Navigating the ins and outs of building permits |

Navigating the ins and outs of building permits

We probably all know someone who has been remodeling or adding on to their home. In many cases, those improvements may have required a building permit, but often, the work is done without one. The problem is that when it comes time to sell, or in case of a fire, those unpermitted improvements are not included in the value of the structure.

The good news is there is no penalty assessed when bringing the changes into compliance.

“We run into it all the time – all the way from kitchen remodels to structures without permits,” said Craig Griesbach, Nevada County’s Director of Building, “so we have several documents available (online and at the county office) to help people through the process.”

The general procedure is to get plans drawn and submit them to the department for review. The plans can be simply drawn by the homeowner but having a professional involved is a better idea since they know what to include. “Once we issue an as-built permit, we schedule a pre-inspection and an inspector will come out and review the project to discuss anything that needs to be exposed or what exactly they need, kind of like a project management,“ explained Griesbach.

In the case of projects that are already complete, the difficulty comes when a field inspector has to look at hidden improvements such as electrical or plumbing work that is behind walls.

“We try to do as little destructive testing as we can,” Griesbach said. “We can look in the under-floor area or attic to be able to see that plumbing, utilities, insulation, and framing, structural components, and things like that are good. Every once in while we do have to open things up in a wall, but we try to do that as little as possible.”

There are certain exemptions to the permitting requirement, but generally if you are building a structure, except for small storage sheds, or if you are installing new or altering any utilities – plumbing, electrical, mechanical – you need a permit.

According to Griesbach, “A lot of people don’t know they need a permit for window replacement, reroofs, siding, or with the kitchen remodel, when adding an electrical receptacle or two, they need a building permit.”

He said basic aesthetics like cabinets, trim, paint, flooring, wall paper, and wall coverings do not require a permit, but anything that alters plumbing, electrical or gas lines trigger the need for one.

One misconception about getting a permit is it takes a long time.

“Most of the time that is not case. A lot people think the permitting process takes a long time, but many permits are issued over the counter the same day.” Griesbach said. “If you get a permit ahead of time and get inspections throughout the process it can be addressed right away and save money in the long run.”

When homeowners come in voluntarily, there is no assessment for getting permits after-the-fact. Nevada County also allows the use of building codes that were in effect at the time of construction. For example, if the work took place in 2001, 2001 building codes are what is enforced.

The building department has several documents, including guidelines and step-by-step presentations to walk you through the process.

Griesbach added, “They are protecting their investment by having it permitted. They can’t claim square footage that hasn’t been permitted or improvements as value when selling. Another thing we see a lot, is when something happens to their property…if property burns down and they’ve got $100,000 in upgrading the house and it has not been permitted, insurance does not cover it. We have had people kind of pay the price and find out the hard way so financially protecting their investment is best reason to get permits.”

Get more information on the how, what, and how much of permitting at /1114/Building-Department.

Hollie Grimaldi Flores is a Nevada County resident and freelance writer for hire. She can be reached at

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