by Olesia Chikunova, ADU Specialist.
Navigating building permits in the Bay Area has become an increasingly challenging and time-consuming task. Building permit is often the most aggravating part of a new build, renovation, or remodel as it’s nearly impossible to anticipate — and satisfy — the requirements of every city official involved in the project.
The complexity of approval process means construction projects often get delayed because of permitting. Enter the permit expediter. The role of the permit expediter is frequently overlooked. The job itself is often misunderstood.
Let us look into the role of a permit expediter and the benefits one provides to your project. Next time you are building in an area where it costs $439.29 per square foot and more, you’ll rely on a permit expediter to help reduce costs and accelerate the process.
The purpose of a permit expediter is to ensure your permits are approved promptly, an acquired skill when traversing the Bay area’s lengthy permit approval period.
It is not just about filling in the forms and pushing submit button. Yes, an expediter manages all administrative duties involved in acquiring permits, including filing and following up. In addition, the permit expediter brings extensive experience navigating entire permit process and addressing plan check comments.
The job entails advising on construction as it relates to the issuing of permits, building codes, and administrative duties, with the intention to anticipate potential setbacks and help mitigate them to ensure a construction project remains on schedule.
You can count on the expediter to offer solutions to complications when they arise. It can be a conflict between what professional engineer has drawn and what building department wants to see.
When undertaking new construction, remodeling, or renovation project, you’re likely to default to using a contractor for building permit work. Homeowners often assume contractors have tremendous experience dealing with permits therefore they’d have the best insight into obtaining building permits. That’s often not the case.
Despite understanding the process, contractors can be the most inadequate at managing building permits. Why?
First, a general contractor is typically hired for his knowledge of construction, not on how well she can navigate government agencies.
Second, their focus is divided. When they have not started working on your project, they are likely building for someone else. Divided attention may not be an issue in other areas where permitting isn’t as strenuous or construction as costly.
In the Bay Area, however, where the permitting landscape is unique, the only way to navigate the process is to have a dedicated liaison for permits. To understand why that is, you need to understand the complexities of building codes and construction, and the legislation that governs these processes. You will be surprised by the number of government agencies involved in a single ADU permitting process.
Homeowners in California often don’t realize that nearly any building or renovation project undertaken in the state, irrespective of size, requires a building permit. Want to renovate your bathroom? A building permit is essential to avoid fines.
Thinking of turning your garage into an office? That requires you to obtain a permit.
Although most projects require a building permit, building permit requirements will differ depending on the type of project you’re pursuing. Local building codes do differ, and zoning differs by the city too. So in one city you may be allowed to build an accessory structure 3 feet away from the property line, in another it will have to be 5 or 10.
One of the reasons the architectural firms and contractors celebrate the new ADU legislation si that it has levelled the field across the cities – 4 feet is the required rear and side setback in any city in California.
You won’t need a building permit for an exempt project. Yet, these are limited to minor projects that typically don’t make any significant changes to the property, including:
These permitting exemptions for small projects don’t absolve you from compliance with applicable codes or zoning regulations.
Another fundamental permit requirement is hiring a compliant contractor. Your contractors should have the appropriate classification for the job.
For the most commonly hired contractors, these classifications include
In California, contractors also need knowledge of their craft and have to be tested, fingerprinted, bonded, and licensed by the Contractors State License Board, in addition to having passed an FBI background check.
General contractors carry license type B. If you need work done on public roads city officials will require you to hire the contractor with an A license.
The requirements for owner-builder contractors are different from that of hired contractors.
Owner/builders may be expected to:
Obtaining a permit means the project must comply with the state building codes. California has 29 building codes regulating design, building, and maintenance.
The title page of any plan set will have the codes mentioned on it. One topic will have two pages of construction drawings dedicated to it.
The so-called Title 24 shows how energy efficient your house will be. Most codes get updated every three years.
Have your plans ready? Applying for city permits in the Bay Area is a multiple-step process that depends on the scope and scale of the project. Your city may be offering counter reviews – take this opportunity to get a better understanding of what should be included in the building plans.
Typically, the permitting process begins with reviewing the zoning of your property to determine if there are any limitations to the work you plan to undertake. Ideally, you should complete this process before you commence construction drawings, as it ensures you won’t need to make any considerable changes to your plan.
For a complex project, like a new build or complete renovation, a pre-application meeting or even an architectural review may be necessary to to move forward. Plan reviewers provide this guidance as customer service to its residents.
In the event your permit requires neighborhood notice, you should complete this process early in the permitting timeline.
If the permit doesn’t require neighborhood notification, consider chatting with your closest neighbors. If in an HOA, check in early to clear your plans. Doing this before pursuing a permit reduces the chances of unnecessary and avoidable objections at a later date.
Remember, neighbors typically have up to 15 days after your permit application has been approved to object to its approval. Therefore, a neighborhood notification mitigates the chances of that occurring.
The second last step is filling in the permit applications. Despite sounding easy, this is where the permitting process becomes astonishingly complex, as the steps you take will depend on where in the Bay Area you reside and the type of permit you’re requesting.
San Francisco, for example, is attempting to simplify the process, consolidating the most common forms into one: the building 3/8 form. Los Angeles, on the other hand, has an application form for everything you need permitted.
During this step is where you’ll lean on the expertise of building permit expediters. The expediter ensures you are completing the necessary permits for each project.
Lastly, you’ll submit the application and await a response from officials. This process can be a same-day turnaround or take up to a third of a year before you get any meaningful feedback.
Without a permit expediter, you could get bad news at the last minute and have to go back and forth between officials before you make meaningful progress, let alone get the go-ahead.
You can do it yourself, if time is no issue, you have lots of patience and are not afraid of dealing with red tape. If that is not the case, a permit expediter provides four fundamental advantages to any project.
The reason contractors don’t make the best permit consultants is their proximity to the deal. They can often provide unrealistic timeframes and budget estimates beyond the general impractical description of the next steps. Of course, they do this to win the contract and build — even if it’s false — confidence in their capabilities to expedite the process.
A permit expediter does the opposite. A reputable permit expediter provides realistic feedback based on years of experience and insight into the officials conducting the permit application assessment.
A permit expediter’s sole responsibility is to manage to permit. When developing a permitting schedule, the expediter will use your project plan’s time as a guideline.
Typically, this means filing permits with enough time to spare for last-minute changes or unanticipated delays.
The permit expediter also completes forms accurately and according to specs, making it impossible for officials to reject applications, require changes, or request elaboration on the application. In the process your permit expeditor will catch all conflicts between various professionals who worked on your project.
When you don’t have one individual focused on the permits, tasks often are duplicated or inflated because people don’t have time to conduct due diligence or research. Even the most experienced contractors can fall victim to wasteful expenditure. Often, while inundated with other responsibilities, a contractor may overlook already completed tasks or lack the time to find suitable pricing. Rushing to meet deadlines only adds to the confusion and cost.
The final — and most consequential — benefit to hiring a permit expediter is having a liaison between your project and the city’s officials.
Your project isn’t the first or only one a permit expediter would have completed, which means your permit expeditor has developed an understanding of the officials who will be reviewing your application. The expediter knows what causes an official to decline an application or delay the process. Therefore, the permit expediter will do his best to avoid these to craft a permit application that will get the necessary people to say yes.
The entire process is still a bit of a Russian Roulette as projects get assigned to various plan checkers and often to third parties. But your permit expeditor acts as a client rep watching out for your interests.
Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) have become a popular construction project based on the kind of value they bring in the long term. ADUs provide homeowners with a much-needed additional dwelling, a source of income — rentals or personal office space for your remote working needs — and by enhancing the property’s value.
Despite recent legislation to simplify building an accessory dwelling unit, the changes haven’t fast-tracked the process. Various legislation has made it easier and cheaper to build, like AB-881 and AB-68, which removes certain lot restrictions, making it less likely for municipalities to block ADU constructions.
Bills like AB-670 prevent HOAs from doing the same. SB-13 removed an impact fee for ADUs under 750 square feet, making construction cheaper.
Nonetheless, permitting an ADU in the Bay Area can still take up to 12 months. How? The law says plan checks should be done in 60 days. Yes, but the clock starts anew after every plan check comment. And the speed to address plan check comments depends on your team – your designer, architect, engineers and other consultants. Permit expeditors act as your project managers aligning the team to get to the home run faster.
Every day a project is delayed is a day you’re losing money on the project, especially if that project is an ADU.
The delay doesn’t only result in avoidable losses but also considerable cost increases. As the cost of construction balloons, every day your project isn’t complete is another day the cost of material and labor is increasing.
Look for your local permit expediter to help your project remain within budget and on time. The role has an immediate impact on the pace and cost of your project.