Building Permits: Helpful Hints for the Owner Builder

When you apply for building permits, never assume anything. Each municipality is different.

It is critical that when you make that decision to build anything, even a remodel, your first visit should be to your local building authority.

Most building officials are competent, helpful public servants. Tell them what your plans are and get copies of any printouts available. This will help you in the planning and permitting process.

If you haven't already reviewed our page on Building Departments, do so now.

Questions To Ask

You will want to know:

What are the various residential zoning categories and what specific conditions apply to each zoning district?

What building code is the accepted standard for the municipality? Most cities now use the IBC ( international building code) while others still use the UBC ( uniform building code).

What modifications or additions to the building code have been adopted? Local authorities often have specific concerns and add regulations to address those concerns. For example, if the views are spectacular in a town, they may institute height restrictions on new home construction. This helps preserve views for existing residents.

Does the building authority require an architects or engineers stamp on residential home plans?

How many sets of plans must be submitted when applying for a permit? Usually it is one or two sets of houseplans and a plot plan.

Are engineered truss plans necessary when submitting house plans for approval? Your local truss company should know the requirements for building permits. Check with them during the bid process. Is a landscaping plan required? Sometimes this is required because of drainage issues, xeriscape landscaping requirements or restrictions on vegitation.

Are soil tests required with your plans submittal? In areas with expansive soils or percolation issues, The municipality will want to verify that tests have been conducted to determine the necessary foundation requirements.

What is the total fee structure?

Building permit application fee Building permit fee Impact fees

Does the building department have specific architectural requirements such as style of home, specified roofing materials, square footage, etc.? There are certain neighborhoods that are trying to preserve historic architectural integrity. They often have requirements concerning building materials and elevations.

Does the building department require a preconstruction conference before reviewing plans? For the owner builder, this is a good idea, whether or not it is required.

Are there any energy efficient or “ free” construction requirements or credits? More and more, cities are requiring certain energy efficiency standards be met to have building permits approved. Some cities have started Green Building Certified programs that give financial incentives to build energy efficient homes using "green" building materials.

What is the processing time for plans review and approval? Don't plan on breaking ground two weeks after submitting plans in Southern California. Building permits in some municipalities can take as long as six months for approval.

Are the plans reviewed quickly upon resubmitted or do you need to plan on an extended review period?

Is there an inspection fee charged in addition to the permit fees? This is unusual, however, a RE-inspection fee for a failed inspection is very common.

Be sure to collect any information the building department has, which will help you in navigating the permit.


In some instances it may be necessary to secure a variance. This is a request for the building authority to allow you to do something not permitted by the building code.For example, setbacks may be the issue for variance requests. Perhaps the home you would like to build will encroach on a required 20 foot setback by two feet. You could request a variance.

Variance requests are normally time consuming and should be avoided if possible.

This is why deliberate and well researched lot selection is so important. The variance request is normally processed before a permit is issued.

Most lots have a front, back and two sides. It is important to know what the city has identified as the front. Don’t be afraid to ask your building department to identify the front of your lot.

Home Owner's Associations

Remember, if your lot is in a subdivision subject to an HOA (Homeowner’s Association), your plans must also comply with HOA regulations. An early visit to your HOA will help prevent costly mistakes and time consuming delays.

An advantage to building in an approved, established subdivision is that it will often make the plans approval process easier. Most or all utilities are in and approved. Streets provide legal access.
While most building department employees are helpful, there are occasional unreasonable officials. If you are confronted with this, do not hesitate to refer your concerns to a more senior building department employee. Don’t be obnoxious. If you dot your i’s and cross your t’s you will get through the permit process. Yelling at someone in the building department or losing your temper will not expedite your building permits approval. It will just exacerbate your frustrating situation. Once you are approved, you may be flagged as a trouble maker and have further difficulties once your inspections begin.

Special Conditions that May Postpone Your Building Permits

Occasionally, a building department may have special conditions such as infill requirements or building moratoriums.

What are infill requirements? Some municipalities are concerned about “sprawl”, the spread of the city footprint due to building further and further outside of the main population center. To combat this spread, they have passed infill requirements that prevent building from occurring outside of a certain area until that area is built out. This also reduces the cities requirements to build sewer expansion into areas that a less densely populated and have fewer taxpayers. This may postpone your building permits, even if your lot is zoned for residential.

A building moratorium is similar. It too can prevent building on a lot even if it is zoned residential. A moratorium may be in place while a town re-evaluates its' own building codes and zoning regulations. Sometimes a small town experiences a surge in developer interest and incoming residents and just isn’t prepared for it. They can pass a building moratorium for a period to adjust to the influx of people.

Fire Protection Requirements

Many towns are now requiring sprinkler systems. If they are not required, I would not suggest installing a system. If you do, make sure the system installed is heat rather than smoke activated and each sprinkler head is independent. This will reduce the chance of extensive water damage that can occur with some systems.

If sprinklers are required, there may also be an additional fire permit to apply for and a fire department inspector that approves your system. Normally in this case, the city will not approve your building permits until the sprinkler plan is approved by the fire department.