- The Washington Times - Friday, July 19, 2002

It might seem like a hassle and an inconvenient step in your home-remodeling process, but getting a permit will keep you in line with building codes and could protect your family. Although they vary from state to state and even town to town, building codes are serious business, and so is the permit process that ensures they are followed.

State and city or county building codes exist to protect not only your family, but also future residents of your property from shoddy construction. The deck you build might hold up for the five years you will use it, but what about 12 years from now?

Building codes ensure that foundations are stable, wiring is safe and roofs can support the weight of a heavy snowfall. High standards for residential construction have made U.S. housing among the safest in the world.

Some jurisdictions, perhaps, push the permit envelope. In Anne Arundel County, for example, you need a permit for swing sets if they are built with footings.

Building codes vary widely within the Washington area.

"The variety of codes from area to area can be a hassle from a contractor's point of view," says Bob Zinsmeister, director of government affairs for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Metro Washington. "The bureaucracy can get a bit onerous, so we would really like to see everything covered by uniform state codes. That would make things easier for a contractor working in multiple jurisdictions."

Fortunately, homeowners only need to worry about the codes for their city or county. Identifying which codes apply to your project and even what they mean can be rather challenging nevertheless.

"There are a lot of people who don't know what they have to do, what they need permits for," says Hamer Campbell, director of government affairs for the Maryland National Capital Building Industry Association. "Many of the larger counties, like Montgomery and Prince George's, have booklets that you can order to familiarize yourself with the permitting process."

Many jurisdictions offer permit information on their Web sites. Unfortunately, many of the sites for the Washington area are cumbersome and confusing, but it is a start.

So what does it take to get a permit, and what requires one?

If you are having the work done by a contractor, you have it rather easy. Contractors are familiar with the building codes in the areas where they work, and they should apply for any permits that are needed. Be sure they do.

"Many people just hire an electrician who is doing work on the side instead of through the electrician's company. They sometimes do this to avoid the expense and delay of having a permit and inspection," Mr. Campbell says.

Licensed contractors who do this can get in trouble, but that won't be much comfort if faulty wiring causes your home to burn down.

Any homeowner can get a building permit. Only contractors with a license, however, may take out permits to work on your home. Steer clear of anyone who is willing to work on your property but wants you to get the permit.

"I'd be leery of someone who tries that," Mr. Zinsmeister says.

More important, the person who takes out the building permit is the one who will be held responsible if the project does not meet local building codes.

"The whole process is really a mutual protection thing," Mr. Zinsmeister says. "If there's a disagreement about the quality or safety of the work that is being done, then the property owner can approach the jurisdiction to complain. That puts the contractor's license at risk."

There's another reason to be certain your project meets building codes: Your insurance company is unlikely to cover you for damages caused by structures built without a permit. Besides that, you could find yourself in court if your negligence hurts anyone.

In San Francisco in 1996, one person was killed and 14 were injured when a deck that had been built and modified without a permit collapsed. The landlord was ordered to pay $12 million by the court. Dozens of similar incidents have occurred around the nation.

Many decks collapse because the structure is attached to the house with nails. Though this may seem like a rather sturdy construction method, most building codes require bolts to be used. Hundreds of injuries could have been avoided in recent years if the people building decks had applied for permits and received proper inspections.

So how does the process of receiving a permit and necessary inspections work?

"In Prince George's County, the first step is the permit application, which includes drawings of your project," says Sarah Bouldin-Carr, a section head at the Prince George's County Department of Environmental Resources. "Our reviewers go over the drawings and either approve [the project] or come back to you with adjustments that need to be made. We don't reject applications; we work with the homeowner to make needed changes so the plans will meet code."

Receiving a permit also sets in motion the inspection process. If you are building a garage, for example, most jurisdictions will want to inspect the foundation before the walls go up. Once the walls are in place but before they are closed up with drywall or paneling they will want to see the electrical and perhaps the plumbing work.

Spring and summer are the busiest times of the year for your local permit office. Some areas are taking advantage of the Internet, however. Online applications and approvals are streamlining the process and saving many people a trip to the city or county government office.

"This is having some positive effects for builders and contractors, and for the counties, as well," Mr. Campbell says. "The builders like the ability to enter the data online, rather than filling out a [paper] form. And this also saves county employees the time of entering the data into the computer."

Although you might have the confidence and know-how to build your new garage or deck, it is well worth your time to apply for a permit and receive that stamp of approval. Many homeowners find that it not only improves the quality of their project, it also saves them time and difficulties in the long run.

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