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Unpermitted construction on the rise

Posted: January 12, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: January 12, 2014 2:00 a.m.

Did you know you need a permit from the city to install a new water heater?

What about to replace an air conditioner?

Some Santa Clarita residents may not know that some common household fix-ups and improvements require a city permit before work can begin, meaning they may be unknowingly violating building codes.

Smaller scale
City officials have recently noticed an upward trend in such violations.

“Although we don’t have much in the way of specific facts and figures we know that it is on the increase, especially for the smaller residential projects,” said Bill Read, an assistant building official with the city of Santa Clarita.

For example, the city recently checked the number of water heaters that had been disposed locally versus the number of permits people had pulled to install a new water heater.

“Considerably less than half of the ones picked up were from people who had actually pulled permits for a new heater,” he said.

Read said much of the unpermitted construction is for some smaller-scale residential projects, such as replacing a broken-down air conditioner or furnace.

Though those projects may seem minor, Read said such work could present a safety concern.

“The primary focus of most of the building codes that we enforce is safety,” Read said.

If such work is done incorrectly, the results can be dangerous.

“A water heater is probably, believe it or not, one of the most dangerous appliances that you would find in a typical home,” Read said. “So many different things can go wrong if it’s not installed right.

“Water heaters actually can explode because the installation was not done correctly,” he said.

Any kind of electrical work, even something as seemingly simple as putting up a new ceiling fan, can also present a hazard, Read said.

“When electrical work is not done to code you run the risk of electrical short or a fire,” he said.

As part of the city permitting process, city inspectors will look over completed work and make sure it is done correctly and safely.

Larger offenses
While many instances of unpermitted construction are for relatively minor projects, that doesn’t mean there aren’t more brazen offenses.

“Surprisingly we’ve had some pretty big projects where people just didn’t get permits and started going to town,” Read said.

Read said he could recall an instance where someone began work on a detached housing unit without obtaining any of the necessary permits.

“We came across it and they had it all framed up,” he said. “We almost missed it.”

But typically residents recognize the need for permits on such large projects.

“For exterior work I think people recognize that they are going to need to get a permit or they run a much higher risk of being caught,” Read said.

Read said he thinks a reason the city is seeing a rise in unpermitted construction is because of the economy. The cost of permits depends on the project, meaning some might rather take the risk of working without a permit than shoulder the extra expense.

“Whether it’s $75 or $150 for whatever, I think a lot of times people just don’t want to spend that,” Read said. “And I can certainly understand that.”

Another reason could be that citizens simply don’t know what types of projects require permits.

“A lot of people in today’s economy looking to save money decide to do the work themselves instead of hiring a contractor,” Read said. “And people may not be fully aware of what types of work would require a permit.”

Read said many types of minor permits can be obtained same-day from Santa Clarita City Hall.

Other ones for more common work, such as installing a water heater, can be applied for online using the city’s eService system.

Under certain circumstances, like a furnace going out on the weekend, residents can also begin work themselves and get a permit when the city reopens, Read said.

“We’re very familiar with the problems and the challenges that people encounter in pulling permits and we have, I think, really tried to make the process as painless as possible,” Read said.

“We’re dealing with state building codes that we are mandated to enforce so they’re not discretionary, they’re not codes we can waive,” Read continued. “We are mandated to enforce the state codes but we try to make the process of issuing the permit pretty smooth.”

Questions about whether a permit is required can be directed to the city Building and Safety division at 661-255-4935.
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