Spring Real Estate 2005

Publication Date: Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Need a building permit?
That depends on where you live and what you're doing

by Molly Tanenbaum

Who needs a building permit and what happens if you don't apply for one?

Some homeowners hope to save money (and time) by skipping the permit process. Think twice: The price is small, considering the consequences for building without a permit.


Building technician Rosemary Morse helps Palo Alto homeowner Brenda Miller with a remodeling permit, required for fixing up her bathroom.

If neighbors tattle on un permitted construction, local cities will fine homeowners a minimum of double the permit cost -- a rule stated in the building code, according to Ron Geary, Mountain View's deputy community development director. With permits ranging from $70 to $8,000, citations can quickly eat into a remodel budget.

Un-permitted work can also affect the value of the house, said Gwen Luce, Coldwell Banker Realtor and 20-year Palo Alto resident.

"In a bad market, which we're not in, when it's hard to sell your house, anything that's not permitted doesn't have real value. It has value from the point of view that the buyers say, 'Oh, good, you've got an extra room.' But the appraisers will not give you value for anything that's not permitted," she said.


Jeff and Katharine Saunders pose with their children Charlotte and Nicholas in the kitchen they plan to remodel. Palo Alto permit fees to remodel their kitchen and bathroom cost $700.

Permits both help a homeowner to sell the home in a bad market and ensure that all work on the house is done properly and has been inspected.

Many times, though, prior owners are to blame for un-permitted work. The new owners must correct mistakes of previous owners who remodeled their home incorrectly, did not obtain permits or did not finish permitted jobs.

Fortunately, real estate laws exist to mediate these issues. Sellers must complete a Transfer Disclosure Statement when selling their house, and are required to disclose all work they know of, both permitted and not, said Harold (Skip) Justman, real estate lawyer and longtime Palo Alto resident.

"It's hard to find a house in Palo Alto that's 40 years old that didn't have un-permitted work," Justman said. "It's accepted in the industry that older homes will have un-permitted work and buyers aren't going to reject the house for that reason alone. It's not a deal breaker but it requires some amount of disclosure."

Real estate agents must also disclose problems they find upon visual inspection of a house. Though not required, some real estate agents will research the house's history through city records and a real estate database called MetroScan.

Homeowners may grumble, but fixing a problem not disclosed in the statement is typically less expensive and emotionally taxing than a lawsuit, according to Justman. If needed repairs exceed $25,000, then taking legal action may be the best option for some.

While homeowners may already live in houses with older un-permitted work, it is wise to obtain permits for all future alterations. Permit requirements hardly vary from city to city, thanks to the California Uniform Building Code.

"This country made a decision a long time ago that it's an advantage to have the same technical requirements apply so an architect can work in Palo Alto or Chicago and know that the same rules apply," said Steve Emslie, Palo Alto's director of planning and community environment.

City planning department officials assist residents in complying with the building code; homeowners, their contractors or their architects should arrive bearing detailed plans for their proposed projects.

Most alterations a homeowner wishes to make require a permit; the list of exempt modifications is brief. The fees range from $70 for replacing a water heater to as much as $8,000 for building a new home.

Exempt works include accessory buildings that do not exceed 6 feet in height and 120 square feet in area (in Menlo Park, 50 square feet); fences under 7 feet tall; window awnings not projecting more than 36 inches; cases and counters not over 5 feet, 9 inches tall; retaining walls not over 4 feet high (in Menlo Park, 2 feet); painting, papering, carpeting and similar finish work; temporary television and theater stage sets and scenery; platforms, walks and driveways not more than 12 inches above grade and not over a basement.

Cities have additional requirements based on environmental conditions in the area. For example, Palo Alto homes in locations west of Interstate 280 must have fire-retardant roofs and fire sprinklers not required elsewhere in Palo Alto. Seismic activity, heritage trees and flood zones also raise concerns.

When Katharine Saunders applied for a permit in Palo Alto this winter to remodel her kitchen and add a second bathroom, she was a bit apprehensive about the process. Not only does she live in a flood plane, which constrains what she can build on her property, but she had heard that nearby neighbors had gone through a lengthy process to add a second story.

"Our house is way over next to 101. If we do too much we have to knock the whole thing down and raise up 4 feet. Those of us who are close to 101 need to do a small change or you have to jack the whole thing up on a big foundation," she said.

Planning officials walked her through the forms, informed her of the $700 fee and told her to expect a response within four weeks. She heard in four days.

Living in Woodside presents added complications such as soils, landslide areas and other "geologically challenging areas," said Hope Sullivan, Woodside's director of planning and building.

"What might be super easy to do in Redwood City turns into a big deal in Woodside because of the land," Sullivan explained.

Due to these geological differences, as well as to the use of septic tanks and leach fields instead of a sewer system, the Woodside permit process is lengthy, involving a review by the town's geologist.

The location and size of a job will affect the duration of review time before a permit is issued, ranging from six weeks to six months. Applicants expect a four-week turnaround for an initial plan check in Menlo Park and Palo Alto; Mountain View's initial turnaround is 10 days.

Often the planning department will request additional materials or revisions upon initial review. After resubmission, applicants can expect a minimum two-week turnaround time. Palo Alto has capped its response time for the second review at six weeks; Mountain View requires only 10 days. In Woodside, homeowners should be ready for a five-month review period.

While most people applying for building permits visit their local planning departments, residents of Mountain View may apply online. Today, 15 percent of Mountain View's permits are processed online, according to Geary.

Many permits for small jobs, such as water-heater replacements, re-roofs, and kitchen and bath remodels, are issued over the counter, said Emslie.

Subcontractor Erin Jost, for example, spent only 10 minutes and $92 at the Palo Alto planning department recently to obtain a permit for replacing two furnaces.