitchen remodel (years ago) did not affect our assessment. If it does increase at all, it would only be for the portion remodeled - not the whole house. Do be sure to let your home insurance provider know, though - you'll probably want higher coverage to cover the improvements. anon.

Neighbors built illegal structures?

April 2002

We bought a house in Oakland about a year and a half ago near Children's Hospital. There is an addition on the duplex next door, as well as garage, that is less than 3 feet from our house. Three questions: Does this structures violate Oakland housing codes? Looking around the neighborhood, I have not found any other instance of two houses being so close together. In fact, it seems to me that this garage and addition are built right on our property line. Second, these two structures were clearly hacked together by some amateur. But how can I confirm that the owner did not have a permit? What office do I go to? The proximity of our house to these two structures is of great concern to me. I worry a fire will start in our house (or theirs) and jump the small gap. Third, if these two structures DO violate Oakland codes AND were built without a permit, how do I get the owner to tear them down? Melinda


You should be able to check the file for your and your neighbor's property down at the city office. All permits should be on file there. You should also be able to ask at the building department for information on set back requirements for that part of Oakland. Ask for a copy of the codes that are relevant to your issue. The city may also give you advice on what your options are if the addition was built without a permit. This may depend on when it was built. Do you know? Did your neighbor say? Do other neighbors know? If the city does not require your neighbor to remove the structure, the neighbor may have to mitigate in some other way (a fire wall?). Think about what sort of deal you might want out of it and what environment you want to live in. What would meet your needs? What would maintain neighborly relations over the long term? Have other neighbors worked with your next door neighbor before? What are they like to work with? -- not an expert

Pros and cons of getting permits for kitchen remodel

July 2004

the postings on whether or not to get permits for building a kitchen were really conflicted. Does anyone have clear advice and experience on the pros and cons of getting plumbing, bulding, and electrical permits to put in a kitchen in a legal duplex (that currently only has one)? Also, is this something that we, the homeowners, have to do or can the plumber/ electrician help us out? rachel


As an Interior and Architectural designer, I would like to comment on to Permit or not:

The first question you have to ask yourself is - do you want to keep your legal duplex legal? If so, then I would definitely get a permit for the new work. Don't be scared of the process - it is there to help make sure things are done to certain ''standards''. Some of them may seem silly or unnecessary, but they are developed with ergonomic and safety issues in mind. That being said, the process can feel like a lot of red tape. The most important reason to do it is simply that you will have the credentials you need when and if you sell your property.

However - there are many situations when it is perfectly o.k. NOT to get a permit: IF the residence is a single family property, and there are no other parties involved to screw you in the process, and IF the project is deep within the house where no neighbors will call you on it, and IF it just involves moving one window or door or a non-bearing wall. However, if asked, the city will always tell you that you need a permit for any work, so just don't ask them!

You asked: Do you have to get the permit or can your contractors do it for you? - If it is just new electrical or plumbing, then there need not be any drawings done and it is just a matter of filling out some forms and paying the fee. A contractor can do this for you no problem. If you are planning on moving any walls, or changing the layout of a room, kitchen or bathroom, then you are looking at a building permit and drawings will need to be done to show the proposed work. A homeowner can do these drawings for themselves, or they can have a designer or an architect like myself to do them, or the contractor can sometimes do them. In this case, either the designer, the homeowner OR the general contractor can submit for the permit.

Isabel


Are permits really worth the hassle?

July 1999

We're planning to do some remodeling and we're wondering whether permits are worth the hassle. Anyone have any advice about this?


Permits help if you want to refinance or sell your house later. You probably won't get caught in Berkeley, unless you have a mean neighbor who tattles on you.
The permits are worth getting. The whole point is to keep you from making mistakes with health or safety consequences. Berkeley has some kind of owner do-it-yourself permit that's less strenuous than those for contractors. You can get the owner permit and either do the work yourself or hire someone to do it.

After living in a 1911 Berkeley house that was remodelled a number of times without permits -- with a lot of bad effects that we've spent years trying to undo -- I understand why permits are a good thing. We've found an insufficiently supported, caving-in roof, another roof with an illegal 4 layers of roofing (too heavy to be safe), plumbing vent pipes that dead-end in walls, nightmare electrical wiring, substandard ceiling heights, and rooms without any windows or ventilation, among other things.

Also, there's some kind of California law about disclosing the work you've done to potential buyers when you sell. Some buyers may think twice about a house with non-permit remodelling. I know I would.


In response to above, I'd highly recommend you do it legally. As I understand it, when you sell the house, you are legally bound to fully disclose all situations which could affect the buyer's decision to purchase. If you do not, and the situation is discovered, you could be held liable. While permits are a drag to obtain, there are good reasons for them. For instance, wiring done incorrectly could lead to a fire hazard. Good luck!
On reading the responses to this inquiry, I couldn't help but notice that the person recommending using permits is someone who's never done it. I have and despite a basically law-abiding, pro-government mindset, would avoid it in future remodeling work. The key here is the big difference between doing things "to code" and doing things with permits. I would never recommend not following current California building code and no ethnical contractor, whether licensed or not, would propose to. But following the Berkeley permit process is at best a mixed bag. We found it expensive (individual permits cost hundreds of dollars and you may need five or more), time-consuming, frustrating (telephone run-arounds, missed appointments, inconsistent or inaccurate info, etc.) and of no real value regarding the eventual quality of the job. We also found little truth to the notion that inspectors somehow assure that your house is stable, well-constructed, etc. We had probably ten or twelve inspectors (NEVER, NOT ONCE, the same one twice--even when re-checking things the previous inspector had tagged). Each one found new "violations" and ignored items other inspectors had noticed. They also found "flaws" in work that previous inspectors had approved--which required in some cases that that our contractor tear out expensive work that had been completed. Contractors are supposed to do this at their own expense because they promise to abide by all relevant regulations, etc. But we took pity on our guy, who was really detail-oriented and quality-minded, and spent several thousand extra dollars. In all these cases, the "problems" identified were very, very minor and did not involve safety or structural issues. Our contractor told us that Berkeley is known for being very hard to please. By the way, you may not have a choice here: if you use a licensed contractor (and there are many good reasons to do so) and/or architect, he/she will probably (should, I think, to keep the license) insist on all required permits.

As for re-sale value, I think you'll find this a relatively minor factor among the many involved in selling a home and one with little or no actual monetary benefit. The home inspector who does the inspection should point out any examples of work that is not up to code and you may be able to negotiate over that. Once you buy a house, whether work previously done was done with or without permits will be largely moot, though again it should be up to code--preferably current code and certainly code at the time the work was done.


I am the person who recommended using permits as a result of buying a house with nightmare non-permit work. Since then I have taken out a number of permits, and done extensive remodeling under those permits to correct the previous problems. I have been extremeely happy with the work done under permits, and now that I am about to make some additional improvements of my own, I am getting permits once again.

As far as working with contractors goes, I find that the ones who like to work without permits are willing to take shortcuts that I find completely unacceptable.


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