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Building Permits: What Every Owner Builder Needs to Know Immediately

Jul 15, 2008
Almost every county, township, or municipality has a local department that is dedicated to reviewing residential house plans and issuing permits to build. If you are hiring a licensed general contractor to build your home, the GC should be intimately familiar with the local building codes and procedures for permits.

But, if you are going to manage the construction project yourself, by being an owner builder, you need to learn all you can from your local permit office before signing a purchase contract for a piece of land - and before starting any owner builder construction loan application process.

Owner builders, because they are their own general contractors, are fully responsible for the building permits. You need to know your county's requirements before moving forward. It may end up causing you to change your mind on the land and home design you picked.

Even if you are hiring a builder, remember that the house will still be yours. Stay involved with the planning and permitting process.

The building departments around the country all go by slightly different names, such as The Office of Code Compliance, The County Plans Examiner Office, The Office of Building Permits, etc. The name isn't really important, but the function is.

The purpose of these local building departments is to protect residents from building homes that are structurally unsound. And, in doing so, they protect future homeowners from buying a house that was built improperly. Thus, they are protecting the value of all of the homes in the county.

Consider a county in which homes have been poorly built. Think of how that will affect the value of the rest of the homes in the area.

No one wants to buy in an area where the quality of the homes cannot be trusted. So, when you are jumping through hoops as an owner builder to get your building permits, try not to get too frustrated. The county office is actually trying to protect you, your safety, and the value of your home.

Every county (or town, etc.) is different, though. Some counties only require a couple of sets of stock blueprints. Other counties, require the full nine yards, from engineered prints to soil tests to site plans to engineered sub-flooring and trusses.

For extremely strict counties or states, owner builders may become overwhelmed with this process if they do not have professional help. You may consider hiring an architect or engineer who can easily take you through the process.

Also, visit the building department as soon as you have determined that you want to buy land in that area. Owner builders, especially, should go in person, instead of just calling by phone. By going in person, owner builders can pick up important documents that the county may provide. And, you will have better access to the people who can answer your questions.

10 Questions Owner Builders Should Ask the Local Building Department:

1. Are you allowed to apply for permits before the land is officially deeded in your name? If not, and you are doing an owner builder construction loan that incorporates the purchase of the land, talk to your loan officer about what you will need to do to close on the loan.

2. Ask about all the permit fees involved and find out when you have to pay them. Some counties allow you to pay after the permits are approved and ready for pickup. Other counties force you to pay upfront. Depending on the answer to this question, it may affect your costs out of pocket with your construction loan.

3. Ask about any other fees involved with building. For instance, are there impact fees and highway taxes and school fees, etc? In some areas, such as most counties in California, these extra impact fees can cost thousands of dollars.

4. Ask about the timeline involved. How long does it take to issue permits? Owner builders often underestimate the amount of time required to get fully approved permits.

5. Ask about the most common mistakes and delays that people make, including contractors and other owner builders.

6. Ask if they are familiar with the architect or blueprint source that is providing your plans.

7. Ask if you can get an initial plan review and foundation permits issued prior to the full set of building permits. If the county takes a long time to issue permits, sometimes owner builders can speed up the process by getting the foundation permits issued to allow construction of the foundation and sub-flooring while the county reviews the rest of the plans. This could save you precious months, depending on your county.

8. What is the way to track permitting progress? Do they tell you how many plans are in front of you? Is there an online tracker?

9. Ask about the building codes that are used by the county. Are there additional code requirements on top of the standard building code, such as snow load requirements or high wind requirements? Many counties follow building codes that are stricter than the standard code. For owner builders, this may mean that the plan you bought online will need additional, local engineering.

10. What about the code inspections during construction? Get a list of all of the stages that will require an inspection by the code compliance inspector. Being familiar with this list will help any owner builder plan their work management strategy and construction timeline.

All of these questions are important. But, pay special attention to the first question if you are buying land and doing an owner builder construction loan. Your failure to know when you can apply for permits could stop your loan process in its tracks. The smart owner builder will stay ahead of the game by immediately contacting the local building department as soon as a lot is chosen.

By knowing the rules early, the majority of mistakes and delays can be avoided. This will make your entire owner-builder experience more enjoyable.
About the Author
Chris Esposito finances owner builder construction loans nationwide through his Owner Builder 101 program. To learn more about building your new home without paying the general contractor costs, visit www.OwnerBuilder101.com, or call (877) 876-3688.
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