Ask the Architect

Permits are a pain

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Q. We’re very frustrated. We can’t get a permit before winter, and might have to wait for spring. We applied for a permit to add a family room and open our kitchen, but are being told our deck, shed and fences are a problem. They won’t give us the first permit until all the others are put in and get approved at the same time. The deck was there when we bought, and nobody said a word. The fence and shed are new, but again, the fence company said they would take care of it, and the shed we knew about, but didn’t think it would hold things up. Can’t they just do the permit for the new room and kitchen? We can do the other things later. Doesn’t that make sense?

A. Yes, to you it makes perfect sense, but to a building department, burdened by having to follow up when promises to file aren’t kept, it just complicates things even more. I like to think that, as architects, we’re in practice to design buildings, but somehow all the “stuff” of life, like illegal, undocumented, unapproved construction, ends up dominating, and preventing the straight path to designing new work with permission to build. We can’t get permits for new work without getting old work approved, in the majority of cases.

Most homeowners create obstacles to their own progress by doing things they suspect might need municipal approval, but by avoiding the inevitable, are blissfully in denial, until the moment of truth. My typical conversation, when I explain existing items like fences, sheds, pools, decks, trellises, floating docks and built-in barbecues, goes something like this: I say, “Your city/town/village requires a permit for these things.” The owner usually responds, “Oh. I can’t believe it; it’s been there for years and nobody said anything. Why do I have to get a permit? It was there when I bought it. It was on the survey when I bought the house. It’s just a money grab,” etc. etc.

A survey generally isn’t filed unless it accompanies a permit application, and a survey, by itself, is a description of the site conditions, not a permit record. A survey also doesn’t document interior alterations, which almost always need a permit application, safety code and plan review before permitted construction. Many people seem surprised that an open wall and new beam, which the beam installer usually guessed the size of, need a permit, or the extent of work the architect has to produce in order to file. It doesn’t change the issue for homeowners to say these things — they just feel the need to say them, perhaps to vent or to anticipate that there will be a soothing response, but the issue won’t just go away. You need to face the issues and move forward. At least get plans and applications produced and submitted so you can ask for the addition permit before winter.

© 2017 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to yourhousedr@aol.com, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.