Help, I Need a Building Permit, Now What?

How to Go About Obtaining a Building Permit

The application for a Building Permit, especially commercially, requires patience, and an understanding of the complexities as well as the idiosyncrasies of the local Building Department.

It is important to understand, that every Building Department stands as a bastion of importance within the local government. The Building Inspector is normally a well-respected and well known individual in Town that used to be a general contractor. I have been involved with many building inspectors and building departments in my career, and the majority of these departments are managed by past, local contractors. This understanding and appreciation of the personalities that make up the various Building Departments is extremely important to your success in obtaining your permit.

There are a few important aspects of this process that should NOT be done if you expect to successfully receive your permit.

  • Do NOT disrespect anyone in the Building Department. It is essential to remain patient, understanding and definitely sub-servient when applying for a Building Permit.
  • Do NOT dispute anything that is presented to you upon application submittal. It is essential that, no matter, how correct you feel you are, do not openly dispute anything. If there is a significant deviation in what is required by the department, and what you know is incorrect, then this must be identified privately and with the ultimate in humility.
  • Do NOT argue or disagree about the hours for presentation of the application, the length of the lines into the building department, or the length of their lunch hours. The hours are the hours, whether you agree or not.
  • Do NOT appear over confident, arrogant or in any manner indicate that you are in a hurry to obtain the permit and anxious to leave the building department.
  • Do NOT dispute any fees, any percentages, or any evaluation of the cost of the project.

In summary of what NOT to do / never object over anything, if you want to obtain your permit!

This is what should be done

  • Visit the building department, well in advance of submitting your application. Cautiously and patiently request all of the forms, as well as a brief verbal explanation of all of the requirements.
  • Upon your initial visit, make sure you understand all of the various fees that will be required to properly apply for the permit. There will be fees from many departments, and if you have them ready for presentation when you apply, this will endear you to the building department.
  • Be overly friendly and overly humble, in your approach to everyone in the department.
  • Obtain a list of departments that will require a form or a fee, and visit those departments while you are in the town hall. Each of these visits must be with the same attitude as you visited the building department.
  • Remain friendly, understanding and observant of all regulations, hours, requirements, fees, etc. that are posted and verbally instructed.
  • Leave the building department with a clear understanding of the format, the fees, the regulations and the documents that are necessary to successful obtain your building permit.

Once you are properly educated and aware of all of the procedures necessary to obtain a successful permit, and you have introduced yourself to all of the proper authorities, the following must be done.

  • Fill out all of the documents, thoroughly and professionally. Do not try to shortcut the applications, the building department will simply throw you out!
  • Duplicate and stamp the proper amount of documents necessary for all of the departments requiring approval.
  • Accurately execute payments in the form of checks for all departments. Make sure you are well aware of all the fees!! This is important.
  • Accurately detail the cost of the project, and coordinate the building department fee you’re your detailed summary of the cost.
  • Do not underestimate the project costs. You will be required to certify the final cost of the project, and the fee will eventually be based on this final adjustment.
  • Do not think that you will obtain the permit during your first submission of all the paperwork. Assume you will be back into the office, several times, prior to succeeding in obtaining the permit.
  • Remain, patient, humble and sensitive to the local traditions involving the building department.

Remember, there is NO obligation that the building department must issue you a building permit.   The application and the approval, is totally based upon the individuals in the various departments and their management of the application. Irritate them and you will wait a long, long time!

The following specific departments will probably be required to approve the plans and the specifications for the project. Each department will, in most cases, require copies of the documents for review and approval. In some cases, the individual departments will require one copy to be kept at that specific department and one moved on to the actual building department. Each municipality will require a different number of documents; this is the reason that the initial visit is so important.

  • Fire department / there is always a fee associated with the Fire department review of the documents. They will require at least (2) copies of the sealed documents for their review and approval.   The Fire department will review the fire safety requirements, such as exits, emergency lighting, sprinkler requirements, etc.
  • Zoning department / usually the most difficult of all the departments, the zoning department will insist on the sidewalk reconstruction, the storm water maintenance, etc. on the project. In most municipalities the zoning official is the most demanding and the most challenging. For some reason, anyone in the zoning department feels compelled to provide roadblocks in the issuance of the building permit. Do not be surprised, if this department requires the most time and effort.
  • Public works / in most municipalities the approval from the Public Works department is the easiest of the entire process. It appears during many applications, that if the Zoning Department approves the application, the Public Works department will follow suit.
  • Health department / this department will become significant if the project involves, kitchen or cooking facilities, medical associated construction, etc. The Health department can be extremely difficult and time consuming, due to the significant importance to the community, if food is being served or if medical procedures are being offered.
  • Engineering department / together with the Zoning and Public Works departments, the engineering department is concerned with the sanitary, water and utilities that are being introduced into the project. In addition, the Engineering department will be involved with the sidewalks, curb cuts, etc. that are involved with the project.
  • Traffic department / dependent on the project, the location of the project and the influence on the surrounding traffic patterns, the Traffic department, may be a very significant department or a non-issue. It is important that the Traffic department coordinate with the Zoning and the Public Works to ensure compliance to all regulations.
  • Environmental or EPA / in some larger municipalities there is a special Environmental or EPA type organization, department, etc. that will be required to sign off on the building application. This is not a consistent requirement for all projects, but will need to be addressed, if noted during the initial visit to the Building Department.
  • Historical department / if the project is located within an historical area of the municipality, then the Historical department or agency must be notified, and their specific needs and requirements complied with.
  • Architectural review board / in some municipalities, the application for a building permit, must comply with the architectural review boards approval of the documents. This is especially important in more affluent areas that have been restricted by architectural considerations.
  • State agency approval / if the specific project is located on a State highway, a State property or has anything to do with the State that the project is located, then all of the agencies required within the State, must be contacted, and their permission and review obtained.
  • FEMA / if the project is located within the FEMA established flood zone, then the approval and review of all documents is required by FEMA. This can cause difficulties in the approval of the final Building Department approval and must be immediately addressed.

In summary, the application for a Building Permit is a process that must be addressed by a sensible, patient and very humble individual. The incorrect or overly aggressive applicant will NOT receive a good result. Please, be humble, considerate and overly complimentary, and maybe you will be treated with the same respect and consideration. However, DO NOT EXPECT this! The local Building Department is normally very impressed with themselves, has no desire to be overly helpful, and will try to push the limits of your patience! Do NOT let them get you down / eventually, you will get the permit, it just may require an extraordinary amount of patience and discipline.


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