Building Permits

Parent Q&A

Berkeley Home Expansion for Dummies Feb 2, 2021 (8 responses below)
Living and doing home construction in Albany Jun 2, 2020 (3 responses below)
Berkeley deck penalty Mar 13, 2019 (4 responses below)
Kitchen work and permits Feb 21, 2019 (1 responses below)
Building department advice Berkeley Feb 21, 2019 (1 responses below)
Get permit now when planning for remodel? Apr 16, 2018 (1 responses below)
Unpermitted in-law - will it haunt us? Nov 5, 2017 (4 responses below)
Any recent Oakland building permit experience? Sep 6, 2016 (3 responses below)
  • Berkeley Home Expansion for Dummies

    (8 replies)

    Hi all, we are contemplating expanding our Berkeley hillside home to add ground-level bedroom, bathroom and (attached or detached) plus room. The things driving this are very time-sensitive and I’m wondering what I should know about the process before we launch it so as to make it as speedy and efficient (for Berkeley) as possible. What we have so far: a basic set of plans by an architect relative not licensed in Berkeley. Aside from speed, I’m also curious about any local quirks or pitfalls of this process worth knowing about, and how it may have been affected by Covid and the economy.

    One further consideration: we have a difficult neighbor.

    I would welcome your thoughts and experience, especially if recent.


    Bursting At The Seams

    Hi I'm not an expert but from my experience with recent construction on my home, getting permits in Berkeley is an arduous and slow process. It is even slower now because of COVID-19. It can easily take 6 months +  just to get the permits to start construction (in my own experience and based on what I've heard from others). If you want to get things rolling, I suggest talking to a local architect who has plenty of experience with Berkeley permitting. They can review your plans to make sure comply with your home's zoning requirements and put together a plan set that complies as much as possible other berkeley requirements. They can also shepard it through the permitting process. Things that you might want to ask the architect about are getting a survey asap and any other consultants that are required such as structural engineers etc. Everyone in construction and construction-adjacent businesses is  busy right now - it can be hard to find people who have availability on your timeline so this can end up being another source of delay. Once you have a clear idea of the plan, it will be a good idea to get a contractor to get on their calendar well in advance to try to avoid delays in starting construction. Good luck! (And sounds like congratulations are also in order!?!)

    I have heard that getting permits for ADUs is really fast. You may want to add a tiny kitchen. 

    Hi there, we're almost finishing an addition in Berkeley. We used an architect with limited experience and it showed during the entire process. (I believe we interviewed 5 architects). It took longer (it was more affordable) and we had to submit revisions and further studies until it was ready to break ground. In summary, it took 2 years until we started the project. Covid has been hard because the planning office is not open, you cannot go and check with the inspectors, and you depend on the city employees to get back to you; however, we can't complain because they've been diligent and there have not been any delays because of them. Pitfalls: we had to hire a soil engineer and redesign the foundation. That cause a delay in the project when it was underway (we lived in the house during construction). My only tip, get a great contractor that knows Berkeley. That will be helpful. Take your time on this. We interviewed/contacted 7 or 8 contractors, and we couldn't be happier with our choice. Regarding the "difficult neighbor", people do not like changes. I had to ask for signatures from my neighbors, and all of them but one signed the "no objection" when I knocked at their doors. This one neighbor asked for a specific meeting and she made tons of "intrusive" questions, but I was able to understand her concern (new windows and eventual shade on her property) that were addressed in our meeting. Good luck!  

  • Hi, we are considering buying a home in Albany, probably a fixer-upper type just so we can get a "perfect" home with renovation.

    We currently live in Oakland and have dealt with the Oakland Building Department on multiple occasions, so much so that we dread the process of doing another renovation because how horrible and slow the process had been.

    Our big question is, how's everyone's experience with the Albany building department? So we can plan/budget accordingly.

    Thank you so much!

    We've had no issue with the building department. Our work has been relatively straight forward (electrical panel upgrades and seismic retrofit which included decreasing garage door opening width with shear walls for a soft story). I prepared the plans for the seismic retrofit (I'm a structural engineer) and my contractor handled the permitting. It was all really easy. I have a bathroom reno planned in the next few years (slowed down due to covid) and have no concerns with permitting there either.

    My family recently completed a renovation project on our Albany home, and had no significant problems with the city.  We weren't managing the approvals or inspections ourselves; we had a design-build general contractor handling it, so I don't recall all the details, but although there were some minor delays in the design review process (and we couldn't get a setback variance we wanted), once the building permit was pulled, all went smoothly.  There is only one building inspector for the city, which is a good thing actually because if he tells you something will pass, you're not risking that another inspector will disagree when the time comes to sign off.  It's a small town and the bureaucracy is much less convoluted than Oakland's, so in general it's not as difficult to find the right person to talk to.

    We did a second-story addition and renovation on our Albany home. Overall, the Albany planning/building department is fine to work with, but a few comments: (1) We did have to re-landscape a front planter area, uprooting established existing plants, mainly to satisfy the cosmetic preferences of the planning committee (2) we had to sprinkler our home because of how the city calculates 'modified area'. These two changes easily added $10k+ to our budget, so they're not trivial. If your architect has worked in Albany before, they should be able to anticipate these and plan ahead. A separate note, lots in Albany are small, so home additions are limited by setbacks and total built area restrictions. You may have to build a second-story (as we did) which adds significantly to the cost. 

  • Berkeley deck penalty

    (4 replies)

    We have explored building a deck with permits in Berkeley. We'd like to know what the consequences of building a deck without permits would be. We understand that penalties could be imposed. Specifically how are penalties assessed? Can they be assessed at any point in the future ? Thanks for the information.

    RE: Berkeley deck penalty ()

    Seems like almost every house in Berkeley has had work done without permits. One of the consequences is that the work might not meet code and will therefore be dangerous. If your neighbors turn you in or the city finds out, I think they double the permit fees. If you want to build without permits, there are several basic rules to follow in order to get away with it. Observe quiet hours. Hide all building materials from those driving by. Don't rent a porta-potty. Be nice to neighbors. 

    RE: Berkeley deck penalty ()

    So you are basically asking what might happen if you deliberately decide to break the law.  Double permit fees if caught without a permit may be the least of your potential problems.  How about total personal and negligence liability if there is a failure in the deck system or any part of the deck and railing is substandard and someone gets hurt for whatever reason? The City of Berkeley takes all this very seriously since the balcony failure a few years ago where a number of visiting Irish students fell to their deaths.  Getting a permit means your deck and railing have to be designed and engineered to meet safety, structural, and seismic codes, are checked by the City for compliance before approval, and inspected in place by the City to make sure the work as constructed conforms to the plans and code.   Why you wouldn't want to do that to safeguard your friends, family, and visitors and protect yourself from liability is beyond me.  Or you would potentially prefer getting sued in a personal injury law suit and explaining at the deposition that you thought it would be ok to ignore the law and save some money on permit fees.   You would also be potentially criminally liable in case of serious injury.  I would suggest you ask your homeowners insurance agent about what you planning on doing and get his or her opinion.  Constructing an illegal deck would probably be justification enough for your insurance company to drop your coverage in a heart beat, and they wouldn't defend you if there was a lawsuit.   

    RE: Berkeley deck penalty ()

    I live in Berkeley and have done a lot of work on my house, all with the necessary permits.  I wouldn't build a deck or anything else without permits. Here are some of the reasons why: 1)  If for any reason the city discovers your unpermitted deck, they could make you tear it out and re-do it with permits 2)  Reputable contractors do not build without permits.  If you have one who is willing to do unpermitted work, there's a good chance they are not licensed, have inadequate knowledge of structural and safety requirements, will cut corners in other ways, and will not be responsible if anything goes wrong. 3) Unpermitted work reduces the value of your house. Given house prices in Berkeley it doesn't make sense to cheapen your property with unpermitted work, even worse if the work is done by unlicensed contractors.  When you sell your house, you are legally required to disclose work done without a permit and you can be sued if you don't.  I personally would not buy a house that had unpermitted construction. Especially not a deck where there could be serious liability issues. 

  • Kitchen work and permits

    (1 reply)

    I'm considering doing one or more of the following to my kitchen at some point: replacing the flooring and/or cabinets and/or countertops -- same layout, same footprint. This would involve *NO* electrical or plumbing work. Info on the web suggests this kind of work does not need a permit, but I am wondering. Thank you!

    RE: Kitchen work and permits ()

    I have heard City of Berkeley employees talk about this issue. As I understand it, you do not need a permit for flooring, cabinets or countertops. Except for that pesky cabinet with the sink in it. If you have to work on the sink plumbing, you should get a permit. 

  • Building department advice Berkeley

    (1 reply)

    I am in a crappy situation. After I bought out my ex from our family home last year, he called and reported un-permitted work to the City of Berkeley ( work he had done). So for the past year i have been working on getting zoning permits , paying huge fines also. I finally have the zoning permits and now have 30 days to apply for building permits ( because it was a violation, i have a strict timeline). I know from speaking to the inspectors that several things are not to code and will need changing. My plan was to go to the building permit office and speak to someone, show them my drawing of what is there currently and I assume they will tell me what needs to change to be in compliance. Then get someone to do new drawings and design, and then submit them. I am wondering if there is any strategic reason to use an architecht or contractor to interface directly with the city or not? Are there some unspoken rules i dont know about, or old boys club vibe that is present such that using a professional would be more streamlined? thanks! 

    I don’t know Berkeley specifically, but I work for a county in permitting. It may be helpful to have your architect or contractor present at the meeting simply so nothing gets lost in translation. It will be easier for both the building official and your architect/contractor to discuss quickly and thoroughly, and they’ll walk away knowing exactly what you need to do. I don’t think there’s necessarily any strategic advantage, just a practical one. 

  • Remodeling newbie here hoping for advice from more seasoned homeowners. I browsed the BPN site on home remodels but didn't see anything specifically on this question. 

    We have in mind several remodel projects for our house in Berkeley. The highest priority is to tear out an existing addition to our house and have a new addition built on the same footprint, but half a level higher than the current addition, to be level with the main floor of the house (the current addition is ground level, which is half a level below the living room/dining room/kitchen). For various reasons, we probably wouldn't want to do this work for at least 2 years, possibly 3-5 years. But I've heard the permitting process can take so long, that I wonder if we should start working now with an architect to draw up some plans. Is it possible to have a project permitted but hold off on the construction for some period of time? Or does it all need to happen in quick succession? How much can we expect to spend working with an architect just to have some plans created?

    On a related note, does the architect handle the permit application process, or is all or some of that left to the contractor? 

    Anything else this total newbie should keep in mind as I begin this process? Many thanks!

    To begin with, you may want to check with the city or an architect if your project even needs a permit. It's not adding new space. For example, a kitchen or bath remodel can often be done without permits. If you haven't yet, I would strongly recommend just talking to the city permit desk officer about these topics first. 

    I can only speak from my experience in Albany, not Berkeley. Permitting takes 6-9 months (not 2-3 years). An approved permit must be issued ('pulled') within a year or it lapses. The permit application is typically submitted by an architect (who represents you at city hearings etc) but issued to a contractor. You can issue a permit to yourself as homeowner but there are certain risks associated with this: Also, Albany requires a construction bond (around $2000) which is only refunded after construction is complete and the project passes final inspection - this is to motivate people to finish their projects.

    In your situation, you could possibly get a permit application approved, issued, and then schedule construction 1-2 years later; assuming that a contractor would agree to those terms and you're willing to wait to get your bond back (and your project done). 

    How much you spend on an architect can vary widely depending on the project scope, but if there's structural work involved, expect $10-20k on design/survey/engineering fees and another $10-20k in city permit fees, all before a spade even hits the ground. 

  • Unpermitted in-law - will it haunt us?

    (4 replies)

    We are interested in buying a house with a “bonus” cottage in back in the Richmond/el sobrante Area . The former owner was a contractor and we are pretty sure the cottage is unpermitted. The home inspector says the place looks great and is very well built. We would be interested in trying to make it legal but worry that it is too close to the main house to qualify. If we buy this house will we be forever haunted by its unpermitted status? What if the roof needs replacing or we need anything else done to the house, will those items require permits and get us in trouble for the cottage? We would consider tearing it down but worry the cost would be prohibitive and what a waste, we both have out of state parents who would love a place to stay while visiting the grandkids. I guess I’m just wondering a few things. Has anyone successfully made their illegal inlaw legal even if it was too close to the main house or property line? Has anyone been able to have quality work done on their home without having other unpermitted work or structures dinged? Has anyone had to tear down a backyard cottage- if so, how much did it cost? 

    I doubt that it will be a problem. Seems like most homes have unpermitted work. The rules are so convoluted, people just give up and make the changes they want. If you are caught in the middle of building, you have to pay a fine. But once it is done, it seems like there is no penalty. And if you pull a permit to replace the roof or whatever, they just seem to be glad to getting the money for that permit. I did hear about an instance in which the neighbor complained and someone had to remove the stove and tub from a cottage. Stay on good terms with your neighbors! Don't let your dog bark and don't burn frequently! Then you will probably be fine. But no guarantees. There are never guarantees. 

    One thing to keep in mind is that it won't be able to be insured on your homeowner's insurance if it is unpermitted. Our neighbor recently had a fire and their backyard cottage was destroyed and now their insurance won't pay to rebuild. They'd been counting on it for rental income..... sounds like you won't be in that position, so maybe that's not a concern.

    We're in the middle of trying to get a mortgage on a property that has a mother in law unit.  The property is zoned single family and there is a permit for the apartment.  The lender we were trying to use has said that even with the permit, the zoning needs to be multi-family in order for them to provide a mortgage.  So if you're thinking about mortgaging might want to check with your lender beforehand - it's caused us a real headache. 

  • I have a small interior remodeling project in Oakland with plumbing and very minor electrical. If you have recently dealt with the City of Oakland for building permits, could you please provide advice: would you pull permits next time? How much time did it add to the schedule? Were the inspectors reasonable? Did they look at other unpermitted parts of your house and require a permit? There is a lot of construction in the neighborhood at 51st and Broadway, does that mean inspectors may be driving around looking for unpermitted construction? What would you do differently? The building inspectors have a bad reputation from the past (according to old BPN advice) has that changed? Thank you.

    I've pulled permits many times for work on my house.  I often act as my own general contractor. The C of O permitting process is uneven. There are some terrific people there, generous with advice and knowledgeable, and some really bad duds as well. The last time I had to pull permits, it was for a contractor who turned out to be bad news. He took  me for about $100k. The worst part was finding out that all his plumbing and electric was not to code. The inspectors provisionally passed him,  a practice that still boggles my mind. They knew the work was bad, but the contractor was trying to meet a payment milestone so needed to fool me into thinking he'd passed. I had to redo all of the work, pay for all new permits,  all the time knowing they had no value. 

    Next time I won't bother. Also, licensed contractors are supposed to be safer, but,  yeah, he was licensed,  still is,  because the State is often hog-tied by arbitration clauses.

    I pulled my own permits last year in Oakland for the first time, for a bathroom remodel that included hiring a plumber and electrician. (In the past contractors have always done the permit process for us.)  Although we hemmed and hawed over the cost, I think ultimately the peace of mind is worth it - not having to worry about neighbors reporting unpermitted work, what happens when you sell a property with unpermitted work, etc. (Plus, it is technically the law.) If you get all the paperwork online and have it filled out when you get to the city office, it's not too painful - definitely bring a book, though, as you will have to take a number and wait.  All the people I've dealt with in the permit office were helpful and seemed to genuinely want to help me get it done. The inspectors are a mixed bag - sometimes you get someone who just glances at the work and signs off, and sometimes they'll ask a lot of questions and tell you to change things.  In various projects over the years I've never had an inspector tell us to change something not related to the project or ask if other work around the house was permitted, although they sometimes require additional work tangentially related to the project, like upgrading electrical in the area while we had the ceiling open to add a skylight, for example. 

    if it needs a permit and you don't get one, and you try to sell the house, it can cause a lot of problems, and the contractor has already smiled and walked away with your money and YOU are responsible. The inspectors will only require a permit for something else they notice if it's safety related like say you don't have a railing on your stairs and somebody could fall down them. (Or like a deck in our neighborhood that someone got hurt when it fell when the owners were told to get a permit and they didn't.) And don't be ridiculous, the inspectors don't have time to drive around looking for MORE work!!! Permits are there not to make your life miserable, but to require standards to keep everyone SAFE and to get things done correctly so there are no problems down the road because someone cut some corners. Get the permit.

Archived Q&A and Reviews

Penalized for Remodel in Berkeley without Permits?

April 2013

Can you be penalized for doing a remodel in a house without using permits in Berkeley? We're thinking of renovating a section of our house for our in-laws that would include redoing electrical, gas and plumbing stuff as we would add a kitchen, bathroom and central heating. Since we aren't planning to rent it out, would there be any repercussions if the city found out that we didn't get permits? And if we did get caught, what kind of penalty would we receive? Anon

Get the permits. Yes it will add a bit of hassle to the process. But it's far, far better than having your job shut down for lack of permits. All the work you've mentioned has to be to Code. And if electrical and plumbing work are not done to Code the problems down the road are much worse than the process of getting the permits and the inspections. For instance, if the electrical work is not done correctly it can lead to a smoldering fire that will take hours to alert your smoke detectors. As long as you treat the Building Inspectors as people who are smart and not trying to make your life difficult they can be extremely helpful. In fact they can give you suggestions about what your contractors are doing that's costing you more money than it should. I'd also suggest that you be the person who goes to the Planning Department to get the Permits. Too many contractors treat the employees there like dirt and so make the whole process more difficult than it needs to be. And yes, I've seen a job shut down for lack of permits. It was around the corner from us and the gentleman who bought the house and land figured he could do what he wanted when he wanted to do it. Including having laborers working away at 8 a.m. on weekends with power tools. His neighbors did not like that at all. They turned him into the City. It took 3 notices and a large fence around the property before he understood he was wrong. And then sold the property at a loss. jw

When we were looking to buy our house we looked at a house where the owners were being forced to tear out all the work they did without permits.In El Cerrito I know there is someone who drives around looking for work being done and checking for permits.Your resale value and the complications of selling would also be a problem.I would definately not do it. Ellen

Call Susan at Spottcheck consulting. She is a walking encyclopedia of information on codes, permitting, etc., and has worked for municipalities as a building inspector and consultant. She now has her own consultation serve called Spottcheck. Check out her website at or call her at510-530-4673. Tari

I don't know if the City of Berkeley would go after something like this. But I do know that if you want to sell your house in the future that not having permits is a huge drawback. Also, we just had to have our house rebuilt due to a flood. Our contractor pushed us hard to do it without permits but I held firm and I'm really glad that I did. The city inspector caught and made them redo many things that I never would have noticed because it would have been closed up in a wall. Maybe the inspector was being overly picky about some things, maybe not. But I feel a heck of a lot better knowing that a disinterested third party inspected the work done on my house and forced some changes. Glad I got a permit

Why would you remodel without permits? Looking at it from a purely selfish perspective, you run the risk of a fine (as you suspect... though worse case scenario might be a requirement that you pay to have the work demolished), or complications if/when/as you (or your heirs) choose to sell. From the perspective of community, of your friends, neighbors and fellow citizens, you'd be a jerk. Permits and inspections ensure that there's less risk that someone's inappropriate or subpar construction will collapse and kill, set fire to the neighborhood, or poison or electrocute some poor kid. A bit hyperbolic, perhaps, as your plans no doubt involve only the reputable sort of quality contractors who don't ask many inconvenient questions about permitting, but how about not being a jerk? Your Fellow Citizen

By reputation, Berkeley is one of the most difficult cities around to deal with in terms of planning/zoning and Building Permits. It is not uncommon to receive different answers from City staff on each visit. That being said, I would never advise anyone to do significant work of their property without proper Permits. I work in a planning and building building dept. (not Berkeley). You WILL get caught eventually, at least when the property is sold, and this will create HUGE hassles with the City, even decades after the fact. In addition, you could damage your relationship with your neighbors. The owner of the house next to mine illegally converted his basement to a 2nd unit. I am not going to complain as long as the current owner owns the property - don't want to ruin our relationship. But I am REALLY angry about it: It made my dense and tight-knit neighborhood feel noisy and crowded. If the property sells while I still live next door, I am going straight to the City to complain. Angry Neighbor Who Works by Day in a Bldg. Dept.

Work done without Permit - City of Albany

Feb 2013

A few years ago we added on to our house in Albany. We got all the proper permits, but during construction, we changed what had been described in the permit as a storage space to a half bath and laundry room. The city inspector signed off on all the work (electrical, plumbing, etc) as meeting code, so we are confident that the work is okay, but we never went through that final step of requesting the permit modification from the city, so technically, this was done without a permit. Our general contractor advised us to let sleeping dogs lie, but we would like to be able to include this in the house description when we eventually sell, and not worry about having to disclose this and maybe address this at the time of a future sale. That said, getting the permit for the main addition from the city was such a traumatic nightmare, we are reluctant to open this can of worms. Has anyone out there had any work permitted by the city of Albany afer the fact? And if so, did you live to regret it? On the fence

Dear On The Fence, As a Realtor working in Albany, I can second the opinion of of your general contractor that it is better to let sleeping dogs lie, and I can assure you that when you sell the house it will be fine to include the half-bath and laundry as featured assets. It is true that every home seller is required to disclose work done without permit, but it is also true that virtually every home in this area (including Berkeley, Kensington, and Oakland) has a long, spotty history of improvements and remodels, frequently done without permit. You have already been far more thorough than typical homeowners (and sellers) in making sure you pulled permites for everything and did everything to code -- even if you never did get that final adjustment signed off. For a variety of reasons, it is best to obtain any required permits when planning a new project. But for work done in the past, in my experience it can be very messy to open that can of retroactive worms -- and once that can is opened, you can't close it up again.

Congratulations on your home improvements! It has been a couple of years since I have been the agent representing a homeowner who had done work with permits from the city of Albany, but I can make some observations.

If you approach the city directly to get your permits ''finaled'', it is relatively easy to deal with building inspectors one-to-one in Albany, compared to nearby cities that have large numbers of inspectors who may give contradictory instructions.

Any realtor will tell you that there are houses sold in every city, every day, where there is work that has been done with no permits or permits for which no final signature was obtained. If you should find yourself in a situation of listing your house for sale where permits have not been ''finaled,'' you can disclose this situation to the buyer, along with documentation on the permit you originally pulled. The ball will then be in someone else's court.

One downside to not having your permit ''finaled'' will be that the improvements -- in your case, the new half-bath and laundry room -- will not be counted in the valuation of your property if you list your house for sale. Your agent will be legally required to disclose the ''non-permitted'' work. And when the buyer's mortgage lender's appraiser will not count the non-permitted work to justify the amount of money that bank is willing to lend to the buyer for your house.

When we built our house in Oakland, I was literally in labor when we got the final signature on the certificate of occupancy. Because the building department had wanted to drag the approvals out longer, they came back one year later and re-inspected all the things that had been inspected before. But we did get the final approvals, eventually!

2010 - 2012 Recommendations

Redoing Berkeley backyard and removing garage - permits?

June 2012

we bought our house in south berkeley in 2010 with the intention of redoing the tiny backyard. we are on a ''sub standard'' corner lot - an 1800 square foot two-story house on a 1500 square foot lot. our backyard currently consists of a small deck, a little area where we have our grill and trash cans, a garage that is in need of $15000 of work and that we would never actually park a car in, and a poorly designed parking pad/driveway. we have a young child, possibly another in the future, like to entertain, and we really want to make the most of our space. because of our tiny lot, we are very close to our neighbors' homes. the neighbor behind us has at two story garage with a rental on top and unpermitted garden shed between our two garages (with their roof actually connected to our garage).

i have spent a lot of time thinking about the best use of the space. this includes:
* removing the 12' x 20' decrepit garage
* extending the driveway (partially where the garage is, partially where the parking pad is) so that it meets the off street parking requirement
* paving the backyard with a permeable paver
* adding a prefab 6' x 8' shed for storage

my questions...
- do we need a permit to remove the garage? extend the driveway? for a 48 square foot garden shed?
- does anyone with a similarly substandard lot have any insight into how regulations about setbacks may differ? i am a little concerned about our neighbor's unpermitted garden shed and how that might impact our placement of a garden shed. truth be told, i'm fairly certain they would be fine if we put the garden shed right up against their shed, but not sure if that would be allowable.
- similarly, i once read on the city's website that a parking space could be shorter than 18' when the lot was small, though nothing was specified as to what ''small'' meant. anyone ever heard of this?

thanks a million for helping me get started! drowning in permit research

Remarkably -- you need a permit to demolish. I don't know about Berkeley, but Oakland even requires a permit on top of the demolition permit that addresses air quality issues that may result from a demolition. And I think that there is also some code that requires re-building something in the place of a garage once it is gone. See if you can get information easily from the city for requirements. Anon

You need a demolition permit before you demolish anything. But, I wouldn't be so hasty to demolish it, by having it there, you could keep the existing footprint. This is important cause it sounds like you exceed the typically allowed 40% lot coverage for a residential lot.

Set backs are typically 4 ft on the sides, so your neighbor is in violation of this, and if you put something there (without a permit) you would be in violation too. But maybe this rule doesn't apply for non-livable space? It's my understanding that a building up to 10x12 can be made with no permit required, as long as it's not intended as livable space.

It's all quite complicated, (but usually workable once you learn the rules, and figure out how to play them) and depends on how your lot is zoned. There are development guidelines for each zone designation, (like R-1, R-2, R-2 restricted) that speak to roof heights, set backs, lot coverage, parking pad requirements, etc.

I suggest you go to the permit office with your list of questions, and you might get lucky and get someone who is in a good mood and willing to explore all your questions and give you some good answers. I've also had good luck with getting calls back from the planning department to discuss potential plans/additions/remodels. It's all possible, you just have to learn the rules

We recently demolished our garage and built a 14x18' structure in South Berkeley. We did permits because of the 14x18' structure. Here is what we learned. We needed a permit to demolish our garage. We also needed to contact the Bay Area Quality Air Management, fill out a form and obtain a number that is required on Berkeley permit. It's easy, just follow the instructions Berkeley provides. Because we removed our legal parking spot (the decrepit garage), we needed to meet Berkeley's off street parking requirements. It was alot of work, submitting multiple scale plans to Traffic Engineering, building a 10x18' parking pad, which can't be next to operable windows (from your home), needs to meet 2' setback, needs to be permeable materials. You shouldn't need permits to build a storage shed that is less than 120sf and is under a certain height (can't recall). And I don't know about the pavers -- probably no permit is required.

We met with the over the counter permit folks many, many times. Ask them all the questions you posted, there is no harm, and generally they are very friendly. Although, they generally were not familiar with the parking pad requirements. You can pay a fee ($60/hour?) to meet with Traffic Engineering to understand requirements. If possible, bring a to scale, plan, so they can really advise you.

Oakland permits for re-wiring and a deck?

May 2012

We recently bought a house that has an old old fuse box and knob and tube wiring. I understand that we need a permit to complete the rewiring (which my husband will do - no arrows please, he's very knowledgable and competent wrt the rewiring itself). Anyone have any advice - I read and read on the oakland permit website but I feel like I'm not getting very far in terms of what kind of information they actually need. Mostly this would be replacing wiring that is already there, but of course we'd like to add some more sockets and lighting, so it's not exactly like for like. While I'm asking, we just took out an old rotten deck from the back yard. Do we need a permit to replace that too?? Thanks Not very permit savvy....yet

Hi, yes you will need a permit for both - rewiring & building a new deck. I don't have experience with residential but with commercial you need to fill out a permit application and provide paperwork such as plans (electrical layouts, schematic designs etc.), license & insurance info - It is dependent on the work you are doing. For some items and especially commercial items - a licensed architect and or contractor is required to provide the plans and usually applies for the permit.

I suggest emailing someone at the permit center or building department - like a building inspector. Whenever we have questions or to understand what is required of each city - I usually look for an email address (search on google - or the city's own website)I can write out my questions and concerns and usually they respond within a day or two. You can also just call to find out. It doesn't take that much time. Usually, if you ask - they will send you the necessary paperwork you will need to fill out and provide you with instructions.

Electrical Permit: New installations, additions, extension, alterations, changes, and fire and accident repairs of any electrical wiring and electrical equipment associated with a structure or project. Separate permits are required for wiring, fixtur es, furnaces, and construction poles. For convenience, the wiring, fixtures, and furnaces may be combined on one permit if they are included on the original application. Construction poles will require a separate permit in every case.

Permit Counter (Planning & Zoning) 250 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, Suite 2114 Oakland, CA 94612 Permits [at] Telephone: (510) 238-3891 Fax: (510) 238-4730

If she isn't the right person to answer your questions, you can ask if she can direct you to them. Hope this helps. I know most people want to avoid having to go down to the permit center multiple times. anon

Not sure that the electrical application form is online, but you can pick one up at the permit center. I don't think you need any drawings, mostly you'll need to know the number of outlets, fixtures, etc and what kind of amperage you're upgrading to (assuming you are upgrading). Remember to check out the Title 24 requirements as well so you get it right in the process: tamper resistant outlets, LEDs, occupancy sensor lights... Eugh, from experience it's a pain. Good luck! L

I did a rewiring from knob and tube to romex years ago in Oakland as part of a kitchen remodel for which a permit was pulled. Back then the building department was not corrupt or under FBI investigation. The experience then was very positive as I was doing some re-wiring but leaving a lot of knob and tube and the old fuse box (which is safe and acceptable). The inspectors were fussy about transition boxes (knob and tube to romex)and little details which I easily corrected. So they were very helpful in making sure it got done right and helped me through the job with good advice. These days I am not sure I would want to have any involvement with anybody in the building department in Oakland. To do the work without permit leaves you liable under foreclosure law when you sell the home.

On the deck project I am sure they likely want a permit for that too. One key thing I learned was to build the deck isolated from the home and not attached for insurance reasons. If attached it is an addition to the home and your homeowners premium may go up. If isolated it is covered under ''other structures'' for free. It also is free to move separate from the home which is a plus.

For free advice on permit policy you can go to the building department and talk to somebody at the permit counter about what you ''might do someday'' and what kind of permits would be needed. Don't give an address just ask them general questions anonymously until you decide. been there

Yes, you need permits for both. Visit the building department (the earlier in the morning the better -- they get crowded as the morning wears on)and ask them what they need. I know they have printouts for what is required for decks these days (drawings for sure and in some cases -- engineering). The building codes for decks have changed dramatically in the last few years -- make sure you know the current requirements. I'm sure that they can tell you what is required for the electrical. If you get the information from them, it most certainly will save some headaches down the road. Many will tell you not to bother with a permit for the deck, but if you get caught, they can fine you and make your life miserable. Please note: the permit fees are based on what you say the cost of the construction will be. Been There.

Help- remodelling permit stuck in Berkeley

April 2012

Anyone have any luck getting their remodelling permits through the city of Berkeley? We submitted for some remodels (nothing too crazy, no increase in square footage, just redoing bathrooms, kitchen and opening up one room to kitchen, with new windows and deck in back of house). We submitted our plans in early November! Got some questions in January, and resumbitted in early February, and not heard a word since then. I feel like the permit is just lost there. Our architect is working directly with the city, so I haven't had direct contact, but this seems crazy! I have heard that it can take forever, but didn't believe it. Anyhow have any luck and what did you try? Did you complain to anyone to document the process? Thanks! frustrated new Berkeley resident

It sounds like a difficult experience, but not all permits in Berkeley are this frustrating. You have done some things right though - you started early, so you will have your permit in time for late Spring or early Summer. You hired an architect, which generally makes it less frustrating. What does s/he say the problem is? If your architect needs help, there is a good expediter named Ron Wickman, 925-947-3170. AB, Architect

Retroactive Building Permit in Oakland

March 2012

My realtor mentioned getting a retroactive building permit for a property I have in Oakland. This involves renovations to two bathrooms and to a kitchen. No load-bearing walls were moved but the changes did involve significant plumbing and electrical work. Has anyone had experience with this? If not, in Berkeley? I cant find anything on the City of Oakland website about this. C.

in my oh so humble opinion as a carpenter... what would that give you? if you firmly believe that the work was done in a workmanship like manner you need to weigh the chance that the inspector will make you open up walls. so (again in my humble opinion), it is a matter of dollars and sense (and cents)... will the home sell for less because of no permits? is the home unsafe and has things that need to be corrected? the permit process is in place to give guidance and keep our housing stock safe (structurally, prevent electric fires, gas leaks, etc.) but is not guarantee of good work ... unfortunately a carpenter

I'm a general contractor and recently dealt with the City of Oakland building permit department. It's not a joyful experience Are you in doubt as to the quality of the work or whether it was done in compliance to code?

While I don't know about retroactive permits in Oakland, I can say that their website is not very up to date. We're currently rewiring and building a room in our house, and I've talked to several people in my fun times at the permit office. They no longer have anyone on staff who updates the website, and they let several people go in February due to budget. That being said, the people who ARE still there are great and super helpful.

Unfortunately the inspector needs to see the work you've done to know it's up to code, which means you'll probably need to open up some walls/floors to expose pipes and such. This is why it's so much easier to get the permit in the first place if you have any intention of claiming these updates. But since you haven't, I'd very much suggest going into the permit office, taking a number and chatting with someone there. If you don't feel the person at the desk is helpful, be sure to ask for their supervisor or the engineer on duty. I've been very impressed, once I got past the few not-so-helpful desk personnel, with the staff there. They will give you a list of all the paperwork you'll need and go over it all with you as well. Ask for their card and you can check in with them as needed too. Oaklander

I have had experiences with Oakland practices regarding issue of permits retroactively. The first time after buying a house with a kitchen that had been remodeled by the seller without permits. The city insisted all the walls be stripped to the studs and all the plumbing and electrical work be re-done per code and with all the necessary permits and inspections plus fines and penalties (against the buyers). That turned out to be a good thing as extremely dangerous wiring was found in the walls and no sheet-rock which could have/would have resulted in fire someday.

A neighbor did some work without permits more recently and the city issued a permit months after it was done without requiring a rip out and re-inspection at all. The work violated numerous building codes and ordinances plus straddled over the property line onto a neighbor's property without permission or encroachment permit. Despite complaints the city did nothing. The FBI is currently investigating corruption of the building department staff in Oakland after an OPD investigation and a grand jury revealed inspectors were taking bribes, preying on property owners, and the department head was removed after numerous improprieties (SF Chronicle-3/13/12 Chip Johnson). I would suggest steering clear of any involvement with the Oakland building department until the FBI has ''cleaned house''. Or perhaps now is a good time to grease some palms to get a ''retroactive permit'' before they do----up to you.

Officially a retroactive situation should be handled the way they handled my kitchen back in a time before the department was so corrupt. They can't allow covered up plumbing and electrical work to be approved sight unseen as they did in the second scenario above. Doing so leaves the city in a position of extreme liability if they knowingly approved the work without proper inspections. anon

I don't know anything about retroactive building permits in Oakland. However, I do know that the city of Oakland is desperate for money and employees with say almost anything to get more. Read about the Grand Jury investigation here: I suggest that if you have a conversation with anyone at the city of Oakland, you record it. You may well need documentation. I don't want to call them corrupt. But there are some big problems there. Anon

Do I need a permit for a new outlet?

Sept 2011

I'm a relatively new homeowner and just got two new outlets installed by a licensed electrician. It dawned on me after the fact, when I was wondering how I would know if he did a good job, that maybe I was supposed to have gotten a permit and inspection for that type of work. I'm in Kensington (CC County). If I was supposed to get one, what do I do now? If I didn't need to get one, how do I know if he did a good job? New homeowner

Years ago, a building inspector told us we would need a permit to paint our bathroom. A permit to paint a bathroom seemed just too over-the-top, so we asked a knowledgeable real property attorney.

This attorney told us that repairs, small improvements, and painting do not need a permit. A permit is required when making a structural change (get good information from a structural engineer about what is a structural change) or a ''major change'' to a building system (new roof, major rewiring, major plumbing, new furnace, etc.).

You hired a licensed electrician.

Did you ask experienced property owners for recommendations and information ?

Did you ask for a copy of that electricians license and insurance? (You should have asked to see both the contractors's license and insurance before you signed any contract or began any work. If you didn't ask before, ask now.)

In general, after having taken out hundreds of permits for all kinds of work to be done and dealt with hundreds of inspectors, it has been our experience that a licensed professional contractor of whichever trade is likely to be far more knowledgeable than any building inspector in any town or city, so, unless something seems to be wrong, it seems to us you shouldn't worry.

We've been rebuilding homes and building new homes for alomst fifty years, now.

Yes you need a permit in CC. Here is the web site for things in contra costa that do not need a permit. You can also look in the web site for fees associated for electrical work.

The permit fee is $75 but depends on fee schedule that is based on the cost of work. This should be a line item on the invoice from your contractor.

Be careful, if no permit was issued, there could be fines and the work has to be inspected before the permit can be signed off by a inspector. If new wire was installed, they may require seeing the wire which could mean opening up the wall.

Look at the building codes for wire gauge, circuit load, grounding, outlet box, circuit breaker etc. and then check the work to see if it is to code to determine if the contractor did it correctly. Old Wise Guy

More than a permit, you need to trust the person doing the work! A building inspector will miss so many finer points of construction.

With electricity, the trades-person should make sure that your circuits will not be over-loaded, your panel is not over-loaded... Did the electrician look at the panel? If you have questions, ask for a second opinion, but it's best to pay for good advice. CIL

You do need a permit and inspection to put in a new outlet.

At this point, your safest route would be to contact the county and tell them what happened. They will come out and inspect the work. They will charge you for a permit and perhaps a penalty. The electrician might get in trouble.

It is probably fine, but I wouldn't hire that electrician again if he did work without a permit. -homeowner

Do we need a Permit Expediter for Oakland?

July 2011

Has anyone heard of a permit expediter? Do you have one to recommend? Was it worth the money?

We are wanting to make some home improvements that will require some permits. Because of the time it can take to get them, I wanted to jump on it for next spring, but I really have no idea what permits we need or how long it takes to get them or what is needed to apply for them.

Since we are going to have to move out of our house for some of the work to get done and will have to pay a rent and mortgage, I am hoping to try and get an idea of when we would actually need to move out, but I am thinking that is all dependent upon permits.

Also, I'm worried that the time we are out of the house might get held up due to permits. I don't think going to the city directly will really give us any clear information. Any advice? Clueless with Construction

Dear Clueless with Construction

Just saw your posting, you shouldn't worry. The Oakland permit process really is a lot easier than you think.

Your best source for help and advice is finding a good local general contractor. Someone who specializes in residential remodeling and renovation. I'd suggest contacting a few well established, reputable ones, with good references and proven track records. The folks here can be a good source for names but local architect/designers can help you as well.

The most difficult part of getting residential permits in Oakland is actually describing to the city what you'd like to do. Pictures are great for smaller jobs, while sketches and drawings may be necessary for larger projects, especially where you'd like to remove walls or renovate your kitchen.

It sounds like you also have some questions about project project scheduling and timeline. Every job is different. Whether you really need to move out for a short time or can live in depends on the scope of work. Permit issues shouldnt make this more complicated. But this is something else a contractor can advise you on as well. Just remember a good contractor isnt just working to complete the project but is also there to help you.

So the best advice i can give is contact a contractor, or several, and explore the possibilities. I'm one but i cant recommend myself. It just sounds weird

Good luck and have fun Archimedes

Dear Clueless with Construction,

You are not ready for an expediter and hopefully won't need one, though they are definitely worth it when needed. What you need is an architect and/or remodel designer. Such professionals are experienced in applying for permits.

One thing you have right is to start planning now for construction in Spring. Too many homeowners expect to get drawings and permits too fast. If you start preliminary design work today on a project large enough to require moving out, the permits would probably not be approved until October or November, best-case-scenario (i.e. no Use Permit or Variance).

So the question of when you will need to move out, though somewhat dependent upon permits, depends more upon getting your designs on paper first. You're ahead of the game! You can get your approval well in advance of a Spring start date for construction, then start scheduling and implementing your move. (Add 3-5 months if special permits are required.)

Going to the city directly is not a waste of time, but you're right - it isn't always easy to get clear information. Again, a design professional understands better how to get clarity. An expediter is hired when there are problems getting through the process (i.e. codes in conflict with each other, multiple interpretations of codes, etc.)

Good luck with your project.

Permits in Berkeley

July 2011

There was recently an interesting post about permits in Oakland and what a nightmare it was in part b/c if there was previous remodeling not up to code or without permits Oakland made people re-do the previous work...expensive and a hassle and so people suggested not even dealing with permits.

What experiences with permits in Berkeley have people had? Our house had some remodeling done in the basement by the previous owners that didn't use permits and we now want to get our kitchen re-modeled, would like to have permits, but our worried that we'll end up in a similar situation as those folks in Oakland...any thoughts? Thanks!

A recent grand jury report slammed the Oakland building department for over-charging homeowners they are supposed to serve and protect and victimizing others with liens and threats to tear out work or even to take down homes. Some owners who had built without permits were protected by the building officials while those who had reported the work were retaliated against by the building department. In short the report brought to light what many already knew-the building services department in Oakland is corrupt and out of control.

With regard to Berkeley I can't say. I have had experience with work being discovered in a home I bought that had been done improperly without permits and inspections. All of a remodeled kitchen was ordered to be gutted to the studs, redone with proper permits and inspections, and a fine was levied for work done without permits. We had bought the home because the kitchen had been remodeled and looked nice. We were fined not the seller.

Under the wood paneling we found electrical work that appeared to have been done by a first grader with no previous experience in electrical work. Nails had been pounded through the romex cables to fasten them rather than staples. No sheet rock had been used so there was no ''fire wall''. It was a fire trap waiting for the right appliance to be plugged in and could have killed our family. It was a blessing we were forced to tear it out and re-do it properly.

As far as doing remodel work without permits--you would have to be crazy to take on that liability with today's disclosure laws. If you ever sold the home and something went wrong or the new owner found out there was no permit (you need one even to change a water heater) you would be fully liable. If it has been inspected the city is liable.

Unless you plan to live there forever I would not risk doing any work without permits. A friend did so and found himself in a bad scenario when the contractor began to do shoddy work that would not have passed code inspection 1/2 way through the job. The homeowner had no recourse with the contractor as he hadn't pulled permits. The defective wiring work was just covered up and now the owner can't sleep worrying whether his house will burn one night.

Hopefully in Berkeley they are honest and decent if you play by the rules and get permits. In Oakland I would wait a year or two until authorities have cleaned house in the building department and the corruption is removed. been there

Kitchen remodel in Oakland & permits

June 2011

We need to remodel the kitchen of our 1916 bungalow and I'm hoping to get a few tips on what permits are required. We need to replace cabinets, appliances, flooring, and three windows. I'm assuming we will need a plumbing, electrical, gas, and window permit. Has anyone out there done this that can give me an idea of how much the permits were? Also, our home has had extensive work done by previous homeowners (including doubling the square footage by finishing the basement). Are we asking for trouble by having the kitchen work permitted and inviting inspectors to our house where they could potentially uncover the unpermitted work? Would we be held liable for it? Anon

By all means do get permits for the work you are going to undertake and run from any contractor who tells you he will do the work without the required permits. Permit cost are generally about 2-3% of the listed cost of construction, plus maybe some other minor review/recording fees. You can save on some of this cost by lowballing the actual cost. In other words if the cost for work is $50,000, you may tell the building department that you are spending less, maybe $25,000. This cuts permits cost, since permit costs are based on the valuation of the work. Most building departments have rules about the minimum valuations they will accept, so if you can find that information, use it. Your architect or builder may also advise what may be a reasonable valuation to tell them. Also, I generally remove cost such as most appliances, painting and other work that technicallly does not need a permit. They would love for you to include these cost, since that inflates the permit cost, but there is no real necessity to include them, since these are routine items often done by homeowners independent of any contractor permitted work. In terms of the suspected non-permited work, there is always a slight chance that non-permitted work could be discovered by an inspector, but is not very likely unless it is blaringly obvious. Inspector's generally are not proactive about finding things that have nothing to do with what they are there to inspect, and it's hard to imagine that they would be inspecting the basement other than maybe for some specific new plumbing connections or similar. Don't admit to any unpermitted work and if it is brought up by inspectors, it was always there as far you know.

We did that! Regarding kitchen: permits likely include: plumbing, electrical, mechanical (gas). Windows and cabinets under general building permit; finished floors not. Zoning gets to see it too, and depending on the scope, may charge a nominal fee to review the plan. Either way they stamp the permit drawings to show building they have reviewed. Cost is dependent on the valuation of the permit-able components of your construction. Budget might range 1.5-2.5% cost of project. Likely conservative, but safe. Use whatever is left over for a holy hand grenade on your project, some nicer lighting, or a nice dinner out in the middle of construction, or save it for kids college, maybe, whatever. Regarding the basement: probably little/no trouble in regard to the kitchen project, but potential trouble in other ways. Here is how the thing works: the inspector for the kitchen is obliged to officially review the work you will obtain your permit for (the kitchen) and that's it. That person may or may not comment on the situation regarding the basement, so remember that their actions outside the permit are not official. They know this and will observe the condition (if they bother, as existing non-conforming ... not enough info to discern from your question for sure though) that said, beyond your kitchen project, we wonder if the basement is conditioned space. Was/is the area of that space counted in the County assessor's record? There's more regarding your liability, but for brevity sake here, talk to a licensed professional (architect, attorney, etc). Good luck. steve [at]

We just finished remodeling our 1915 Oakland kitchen with permits, so here's our experience: We needed building, electrical, plumbing, and mechanical permits. They cost around $650 for our project, but we weren't doing major structural work---just taking out a wall and an old chimney, both non-structural. Our house doesn't have added square footage, but does have a lot of other work done without permits by the previous owner (electrical work, a bathroom remodel, etc.) We had several different inspectors out over the course of the project, and they didn't look at or question any of it in our case; the only things they checked beyond what was on the permits were the smoke/CO detectors. (Honestly, they seemed pretty intent on getting in and out quickly and on to the next inspection.) They were also pretty flexible and reasonable when considering some of our atypical approaches to things like meeting the Title 24 requirements. I've heard of people having awful experiences with Oakland permits, but ours was actually a very positive one. It also made me feel a little better to have an additional set of eyes on the work since this was our first big project---the inspector caught a mistake our electrician had made, for instance. I'm very glad we made the decision to permit the work! Another Oaklander

Hiya Anon Im a general contractor whose done a lot of work in the East Bay Hills and Oakland. For Oakland permits, you'll need a pretty clear discription of the work for the city, ie plans or good sketch showing layout, electrical etc etc they can be pretty picky at times. The permits you'll be applying for are Building, Electrical and Plumbing. Roll the Mechanical permit for stove ducting into the electrical permit. This will save you from getting a mechanical permit for $150'ish. Total cost of permits... (Oakland and San Francisco are the most expensive in California) should run you in the $1800-2200 range it depends on the costs to do the project and how much you disclose to the city. And i wouldnt worry about the previous basement work that was done. Its extremly, super- rare for an Oakland inspector to look beyond the scope of the permit. The only time they will is if they see something dangerous. Anyway goodluck and have fun on your project. It will all be totally worth it when the works done. Brad

Your assumption that you will need a plumbing, electrical, and window permit is correct. (gas is part of plumbing) I can't say how much the permits will be - this is the kind of project that often does not include an Architect.

You are right to be concerned about work done by previous homeowners, but more because it might not have been done correctly than that you will have to pay for their decision to do it under the radar.

The chances of getting in trouble are very minimal, as long as all work you are intending now is permitted. That said, there is always a risk that you could be held liable for it. This is a much smaller risk though than trying to do the present project w/o permits and getting caught for that. Then you would also face much more scrutiny. Good Luck. AB, Architect

The permit process in most cities and counties is quite similar. Usually the fee structure is available online, but it can still be somewhat mysterious. As a general contractor I would recommend getting the permits for the work you are describing, and unless there are existing building code violations that are obvious to the inspector I would not expect that the inspector would bring up projects that pre-date your ownership of the home. Typically the basic permit fee is based on the total value of your improvement project and then additional fees are added for specific inspection items such as plumbing (this should include gas lines), electrical, etc. So to get a clear picture of the fee you will need some idea of the project budget. The city will probably require copies of the contracts for the work so they can determine the exact figure. Jim

Oakland permitting/soft story garage door removal

June 2011

My husband and I have a 1926 single family soft story house (living room/kitchen/etc. above garage) in Oakland for which we have been obtaining retrofitting estimates. The room that used to be a garage we are now using as an office; it was converted long before we bought the house and the garage door was replaced with a patio door.

It (just barely) does not meet height requirements. We ripped up the terrible carpet that was there and have been using a rug on a cement floor. The patio door is in need of replacement as is some of the wood around the door (old water damage).

We'd like to replace the door before we re-carpet. From a retrofitting standpoint, it would be better to replace the sliding door with a regular hinged door to provide wall space to plywood/reinforce (or get rid of the door completely). Because we would be doing it in order to make our house more structurally sound (to retrofit), will the city make it easier for us, at least theoretically, or is this just a fool's errand?

The issues are headroom and loss of ''parking space'', although our driveway is long and we would still have room for at least three cars. Is better retrofitting a reason for granting a headroom variance? Because of a window on the other side of the front wall, there is really no way to support the front wall of the house at all, which I understand is not good. Or should we just retrofit the rest of the story and replace the patio door with a new one? We'd still need a permit for that anyway, right? Our worst fear is that the inspector will force us to convert it back into a garage.

Advice/past experience appreciated! Hoping to retrofit

Oh boy, I had to respond to this one. We just went through a year's misery-- expensive, needless agony--with the the City of Oakland. Without going into the details, they made us tear down part of our house and rebuild it to code--and this had nothing to do with what we got the original permit for. The cost of permits alone to APPLY for a variance was over $9,000, so the tear-down/re- build option with no variance was the lesser of two evils. But the bottom line is this: if there is any way you can get away with doing the work without permits, do so. Build it to code if you can, but avoid the permits. The City will make you adhere to every letter of the law, the original permits will be very expensive and if you apply for a variance it will cost a lot and there is no guarantee it will be approved. One official from the city admitted they rarely approve variances. The city does not care why you are retrofitting, that you are making a good improvement, etc. They need money and they will not make exceptions. Period. Once the inspector arrives, he will see expensive problems you never dreamed of. Bitter

I agree with a previous answer about Oakland permitting being hell on wheels. Oakland CEDA's Building Dept. is notorious for squeezing every last dime out of homeowners and making their lives a living hell. The inspectors act at their own whim and make up ''rules'' as they go along (you can find lots about this on the web - I personally know several people who have been affected). Their ''appeals process,'' if you disagree with their actions, is (contrary to state law) administered by CEDA itself and something like 90+% of all appeals are turned down or simply thrown into the trash by a clerk.

There's now a major lawsuit pending accusing CEDA of using permits and fees charged to homeowners to bolster the failing Oakland city budget. This is illegal according to state law, which is codified, and has been found over and over again in the courts when various cities have tried to buck the law, to say that Building Dept. fees and penalties (intake) must not exceed what it costs for the dept. to carry on its activities. In other words, the Building Dept. exists to serve the homeowner. In Oakland, CEDA officials seem to think that homeowners exist to serve them, and they have been given implicit leeway to bilk citizens of this city.

I could say a lot more about this, but let me close with one piece of advice: If you decide to take the previous poster's advice about doing something without a permit, be VERY, VERY CAREFUL. They have inspectors going around looking for construction and checking to see that it's permitted. There have been cases (again, I know some people personally who this happened to) where they wait until the construction is all done and then make you tear it down, in addition to charging humongous (at their whim, but often tens of thousands of dollars) in penalties, plus interest that starts adding up if you don't pay right away (and the deadlines are unclear). etc.

I can't say enough bad things about Oakland CEDA's Building Dept. They are to be greatly feared. Anon

Building in Oakland--permit costs

May 2011

We are considering a remodel and small addition to our home and heard Oakland's permit fees have recently gone through the roof. We've tried to make sense of the 159 page Master Fee Document published by the city, but every kind of inspection, review, etc. was listed and we couldn't find a definitive answer about costs. Can anyone tell us due to recent submissions/renovations (past 1-2 yrs), what percentage the permit process was for your total budget? K.

I'm not sure if its very different for the residential portion but i deal with permits for lots of cities for commercial and the highest fee is usually based on a percentage of the valuation of the project. Regular fees would include: an Application Fee, Inspection Fees: (Building - Framing, Electrical, Mechanical and or Plumbing) a Records Management Fee and a Technology Enhancement Fee plus a plan check fee if the permit isn't something you can obtain over the counter.

It all depends on what you're adding on and renovating. It might be the case that the fee is based on the additional square footage. Do you have plans or have you hired an architect? An Architect would be able to obtain the permits for you as well.

I would suggest visiting the permit department in the morning, wait times can vary - 10mins - 45 mins. They are usually helpful. Also, if you can find an email address for someone in planning/permit center - they would be able to help you. A phone call can also help. I've done it several times for projects and I always get some sort of information. Good luck. anon

Hi Kat, We just received our approved building permit from the city of Oakland last month and the fee schedule/structure was never clearly identified in our opinion. There are lots of variables that could potentially impact your permitting cost, but all seemed to be roughly based on the square footage of your addition (compared on the legal footage the city has on record).

First of all, depending on the scale of your addition/renovation, you may have to submit to the city planning department (with their fees) in addition to the building department. Then in additional to the building permit, you are likely required to apply for separate plumbing and electrical permits(one of few cities that charges these permits separate from the general building permit). Then depending on your zone, you maybe required an additional fire permit from the fire department (we got hit by this one).

Our addition/renovation is just above 1000 sq ft, which required a regular planning review (most cases under 1000 sq ft with no variant in zoning does not require planning review) cost just under 10K, about 2.8% of our total construction budget (we design our own remodel so no design fee in the budget).

If you have a pretty good idea about what's being added, it is not a bad idea to go into the city and do a preliminary review with the city to find out exactly what you need for the submitting process, and they will give you some idea on the cost for prepare for multiple trips to the city if you plan to get the permits yourself. Best of Luck, Siqi

We did a 2nd story addition in Oakland in 2009. We did require one conditional use permit but otherwise our contractor said our project was very routine. We were surprised at the high cost of the permits; they were at least $10,000. Elizabeth

This information from our contractor

Permit costs are divided into two general Categories - Planning Review (use permit, variances, etc.) Building Permits Each has two general Phases - Application fees Permit fees.

Each of the categories will route to a number of divisions or agencies, such as fire, engineering(sidewalks & streets) for approvals during that process.

The planning process is done first. The building process is done last. Along the way there are also impact fees, for different things, such as sewer and school, and trade permits and their fees, such as heating, plumbing and electrical. Most general fees are determined by a value the applicant provides - what is the cost of the project?

It is common to understate the project value, the City has the right to obtain proof of cost, though that is very rare. Finally, there may be agency inspection fees paid to the agency, special inspection fees you pay to a third party. And be aware that anything that increases the value of the home will trigger a reevaluation of the property tax basis at the Assessor's office.

Many of the planning fees are not triggered if you are not changing the outside of the building (addition). A contractor or designer will be able to sort these out and get a more definite cost. Not realistic to use a percentage.

2007 - 2009 Recommendations

Contractor wants me to get the permit

August 2009

I just moved to El Cerrito and need to change my single pane windows to double ones. I found a certified/licensed contractor and understand that I need to get a permit. The contractor wants me to get the permit (otherwise, he will charge $100 to do so); however, after talking to a Building Officer, I understood that if I get the permit myself, I will be responsible for the renovations, not the contractor.

I am writing to kindly ask people to share their experience (replacing windows / El Cerrito). How long and how complex was the process of getting the permit and having the inspector come? I'd appreciate any recommendations for a building inspector (or officer) to talk to or ask questions. Also, any opinion about who should get the city permit and be responsible for the replacement? I just wanted to save the $100, and my friends told me that it's the contractor's job to get the permit (charging or not) and schedule the inspector's visits. Thanks for any insights! Selena

Selena wrote: ''... contractor wants me to get the permit (otherwise, he will charge $100 to do so); however, after talking to a Building Officer, I understood that if I get the permit myself, I will be responsible for the renovations ...''

I don't think you got the whole story. It seems your contractor was trying to do you a favor (saving you $100). The problem is that when a homeowner is the applicant s/he must fill out an ''Owner/Builder'' form and commit to insurance coverages. This is to ensure that unlicensed people, like your brother, are covered in case you are doing the work yourself. If you hire a licensed contractor, s/he is still liable for poor work.

That said, $100 is not much and saves you headache and anxiety, which can amount to much more if you end up seeing a psychotherapist and/or chiropractor! AB

This is a response to the person who just moved to El Cerrito. I've lived in El Cerrito for more than 30 years. I had all my windows both upper and lower floors replaced by A-Taylor Made Window (great service, excellent quality). I was never bothered by having to get a permit (they probably took care of it). I've recently had a new deck put in and the contractor was the one who arranged for the permit and inspection by the city inspector. I think your contractor doesn't want to be involved with the 'hassle'. Get a new bid and a new contractor. Just my 2 cents. Been there, don't do that

Window replacement, in my opinion, was one of the easiest jobs I ever did on my house. As far as the permit, your contractor should pull this for you. You pay for it, but your contractor should pull it. In my opinion, I cannot recommend you go up to Martinez and pull your own permit. It makes me mad because my tax dollars are at work, but that office is not set up for commoners. It is WELL WORTH the $100 to have him do it. I don't know how to comment on the liability vs. who pulls the permit. That does not even make sense to me. Anyway, a red flag is thrown up for me that the contractor does not want to pull the permit. Never had a contractor say that to me before and it requires more investigation. good Luck

Getting a variance in Oakland for legal headroom

November 2008

Our 1912 Oakland house is listed with the county as a triplex. We are zoned for multi-unit dwelling. We live in the upstairs. The two other units were formerly in the basement (which is actually above ground with windows all around and 2 different doors out to the driveway). One unit is mostly intact (kitchen, bathroom, room with closet and 2 doors/2 windows), while the other was mostly removed by previous owner (there's still some drywall here and there, plumbing connections, and a toilet, although cement floor and no finished ceiling). As far as I can tell, most of this space is not legal headroom, varying from about 7ft to almost or perhaps legal headroom (unfinished). So, if we wanted to re-create the units, how hard is it to get a variance for our slightly insufficient headroom? Can we be grandfathered in somehow? How does one go about getting a variance?

My design company has successfully negotiated a project in Oakland that did not have the headroom required. This was not as a variance but rather as an ''Alternative Materials and Methods Request'' (AMMR) for a space that already existed under the one-story house, which we wanted to connect with an internal stair. As such it did not require public hearings and was therefore much less expensive than a variance. It was however still a hassle and major time-sink, as I recall. AB

Oakland No permit deck problem

April 2008

Hello, I need advice on what to do.I am a single mother in Oakland.I had 2 decks and lots of stairs to my front door re- built without a permit.One deck is above the other and up in the air about 15 feet.Work was finished last November of 07. It appears strong and substantial, but what do I know? Now I am in trouble with the city.I received a ''Notice to Abate''. I am really nervous about getting a owner's permit and getting it inspected because I don't have any more money to pay for whatever the city wants. Guy from the city left his card on my porch and is calling me.The guy I had hired to do most of the work (the support beams and the floor) was recommended by a friend. He started over-charging me and cheating me so I had to fire him under confrontational circumstances (he is unlicensed, and had told me in the beginning not to get a permit.) He was fully paid and had done all except the railings.Size is about 15 ft. by 9 feet.Out of revenge,he reported me to the city.Help! What should I do?I have no money to tear anything out.Paid $27K already.City said railing is too short & no inspection yet.

You have two problems: (1) permit headaches and (2) being taken by an unlicensed contractor. As to the first, you are going to have to suck it up and deal with the City, and do whatever they require. There is a lesson here: Get permits when they are required. As to the second, you may be able to get the criminal justice system to help you. There are laws against contracting without a license, and restitution to victims can be ordered, among other criminal consequences. You can contact the Contractors Licensing Board ( or the Alameda County District Attorney's office, and try to get the contractor prosecuted for contracting without a license. If he is charged and found guilty, then restitution may be ordered as part of the sentence. You also could consider small claims court. Seen it all

Man oh man, you've got a great big ball of troubles, rolling downhill fast and getting larger. I would urge you, ASAP, to have the deck checked by a City inspector and be prepared to do whatever you can to be in compliance, whether by having it brought up to code, or torn down. It ought to have been pretty apparent that an enterprise on that scale would require permits; California law requires that contractors be licensed if the value of the work to be performed exceeds $500... you clearly blew the doors off that one. Avoiding an inevitable day of reckoning with the City isn't going to make things any better. At all. Oy!

How long does the permit process take in Oakland?

April 2008

We live in rockridge and are working with an architect on plans for our house remodel-major remodel-going up (adding two rooms on the top floor and a bathroom) and remodel the kitchen, among other things. My questions are all along the lines of how long should this process take through getting the initial work permits?

1. How long is the variance permit process? You put in your request for a long until you know it's okayed or not?

2. Design review: How long does this take? Do you just go into the permit office once and they accept it or not-and if they don't then you go away, fix the drawings, and go back the next day or do you have to wait a certain amount of time? Once they approve the design, it it then a go?

3. When does the public approval process happen? After the design review and the plans are approved? how long does the public have to react and what is the process if theres an issue?

4. I am working with an architect who doesn't do cad-he draws everything and seems glacially slow. Does cad really speed things up? Are all architects slow or can a different one have the plans done in 2 weeks rather than the 3-4 months it's apparently going to take this guy to get us our plans to the point we can have the design review?

Finally, any architects you can recommend. We don't have a ton of money but time is of the essence and would like to find someone who is faster but not horrendously expensive. Thanks! tired of waiting in rockridge.

I'm no expert on building remodels, but....

1. You want a variance? Expect a year or more to get through the process with no guarantees of success.

2. Design Review is completely separate from a building permit. The review boards generally only meet once per month. The Building Inspector's office will talk to you on consecutive days. If you need design review and a zoning variance, that's a two step, multi-month process.

3. Public comment occurs as part of the planning review process: Zoning (your variance) and design review, which has more to do with appearance, air, light and view issues. Neighbors can weigh in at any time during these. The public process is over before you can go for the building permit. Generally, there is a 30 day comment period, then the hearing(s). Don't expect to be done with one hearing. The Bay Area is infested with NIMBYs, half of whom are either lawyers or self-styled design experts.

4. CAD does not speed things up. Your Architect may be very busy (possible) or you may have unrealistic expectations about time frame. If he had no other work, and the remodel wasn't extensive, then 2 weeks might be possible. Given your description (the words ''Variance'', ''Design Review'' and Public Review'' are big red flags) I doubt it.

I've been associated with a tear down of an existing house and construction of a new one in San Mateo County where we are in the 2nd year of work, and still have yet to go before the Coastal Commission or the County Building Department. That project has had 3 Architectural firms, a Civil Engineer, a Surveyor, Geotechnical Engineer, Septic System Designer and us Landscape Architects working (not full time by any means) on various aspects of the permitting and design. The Planning Review alone generated 16 typed pages of comments!

Unless you are convinced that your Architect is being non-responsive, starting over from scratch...which is what you would be doing, is a drastic option. Please understand that getting permits in the Bay Area is a huge time sink. Ray

I am an architect in Oakland.

1. The time required for a variance can vary pretty widely depending upon what you are seeking and how busy the planning department is. I would expect a variance to take at least 2 months (likely longer.)

2. Design review can also vary. I would expect 1 - 3 months. The planning department might approve with C,conditionsC. or they might require revisions and resubmission. There is no required waiting period that I am aware of but the re- review of revisions will take additional time.

3. Typically, the public comment process happens during Design Review. Neighbors are notified of your project and given 17 days to comment. If none of your neighbors complain and everything else is OK, you receive approval. If there are comments, you might need to make changes.

4. CAD can speed up the process but there will be a significant number of decisions to be made prior to submitting for design review: Massing, materials, exterior lighting, etc. Issues of views, shadow casting, and parking, will need to be addressed. All of this takes time. 3-4 months might be too long but I suspect that 2 weeks is too short.

Good luck with your project. Bill

Worried about previous owner's unpermitted work

April 2008

We purchased a single family house with a second kitchen. We knew it wasn't permitted, but we were new home buyers and didn't really know what that meant.

Now we need a new heater. We want it done correctly with permits, but we are afraid to let a city inspector in the house because they will find out about the second kitchen.

We need a good contractor who can advise us how to get permits for the kitchen that already exists. We want to do the right thing, but we don't want our perfectly usable kitchen torn out.

In my experience, in most cities, inspectors will not require you to get permits for work previously done without permits, particularly if you just bought the house. It's at their discretion and if you're easy to work with on the job you're currently doing, they're not going to be bad guys about it. They often don't even look at other rooms from where you're doing the work and wouldn't necessarily assume a remodel was done without permits unless they see it and it's really obvious. I'd suggest you have as a contingency that you might need to bring your kitchen up to code, and don't volunteer it to the inspector, but obviously do the work if s/he requires it. You never know, it might be very easy to get the work permitted, depending on how well the previous owner had the work done. If there was electrical work done, I'd always suggest you have it permitted and inspected because it's a real life safety issue, as opposed to some other work that is more cosmetic. Laura

You shouldn't worry about inspection problems with your ''illegal'' kitchen. It is what is known as ''grandfathered in'' and as such is rarely addressed by the inspector unless there are some very obvious code violations that will impact the safety and health of the occupants. The inspection will typically address only what the permits are for and other issues such as working properly placed smoke detectors and title 24 lighting requirements. BTW,You will probably need a new circuit for your heater and lighting for the heater location as well, to give it a look. I've done many permitted remodels with older situations that didn't meet code and I've never had anything built prior to the permit application torn out. Erich

2004 - 2006 Recommendations

City permits for small jobs?

Sept 2006

Okay, a question normally reserved for shady backroom whispers with friends only, I ask BPN for advice on the following; We live in Alameda, and are wondering if anybody here has sold a house after doing small jobs without permits. ie. small deck, window replacement, that kind of thing.

We are wondering if there is a substantially punitive process for this from the city if/when you sell; some friends say 'don't worry, its chicken-feed', some say, 'they'll take your first-born'. If not in Alameda, experiences in other East Bay cities would be welcome too.

Any work will be done professionally and properly. Having worked in Bay Area construction for years, a lot of the work I was exposed to, I can assure you, was shoddy at best - all permitted. We know you're supposed to get permits, you're supposed to drive 55 too, but the question stands and I'm sure others would like to get feedback on this too. Thanks anon

My understanding is that when you sell you are 'suppose' to disclose all information regarding any permanent changes to structure. If you disclose, and have this in a document that you and the buying party sign, legally I do believe you are okay. While I am not an attorney, I have made numerous do-it yourself changes to my home and have a friend who IS a real estate attorney and this is what he has advised me.

Permit to build a deck in Albany?

June 2006

Hi- My husband used to build decks for a living and would like to add a deck to our backyard- we've heard that the permit process in Albany can be quite slow- has anyone had the experience of building a deck without a permit? Would you recommend that we obtain one or is it kosher to go ahead and build a deck without one? Your advice is appreciated! Curious in Albany

As an Albany resident, I have done projects with permits and without. The permit process for a deck would probably be pretty straightforward and very fast - the long permit delays are for things like adding on or changing something significant about the house. The permit will insure that the deck will be built to code (probably not a real risk for you since your husband builds decks professionally...). The risk in not getting a permit for you then is probably that a neighbor might report you. Also - if and when you sell the place, you would probably have to disclose that the deck was put on without a permit. Done it both ways

While permits for extensive remodeling can be lenghthy, permits for a simple project like a deck can be done right at the counter at city hall. ruth

Help! We remodelled an illegal addition w/out a permit

Feb 2006

Hi. We own a fixer upper house in Oakland. We discovered that some shingles in a back room were rotting. A nephew and his friend offered to reshingle that area. When they took the shingles off, it turned out some of the structure underneath was rotting too, they replaced the rotting wood. Well the rotting wood was under a window and they offered to change you see how it went. Well, they worked into the evening one day too many, we work evenings too and did not realize they were annoying the neighbors who complained to the city. An inspector came and placed a stop work order. By then the windows were in place and the re-shingling 75% complete.

It turns out the addition was built without a permit. We've been penalized and have to pay double for any permits we get. We have to legalize the whole thing not just the repairs we were making.

We've been told that in the process of getting the addition legalized they will inspect the whole house and we will have to fix everything. We've met once with the housing inspector and he sincerely hopes we don't lose our home.

So you see, we're in a pickle. We did not build the addition and did not know it was not legal. We are guilty of being naive and even neglectful about finding out about the permits (apparently you can't do much of anything beyond paint and roofing without a permit). We will pay for the permits we should have gotten if the double fines don't make it impossible. Does anyone have any experience working through a situation like this without losing their home? What does the double fine apply to, just what we replaced or the whole structure or the whole house, and for how long? Can we be penalized for having an addition we did not build? If we can't afford to do the permits will the city pursue this? Will the fines continue to increase? What recourse do we have? Can they force us to sell our home? Can you recommend someone to help us figure this out? Anon

First, I have a referral for you. Her name is Tessie Cuy and she is a mortgage broker/real estate agent. Her website is Her phone number is 800-337-7694. Her e-mail is tcuy[at] She has many contacts, including lawyers, who may be able to help you sort this up. As you can see on the website she has a course on how to avoid losing your home to foreclosure. If you are worried about losing your home she may be the person to talk to. Let her know that I sent you.

Second, once you get the lawyer ask about diclosures from both the buyer and seller. I am shocked that no one told you that these additions did not have permits. Someone should have told you and they may be liable for not telling you anything.

Third, it seems to me that you are being forced to remodel. I would be very surprised if you do not qualify for a construction loan. This will help you make sure that the additions are up to code. But you need a good broker that can help you with the transaction so you can afford all the construction.

Fourth, check out This is my website. I have a workbook on how to plan a remodel. If you like it send me your shipping info and I will send you one free.

Do not despair. The reason why I wrote the workbook is that I went through a nightmarish remodel. I also thought that I would lose my home at one point. We still have our home and the project was finished. You did the right thing by asking for help. There will be plenty of people that will help you here. A.

Getting a variance for addition in Oakland

Sept 2005

I would like to add a bdrm/bath onto my small ranch style home in Oakland. An architect drew up the plans which have been repeatedly denied by the zoning dept. for set back issues. The problem is that the city is requiring a 20ft setback on the rear of the property, which is standard. What is not standard is the shape of my property, it is shaped like a slice of pie, with what would be the backyard on the side of the house, so there is not 20 ft in the rear. (The house is placed on the corner edge of the wide end of the slice.) We have asked that the city consider the backyard similar to a side yard and allow building within 5ft. But they have refused. If I were to build in compliance with city's determination, the addition would completely eliminate the entire garden space of the property. The addition, as planned, would not interfere with any other resident's sun, air or privacy as there are no other houses within approx. 100 ft of the property lines. If the! city would come and see the property they would understand the situation, but I apparently they don't do that.

I guess I am at the point now of requesting a variance. Has anyone gone through this in Oakland? Should I use an attorney? This is really stressful because I am in the process of adopting and need the space but cannot afford to move. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. oaklandgrrl

Getting a variance is not necessarily a big deal. The zoning rules are designed to provide for a general conformity across the entire City. However, not all locations and projects are the same. Consequently, the zoning rules can sometimes require things that don't always make sense. Also, at this step of the process, realize that it is not really the Planning Staff's job to grant a variance. For the most part, they strictly follow the zoning regulations as written. Staff is refusing to consider what youC-re asking not because they don't like you or your project, rather it's because they are just following the zoning rules.

So apply for a variance. There is never a guarantee of getting a variance, but it can't hurt to ask. Generally, if what you are asking for makes sense, you'll likely get the variance.

I received a zoning variance in Oakland last year. I didn't need an attorney. Your architect should be able to take care of everything, mine did. My situation was a driveway location. Strictly following the zoning rules would have meant locating the driveway (and garage) in the center of the property rather than one side or the other. It just didn't make sense and would have resulted in a really poor design.

In your application, mention the hardship you would endure by strictly following the zoning rules, talk about the benefits of being granted a variance and how it would be a better and more valuable project, how it just makes sense, how you would not be getting anything special compared to your neighbor's properties, how the variance would not create a burden to your neighbors. If there are any properties nearby that have a similar situation, use them as examples. If you can get a letter of support from your neighbors, that can help, too.

Permit = Higher Tax Base?

Sept 2004

If one does some interior remodeling that would normally require a permit to do, does that trigger a reassessment of your property value and subsequently raise your taxes? Tx. Curious Prospective Remodeler

Yes, permit = higher taxes, at least in Oakland, so I'd be shocked if it was different in, say, Berkeley. When you apply for a building permit they ask the cost of the remodel for this purpose. Of course, you can always underestimate, since they don't ask for documentation... anon

If you aren't adding any square footage, it probably won't affect your tax assessment. Someone from the assessor's office will come out and look at it, and ask if any square footage was added. Our kitchen remodel (years ago) did not affect our assessment. If it does increase at all, it would only be for the portion remodeled - not the whole house. Do be sure to let your home insurance provider know, though - you'll probably want higher coverage to cover the improvements. anon.

2003 & Earlier

Neighbors built illegal structures?

April 2002

We bought a house in Oakland about a year and a half ago near Children's Hospital. There is an addition on the duplex next door, as well as garage, that is less than 3 feet from our house. Three questions: Does this structures violate Oakland housing codes? Looking around the neighborhood, I have not found any other instance of two houses being so close together. In fact, it seems to me that this garage and addition are built right on our property line. Second, these two structures were clearly hacked together by some amateur. But how can I confirm that the owner did not have a permit? What office do I go to? The proximity of our house to these two structures is of great concern to me. I worry a fire will start in our house (or theirs) and jump the small gap. Third, if these two structures DO violate Oakland codes AND were built without a permit, how do I get the owner to tear them down? Melinda

You should be able to check the file for your and your neighbor's property down at the city office. All permits should be on file there. You should also be able to ask at the building department for information on set back requirements for that part of Oakland. Ask for a copy of the codes that are relevant to your issue. The city may also give you advice on what your options are if the addition was built without a permit. This may depend on when it was built. Do you know? Did your neighbor say? Do other neighbors know? If the city does not require your neighbor to remove the structure, the neighbor may have to mitigate in some other way (a fire wall?). Think about what sort of deal you might want out of it and what environment you want to live in. What would meet your needs? What would maintain neighborly relations over the long term? Have other neighbors worked with your next door neighbor before? What are they like to work with? -- not an expert

Pros and cons of getting permits for kitchen remodel

July 2004

the postings on whether or not to get permits for building a kitchen were really conflicted. Does anyone have clear advice and experience on the pros and cons of getting plumbing, bulding, and electrical permits to put in a kitchen in a legal duplex (that currently only has one)? Also, is this something that we, the homeowners, have to do or can the plumber/ electrician help us out? rachel

As an Interior and Architectural designer, I would like to comment on to Permit or not:

The first question you have to ask yourself is - do you want to keep your legal duplex legal? If so, then I would definitely get a permit for the new work. Don't be scared of the process - it is there to help make sure things are done to certain ''standards''. Some of them may seem silly or unnecessary, but they are developed with ergonomic and safety issues in mind. That being said, the process can feel like a lot of red tape. The most important reason to do it is simply that you will have the credentials you need when and if you sell your property.

However - there are many situations when it is perfectly o.k. NOT to get a permit: IF the residence is a single family property, and there are no other parties involved to screw you in the process, and IF the project is deep within the house where no neighbors will call you on it, and IF it just involves moving one window or door or a non-bearing wall. However, if asked, the city will always tell you that you need a permit for any work, so just don't ask them!

You asked: Do you have to get the permit or can your contractors do it for you? - If it is just new electrical or plumbing, then there need not be any drawings done and it is just a matter of filling out some forms and paying the fee. A contractor can do this for you no problem. If you are planning on moving any walls, or changing the layout of a room, kitchen or bathroom, then you are looking at a building permit and drawings will need to be done to show the proposed work. A homeowner can do these drawings for themselves, or they can have a designer or an architect like myself to do them, or the contractor can sometimes do them. In this case, either the designer, the homeowner OR the general contractor can submit for the permit.


Are permits really worth the hassle?

July 1999

We're planning to do some remodeling and we're wondering whether permits are worth the hassle. Anyone have any advice about this?

Permits help if you want to refinance or sell your house later. You probably won't get caught in Berkeley, unless you have a mean neighbor who tattles on you.

The permits are worth getting. The whole point is to keep you from making mistakes with health or safety consequences. Berkeley has some kind of owner do-it-yourself permit that's less strenuous than those for contractors. You can get the owner permit and either do the work yourself or hire someone to do it.

After living in a 1911 Berkeley house that was remodelled a number of times without permits -- with a lot of bad effects that we've spent years trying to undo -- I understand why permits are a good thing. We've found an insufficiently supported, caving-in roof, another roof with an illegal 4 layers of roofing (too heavy to be safe), plumbing vent pipes that dead-end in walls, nightmare electrical wiring, substandard ceiling heights, and rooms without any windows or ventilation, among other things.

Also, there's some kind of California law about disclosing the work you've done to potential buyers when you sell. Some buyers may think twice about a house with non-permit remodelling. I know I would.

In response to above, I'd highly recommend you do it legally. As I understand it, when you sell the house, you are legally bound to fully disclose all situations which could affect the buyer's decision to purchase. If you do not, and the situation is discovered, you could be held liable. While permits are a drag to obtain, there are good reasons for them. For instance, wiring done incorrectly could lead to a fire hazard. Good luck!

On reading the responses to this inquiry, I couldn't help but notice that the person recommending using permits is someone who's never done it. I have and despite a basically law-abiding, pro-government mindset, would avoid it in future remodeling work. The key here is the big difference between doing things to code and doing things with permits. I would never recommend not following current California building code and no ethnical contractor, whether licensed or not, would propose to. But following the Berkeley permit process is at best a mixed bag. We found it expensive (individual permits cost hundreds of dollars and you may need five or more), time-consuming, frustrating (telephone run-arounds, missed appointments, inconsistent or inaccurate info, etc.) and of no real value regarding the eventual quality of the job. We also found little truth to the notion that inspectors somehow assure that your house is stable, well-constructed, etc. We had probably ten or twelve inspectors (NEVER, NOT ONCE, the same one twice--even when re-checking things the previous inspector had tagged). Each one found new violations and ignored items other inspectors had noticed. They also found flaws in work that previous inspectors had approved--which required in some cases that that our contractor tear out expensive work that had been completed. Contractors are supposed to do this at their own expense because they promise to abide by all relevant regulations, etc. But we took pity on our guy, who was really detail-oriented and quality-minded, and spent several thousand extra dollars. In all these cases, the problems identified were very, very minor and did not involve safety or structural issues. Our contractor told us that Berkeley is known for being very hard to please. By the way, you may not have a choice here: if you use a licensed contractor (and there are many good reasons to do so) and/or architect, he/she will probably (should, I think, to keep the license) insist on all required permits.

As for re-sale value, I think you'll find this a relatively minor factor among the many involved in selling a home and one with little or no actual monetary benefit. The home inspector who does the inspection should point out any examples of work that is not up to code and you may be able to negotiate over that. Once you buy a house, whether work previously done was done with or without permits will be largely moot, though again it should be up to code--preferably current code and certainly code at the time the work was done.

I am the person who recommended using permits as a result of buying a house with nightmare non-permit work. Since then I have taken out a number of permits, and done extensive remodeling under those permits to correct the previous problems. I have been extremeely happy with the work done under permits, and now that I am about to make some additional improvements of my own, I am getting permits once again.

As far as working with contractors goes, I find that the ones who like to work without permits are willing to take shortcuts that I find completely unacceptable.