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Robert Lamoureux: Why do you need building permits?

Posted: March 26, 2010 10:33 p.m.
Updated: March 27, 2010 4:30 a.m.
We have designed a custom, full color The Signal/Your Home Improvements T-shirt that we will send to you, with our compliments, if we answer your question in our column.

We’re going to do things a little differently for this week’s column. We had the opportunity to do a Q & A with Bill Read, the assistant building official for the city of Santa Clarita’s Building and Safety Division.  

As an architect, having years of experience of being on the other side of the counter, Read is extremely knowledgeable in matters regarding codes, permits and practices, especially in working with the city of Santa Clarita. As a public service, Read agreed to meet with us to share procedures and codes as they apply to Santa Clarita homeowners.

Q: Tell us about the city’s efforts in Building and Safety.

A: The permit process is complicated so our approach here in Santa Clarita is to try and be as non-bureaucratic as possible. We are making changes so that people in the private sector, especially those that want to do an addition to their house, will find the process to be much less frustrating and challenging.

For example, we brought as much of the different departments you need to work with and put them all in a central location. Now we have Building and Safety, Planning and Engineering all under one roof. We also just got a rep from the fire department to work specifically with fuel modification plans.  

Probably half of Santa Clarita is what we call a high fire hazard zone because of all of the hills and natural brush areas. For any development that occurs in areas somewhat contiguous to those natural hillside areas, Los Angeles County Fire Department has their own set of requirements that they impose in creating what they call a “defensible space around your property.” So, in the event of an out-of-control wildfire, you’re going to have some protection there. Part of that protection is what kind of landscaping and trees are planted. As part of the approval process, the Fire Department has you prepare a fuel modification plan — the fuel being whatever is combustible like brush and vegetation. Sometimes that process is very time-consuming. Previously, everything was sent down to Azusa and would be plan checked down there. Delays were extensive.

As a city, we put pressure on the fire department to bring someone in locally, which is very convenient for our residents. Now, we are all centralized. There is still a little leg work involved in dealing with different agencies like the school districts and water districts, but the process runs much smoother.  

We are also interested in any savings we can bring to the table. We just initiated, rather in the process of initiating, a new process for submitting plans and having the plans plan checked electronically by setting up a Web page for projects. We are doing a preliminary project now for the parking structure at the Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital and we are working out the kinks to do this project electronically. This is all state-of-the-art technology, and we want to stay on the cutting edge.

Q: Why are permits necessary and what are the implications of not having them?  

A: There are a number of reasons why permits are necessary. First of all, the law states that you have to have them, but beyond that, looking at the why, consider some of the areas we’ve seen lately like Haiti. During the earthquake, Haiti, with no building codes, suffered an incredible loss of life and property damage.

The earthquake in Chile was 500 times stronger than the Haitian quake, but had far less damage due to their strict building codes. Codes don’t necessarily prevent damage to a building, but what they can do is help that building so it doesn’t fall over and prevent the loss of life. The buildings are not earthquake-proof, but earthquake-resistant.

Permits insure that proper building codes are being implemented in the structure.

Q: Could you walk us through the permit process?  

A: First, you prepare some plans. You either hire someone or do it yourself, to the best of your ability, to draw the plans up and show details that comply with current codes. We recommend hiring a design professional that is familiar with the codes because they are very extensive. By design professional, we mean an architect, engineer or a draftsperson familiar with construction practices.  Under the law, you don’t have to be licensed to prepare plans for a residence or a residential addition, unless the complexity of the design may require you to have an engineer look at it to design from a structural standpoint and prepare calculations.  

Once you have the set of plans, you would then submit them to Building and Safety. We have a plan check staff consisting of engineers and architects that are qualified, trained, certified and licensed in codes. They will review those plans and look for any discrepancies in areas that are not in compliance with the codes. Usually, it’s a process of going back and forth two or three times.  Once we feel the plans show to great extent a conformance with the codes, then they would be ready to be issued a permit.  

If you are just adding a room addition, 500 square feet triggers the need for school fees. So if you keep the room addition to under 500 square feet. you’ve got no school fees to deal with — and we get a lot of plans for 495 square feet, which is fine with us.

Q: When are permits required? At what point during the renovation process does it become necessary to pull a permit?
A: For convenience, all of that information is available on the Web site. Basically, if there’s any question, it probably needs a permit.
Let’s start out by assuming that just about any type of work needs a permit. Now, let’s back up and say that there are exceptions and exemptions. For example, building a wooden fence up to six feet tall does not require a permit. Block walls up to 42 inches don’t need permits. A lot of repair work is exempt unless the repairs were to the structural components of a building. If any structural framing members are replaced, repaired or altered in any way, permits are absolutely required. Since structural integrity has a higher level of importance in protecting the inhabitants of a building, we want to go out and make sure that it was installed correctly. Painting, floor coverings and cabinetry are exempt. A lot of kitchen remodels don’t need permits unless you are redoing the electrical, plumbing or gas. Sink and faucet replacement are exempt unless you are changing out the angle stops.  

The reason we go out and inspect, first and foremost, is for safety and making sure everything is to code.

Q: What are some of the problems you see with unpermitted work?

A: It’s very unfortunate but we get a lot of people that come to the counter that decided to do some type of room addition or something and for whatever reason, they decided not to get permits. Now, they are trying to sell their home. What happens is the new buyer or Realtor comes in, sees the new addition, and says, “by the way, did you get building permits?”

Legally, they have to disclose they didn’t and the work was done illegally. In most cases, there are violations of the code and in some cases, very significant violations. We try to work with people, but we will ask them to prepare plans for the work that was done to show that everything is in compliance with the code. If they hire a design professional and they see that it does not meet with code, the homeowner then has to go back in and make changes. Now this becomes very expensive. Opening walls and ceilings, rewiring, reframing and reconstructing — whatever is necessary. This becomes a big problem.  

If it’s obvious that they have blatantly disregarded the law, we can impose a penalty which is twice the amount of the permit fee. Not only that, if there is a sizable portion of work that was not permitted, potential buyers would probably walk away. If you know it hasn’t been inspected, you don’t know if it’s to code. The structural, electrical and plumbing may be all wrong, why risk the safety of your family?    

Additionally, if something was to happen to your home and the insurance companies could prove that the work was done illegally, then this could jeopardize any payments that you would ordinarily be entitled to.

In general, newer codes are more complex in nature. Additional emphasis is being placed on green buildings, energy efficiency and seismic/earthquake structural changes. The Department of Building and Safety is taking the city of Santa Clarita to the forefront of customer convenience and the newest interactive technologies to make working with these changes as simple as possible.

Robert Lamoureux has 25 years experience as a general contractor, with separate licenses in electrical and plumbing contacting. He owns IMS Construction Inc. in Valencia. His opinions are his own, and not necessarily those of The Signal. Opinions expressed in this column are not meant to replace the recommendations of a qualified contractor, after that contractor has made a thorough visual inspection. Send your questions to


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