Sonoma County Permit
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The Permit Process

Most people have a lot of questions concerning the permit process for residential construction in California. This information hopefully can help you understand the process and what may be involved. This does not address actual fees as they change frequently and vary substantially from place to place.


The permit process varies considerably depending on the jurisdiction and the type of project. The state of California has a fairly consistent set of laws that apply to various building projects, but there are great differences in how those laws are enforced and applied. This is one reason you may be having someone with more experience handle the process of obtaining your permit.


As an example let's consider a typical permit for an addition. First thing that should be done is to research the property and it's permit history. If it is on a septic, that history also needs to be examined. This step give you clues as to what kinds of problems may be involved. Zoning needs to be checked to ensure that the construction as planned is allowed. If it is on a septic system, that is checked to ensure the planned use of the addition and its location and size on the property is acceptable. If the septic is over 20 years old new permits may be needed just to verify its condition. Applicable fire codes, water availability, and the properties location in relation to flood zones and streams needs to be checked. The terrain and the type of soil are sometimes concerns and may require extensive analyses. There may be local restriction on the property, neighborhood associations involved, endangered species or habitats, plants or animals. Usually, most of these restrictions are avoided, but it is more often the case than not that something about the property will have to be addressed, even if it is of a minor nature.


Once you have a reasonable assurance that the project as conceived can go forward or have devised a plan to address whatever known issues are involved the next step is to draw up plans. Plans are needed for most permits involving construction framing or foundations, changes to walls and windows.  Permits not requiring plans are of a very limited nature (hot water heater replacement or window replacements as examples).

A typical addition would need a site plan, a floor plan, before and after floorplans, foundation and framing plans, miscellaneous details, engineering reports and calcs  and engineering details if needed, elevations of the site and cross sections as might be needed. Title 24 work needs to be attached. Title 24 is a review of the energy of the home and the new addition to make sure it meets current California standards for energy efficiency. Things like windows, heating equipment and insulation are looked at.  This review is needed for new homes and any additions to existing homes of habitable (heated) space, no matter how small. Title 24 work is usually required at the time plans are submitted. There may be required a similar report that handle Cal Green rules and regulations. It is currently required on new construction and certain additions and remodels. This is to assure that certain environmental and sustainability standards are also met. At this time (2013) Cal Green standards have not been too onerous but that is certain to change in the future. (You don't live in Nebraska). Both Cal Green and Title 24 work is done by sub-contracted specialists and is purchased separate from design and engineering  work. To have plans completed usually takes from 2 to 8 weeks, depending obviously on the scope of the project and how busy the designer is.


Sometimes, when you finally do bring in a completed set of plans, different issues may come up. If your homework was done, these are minor or can be handled at the time of submission. If no upfront work was done, the plans may be worthless and have to be completely redone or have significant changes. This obviously wastes a lot of time for designers and other professionals and can cost someone more money. So again, as much research as possible upfront is the best way to go forward. At the time of plan submital usually a significant plan check fee is required, roughly about 1/2 of the permit fee, but it varies among different jurisdictions.


After the plan is submitted, the next step is to wait a while and give the government agency enough time to get to the project. If it is an addition, a site review may be done first. This is to assure the permitting agency that the project you presented on paper is actually the project that will be constructed. They usually check to see that the terrain is in fact what is presented and that the existing buildings are as shown and in a suitable condition for the work that may need to be done. This is almost always not a problem. They are really just  making sure nothing significant is not addressed in the plans. After the site review is completed the plan is checked for construction code compliance. This step usually takes 3-4 weeks. When that work is done, the designer is notified that either the permitting agency is ready to issue the permit or changes or additions to the plans are needed. Most of the time, unless the plan is very simple, changes are needed. The truth is,  government plan checkers need to find things wrong even if there is really nothing. Something could be added to all plans even if it is just obvious or simple things. Over time you begin to know what plan checkers are like and the types of things each individual plan checker is prone to. Each one is different.  Some are very simple. Most are reasonable. Some are very difficult for a variety of reasons. 


Often the plans come back needing engineering. Usually this is foreseen but often it is better to let the plan checker ask for engineering rather than volunteer it. The reason is, sometimes things that technically require engineering are of such a minor part of the project it may not be needed. Often you can come up with a small adjustment to avoid the engineering and other times an experienced plan checker can use his own judgment to verify that the plan construction is acceptable. And sometimes they just don't see that it might be needed. At any rate, if you can wait for the plan checker to make this determination, you can often save the engineering fees by avoiding it outright or at least have the plan checker ask for the engineering details he or she may need rather than trying to engineer the whole structure. In other words, taking a little more time on the plans could save you some money.


If engineering is not needed, there may be other things still needed. They can be as simple as not showing the correct location of a smoke detector or labeling something incorrectly. Usually plan checks corrections involve clarification or providing more information. At any rate, the designer now has the task of making the corrections and resubmitting the plans. Depending on the situation, they may be returned to the Building Department within a couple of weeks and after review (another week or two) the plans are ready for issue and can be picked up. At this point the permit fee is paid and any other fees due paid. If there is a code violation that this permit is correcting any penalties involved are paid at this time. Also, at this time, if the addition if over a certain square footage, fees to the local school district are required. Proof of having paid these fees to the school district is required to obtain the permit.


So far, we have been discussing an addition. A remodel of any existing space without additions involves the same process but usually the Title 24 work and Green Build work can be omitted. When you talk about a separate structure or a new structure like a new home, 2nd unit, or detached garage different rules apply. Usually the process is somewhat longer, not always, but usually. New homes and 2nd units usually involve impact fees. These are fees the government charges to address the impact of more people living in a certain area.  Besides the school fees mention previously, they may include traffic fees, septic hookup fees, water hookup fees, park fees, etc. No point trying to name them all here. The only thing that is important to know is that they are usually substantial. A new home in Northern California usually has total permit fees of from 15 to 50 thousand dollars. Between impact fees and penalties for illegal work already done, someone who knows this process can save you quite a bit of money by knowing how to avoid as many fees as possible or at least make sure that you don't pay more than you need to. A mistake can easily cost thousands and it could happen by just asking the wrong question to the wrong person. I have seen it more than you might guess.


This is generally how the permit process goes. There are a number of things that can go wrong during the process. As mentioned before I always do some research before I start to try and figure out  the problems up front. I would like to tell you I am always successful but sometimes I am not. It often seems that there is something to trip you up around every corner. Experience usually tells me when there is trouble ahead and I have saved people thousands of dollars but I cannot avoid everything.  But I promise to make the best effort I can to keep your costs down. The truth is it burns me up sometimes how expensive the building process has become and am motivated by just the desire to keep your money out of their hands. I will let you know when we have options on how to proceed and try to give you the best possible evaluation of each situation and I will always try to answer any questions you have as we go.