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Construction Permit Tips For Homeowners

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Construction permits... For your safety and security, easier to get than you might think. Click on the questions below for permit tips for homeowners.

Remodeling or adding improvements to your home?

Home owners thinking about remodeling their home or adding other improvements, such as decks, spas or retaining walls, many times have a number of questions about building permits.

This information is designed to give home owners basic knowledge of when construction permits and other approvals are required by the city of San Diego. It also answers some of the most frequently asked questions and offers tips from the city.

Since each construction project is unique, we invite you to call the city's Permit Information Line, (619) 446-5000, for answers to your specific questions.

You can also e-mail us at dsdweb@sandiego.gov.

What are permits and why do I need one?

Permits are the way the city of San Diego regulates construction. This is designed to ensure that all construction in the city is safe. The safety of the occupants of buildings is the primary reason for having construction codes. The city of San Diego has adopted several codes, among them the Uniform Building, Mechanical and Plumbing, and National Electrical codes. In addition, there are federal, state and local laws that govern construction, such as those covering energy conservation.

There are several different types of permits, based on the type of construction: structural, plumbing, mechanical, electrical and combination (used for single-family home construction and other small projects). Most home owner projects require a combination permit. In addition, the complete demolition and relocation of buildings also requires permits.

Obtaining the permit is just the first step in the process. In this step, you may need to create plans to submit to the department, make a plot plan for your property showing the improvements, and show the type of construction you'll be using.

The city has handouts to help you through this process.

Once plans are approved, you're required to build the project to those plans. If any changes are made to the plans, they must be made with the city's approval.

The second half of the process is the inspection of the work. More about that later.

When do I need a construction permit?

A construction permit is needed for all new construction. In many cases, a permit is needed for repair or replacement of existing fixtures, such as replacing windows. A plumbing, electrical or mechanical permit maybe needed for any addition or changes to a building's existing system; for example, moving or adding an electrical outlet requires a permit.

To find out if your project needs a permit, call (619) 446-5000.

When don't I need a permit?

A construction permit is not needed for items such as wallpapering, painting or similar finish work; fences six feet high or lower; platforms, decks and walks 30 inches high or less over grade or not over basement; and in several other cases. However, reviews may be required from other agencies; be sure to check before building.

For plumbing, mechanical and electrical work, replacement or repair of fixtures (such as changing water faucets or replacing switches) does not normally require a permit. Replacing a water heater or adding a permanently wired light fixture does, however, require a permit.

To determine if your project needs a permit, call (619) 446-5000.

Where do I get a permit?

Construction permits are issued at the city's Development Review Center, 1222 First Avenue. Call (619) 446-5000 for information; (619) 446-5300 for appointments only.

One additional option: If you only need simple permits for minor work, such as moving an electrical circuit or installing a water heater, permits are available from 7:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily at the city's Inspection Services Office, 9601 Ridgehaven Court, Suite 220, (858) 492-5070.

How long does it take to get a permit?

Permit issuance periods vary. Some projects can be fully permitted over-the-counter, meaning a return trip won't be needed. Some projects, however, require that plans be left for additional review.

What about zoning?

Zoning sets up, within a defined area, the types of buildings and what they will be used for. For example, a residential area may be zoned R1-20000, which means that the lots can contain one single-family home and the lots are a minimum of 20,000 square feet.

Zoning is regulated based on maps approved by the City Council. A variance may be obtained in some cases if a property owner wants to build something not allowed in the property's zone.

Some questions and approvals for zoning can be issued over-the-counter by the same staff that reviews your building plans. Others need reviews by specialty zoning or planning staff.

There are also special zones within the city such as planned districts. The city's Development and Permit Information service can answer questions about these areas. To request information, use our convenient online Zoning Information Request, or call (619) 446-5000.

What about other approvals or permits?

Other government agencies may need to review and approve your project. The city will inform you of these reviews at the time plans are submitted.

What if I don't get a permit?

If a permit, when needed, is not obtained before construction, you have violated city codes and regulations; you'll be subject to fines and penalties. You'll be required to obtain permits for the work and it must pass inspection, or you'll have to return the structure or site to its original condition.

Remember... construction codes were created for safety reasons. Work built without a permit can be unsafe, no matter how good it looks.

The city's Code Enforcement Division enforces codes on already-built structures. The telephone number for Code Compliance is (619) 236-5500.

Who should obtain the permit?

Contractors licensed by the State of California or your agent can obtain permits. The home owner can also obtain the permits.

Can I do the work myself or do I have to hire a contractor?

You can do the work yourself, but you must follow certain regulations. Among them:

  • Workers' Compensation: If you will be hiring anyone, you may have to purchase Workers' Compensation Insurance, which is available from a variety of agencies. If you won't be hiring anyone, we'll ask you to sign an ''Owner-Builder Statement'' to this effect. We can't issue you a permit without either insurance or the completed Owner-Builder Statement.
  • Build to the plans: Be sure to follow your approved plans, whether they are drawn by an architect or designer or are standard construction requirements given to you by the city. If you change the plans while building the structure, this will cause problems when the project is inspected. If you do decide to make changes, check with the city's plan review staff or your field inspector.

Who draws up the plans?

Plans for projects such as room additions can usually be drawn up by qualified individuals such as a draftsman. Other projects may require plans prepared and signed by an architect or engineer licensed by the State of California.

For projects such as routine retaining walls, patio covers or carports, the city has standard specifications that can be followed within certain limitations. Those specifications, together with a plot plan showing your project, are accepted by the department as plans.

In addition, some kit-type projects come with construction plans. Before you buy, call (619) 446-5000 to make sure your kit is accepted; then just bring the instruction sheet or other documentation along when you apply for your permit it serves as plans.

What about a contractor?

The city recommends that you deal only with a contractor licensed by the State of California. The Contractors' Licensing Board's telephone number is (800) 321-2752.

What about inspections?

It is your responsibility to call us for inspections at specific times during construction. You may have your contractor make the call, but it is still your responsibility, as the property owner, to make sure the inspections are made. Inspections are made during certain points in the project, depending on the work that's being performed. For example, retaining walls require inspections of the footing, after block is laid and steel placed but before grouting, after backfill has been placed, and when all work is finished.

Remember... the project is not complete for legal purposes until it has passed the final inspection.

What if I have a permit but never called for an inspection?

Generally, permits expire after 180 days if no inspections have been made. In order for the project to be complete, it must pass final inspection. If a permit expires before final inspection, the project is in violation of city codes. If this is your case, call (619) 446-5000. We'll help you to reactivate the permit or apply for another with as little inconvenience as possible. Our interest is in seeing your project complete... including the final inspection.

Should you have any other questions, please call us at (619) 446-5000.