Is It Permitted? : Many Deceptively Simple Home Projects Must Be Done by the Book


An Irvine couple is agonizing over a city order that could result in the demolition of the house they’ve been enlarging and remodeling for 13 years: In addition to what city officials call inordinate delays, the couple often launched projects in the home without the appropriate permits.

Destroying an entire house would be a Draconian measure--the last time it was ordered in Orange County was in 1981 when a home in Silverado Canyon was erected without a single building permit.

But while the Irvine case is extreme, it shows how seriously building officials take permit rules.


And it underscores a problem building officials say is growing as the county’s housing supply ages and more homeowners take it upon themselves to do fix-up and remodeling chores: All too often the work isn’t done by the book.

The book is a thick one, the Uniform Building Code that every building and safety department in the state has adopted. It sets up the minimum standards for most kinds of building work including plumbing, electrical and lot grading and applies to new construction as well as to renovation and remodeling.

Sometimes ignoring the rules is willful--we don’t want to have to pay the building permit fee (which can range from a nominal amount to thousands of dollars depending on the project)--or be bothered by a city or county inspector.

More often, though, work that should have a permit gets done without one because the homeowner had no idea one was needed. The rules can get pretty complex.

It’s pretty clear, for example, that you’ll need a permit to build a whole house or to add a family room to the old one.

But how about that automatic irrigation system in the back yard, or the new garbage disposal you’re planning to hook up next weekend?


In most cases, both are improvements that must be inspected, and that means getting a permit from the building department.

And what about the garage door-opener you picked up on sale and hooked up by running a heavy-duty extension up to the short cord that came with it? If a garbage disposal needs a permit, then surely a garage door opener must, right?

Well, no. There is no permit needed to install a garage door-opener.

But there are rules about wiring, and one of them prohibits adding an extension cord to a garage door-opener. If the cord that comes with it isn’t long enough to reach an existing grounded outlet (one that accepts a three-pronged plug), the homeowner or contractor must install a new outlet that is close enough. And the new outlet does need a permit.

To add to the confusion, some cities add their own wrinkles to the universally adopted rules in the Uniform Building Code.

The UBC, for example, requires a permit for all fences higher than six feet. But in Costa Mesa, says city planning commissioner Mark Korando (who also happens to be senior building inspector in Irvine), a permit is required for all walls and fences--even little knee-high garden surrounds.


The fees that building departments collect for permits help them pay the cost of inspections and plan reviews but are not principally fund-raising tools, says Bob Storchheim, building, safety and engineering manager for Irvine and a member of the California Buildings Standards Commission--the group that makes the rules.

The primary reason for requiring a permit, he said, is to ensure that the job is inspected so that substandard work is caught and corrected before safety problems develop.


In almost all cases where building permits are required, Storchheim said, there is a safety issue involved. Tall walls need to be engineered so they don’t fall over and hurt passersby. Electrical wires and connections need to be checked to ensure they can handle the load being placed on them and that they are installed to prevent damage that could bare wires and start a fire or electrocute someone.

Proper permits also protect homeowners against unexpected costs and delays when selling their homes: In these days of lengthy disclosure reports and professional inspections for the buyers, hundreds of sales are complicated by the lack of permits for the very home improvements that helped make the sale in the first place, said realtor Pete Moyer.

“The state disclosure law specifically requires the seller to disclose improvements made without permits,” said Moyer of Century 21 Moyer in Orange.

He said he recently handled a sale that was stalled because the homeowner had added a room without getting permits.

“He had to pull down several sections of drywall to show an inspector that the electrical system and framing had been installed properly,” Moyer said. “Fortunately, the floor was carpeted, and all he had to do was pull up the carpeting to show that the slab was OK.” If the flooring had been tile or hardwood over a slab, the inspector would have required that sections be torn up so he could see the actual concrete work.

In all, Moyer said, “it ended up costing the seller about $8,000 to get permits and do repairs for something that would have cost about $1,500 if he’d done it right and got permits at the start.”



Storchheim says he has heard countless tales of woe in his 30 years in the municipal building inspection business.

He usually hears them from an irate do-it-yourselfer who has just found out that the covered patio or garage-to-office conversion he did without permits five or six years earlier is blocking the sale of his house.

Sometimes, though, the situation is worse.

Storchheim recently listened to cries of “We didn’t know!” from an Irvine couple whose home was destroyed in a electrical fire that originated in unapproved, homeowner-installed garage wiring. The blaze was touched off by sparks caused when a metal staple fastening plastic-coated wiring to the garage ceiling wore through the insulation and touched the bare wire. A permit and inspection would have nixed both the stapling and the use of exposed plastic-coated wire, Storchheim said.

It is to avoid such catastrophes that the building code specifies that wiring in a garage must be inside metallic conduit unless installed behind wallboard or wood paneling of some kind to shield it from damage.

Fire prevention also is the reason that heavy-duty appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines and dishwashers cannot simply be plugged into ordinary household circuits rated for much lighter loads (the amperage rating is a measure of how much current the wire can handle before overheating). That’s usually not a problem in new construction but is often trouble in add-ons and renovations where the new wiring was tied into existing circuits, Storchheim said.

Homeowner conversion of upstairs lofts to walled-in offices and bedrooms is common in Irvine and other cities with newer homes.


“We see a lot of it here,” Storchheim said. “You need a permit if you create a habitable room. It’s that simple. It doesn’t matter if you are not doing any work that affects a load-bearing wall” that helps support the weight of the roof or second-story floor, he said. “There are requirements for natural light, electrical outlets and ventilation, and the permit ensures that those requirements are met.”


Permits are also needed for seemingly mundane things when they could affect the drinking water supply in a house. Technically, a new garbage disposal needs a permit, as does a replacement dishwasher. So does a new sink or toilet, and even a landscape irrigation system, if it is hooked up to the main household water supply--as most are.

“Only one in 10,000 people ever get them,” building inspector Korando said of the plumbing-related permits. And few cities will prosecute a permit violation for a sink replacement or new sprinkler system--even though failure to obtain a required permit is a misdemeanor in California.

“We go out of our way to work with homeowners” who are doing work themselves and can legitimately claim ignorance of the permit rules, Storchheim said. “But we do expect licensed contractors to know the law.”

The reason for permits for water-related items is that plumbing systems operate on a vacuum. Without proper valves and back-flow prevention devices, contaminated water--from toilets, garbage disposals, dishwashers and sprinkler lines--can be sucked into household drinking water.

Other building code violations that Storchheim and his inspectors regularly see--and that could have been prevented had the necessary permits and inspections been obtained--include re-roofing jobs done without permits; exposed electrical lines extended into the back yard for spas and hot tubs; satellite dish antennas that violate zoning or building codes, and room and deck additions that encroach into the rear- and side-yard setbacks: structure-free zones, usually five feet on the sides and 10 feet in the rear, required by all cities.



Then there are the things that don’t need permits but can still cause trouble, Korando said.

A big one is installing a pet door or flap in the solid core door between a house and its attached garage. Pet doors don’t need permits, but it is a violation of the fire safety code to cut a hole through a fire door--which is built of solid wood specifically so it will slow the spread of fire from the garage into the house. A thin pet door would allow flames to spread into the occupied structure unchecked, he said.

Permits also are not needed in most cities to build a planter as part of a landscaping design--but if the planter is built against the wall of a house (the builder’s or the neighbor’s)--it can cause substantial water damage unless the wall is properly waterproofed.

Walkways and patios don’t need permits either. But anything that changes the drainage of a yard needs to be checked to make sure it won’t cause flooding in the residence or soil erosion on adjacent slopes. In most new homes, Storchheim said, a patio will alter the grading.


The list goes on and on of things that need permits and things that don’t but that should be checked out with the building department just to make sure.

No license is needed to paint a house, for example, but it is illegal to dispose of paint and thinner in household trash or in a county landfill. Anything that is toxic--and that includes paint, motor oil and laundry bleach--must be taken to an approved hazardous and toxic waste disposal station.


Cities and trash collection companies can provide addresses and phone numbers for nearby disposal facilities.

Most cities also provide lists of the most common types of home improvements for which permits are needed, as well as minimum requirements for construction of items that don’t need permits but could cause problems if installed improperly.

“The best thing I can suggest,” Storchheim said, “is that not inquiring first is the biggest mistake you can make.”


About Permits

Building permit requirements in cities throughout Orange County are based on the standards set down in the Uniform Building Code. Some cities, however, have added their own modifications, so it pays to check with your community’s building and safety department for the final word on permit needs.

In some instances--such as a plumbing permit needed for replacing a garbage disposal--cities are rarely diligent in enforcement. But, as demand grows for full disclosure upon the sale of a house, there is increasing pressure on homeowners to get every permit required.

Here are common projects that typically require a permit:


* All new building construction.

* All roofed structures except playhouses of up to 120 square feet when in approved locations.


* All room additions to existing buildings.

* Relocating walls and room partitions.

* Converting attics and lofts to habitable space.

* Converting garage space to any use other than parking.

* Repairing or replacing building foundations.

* Use of attic areas for storage.

* Construction or modification of retaining walls.

* Replacing roofs, floors, posts, beams, joists or rafters.

* Replacing roof coverings.

* Most masonry work.

* Building fences over six feet in height.


* All permanent wiring.

* Replacement of built-in appliances such as recessed ceiling exhaust fans; rewiring of such appliances.

* Replacement of permanent wiring equipment such as circuit breaker panels and sub-panels.

* Installation of wiring to stationary appliances, such as air conditioners.


* New or replacement water heaters and water heater vents.

* New or replacement garbage disposal units.

* New or replacement water piping.

* New or replacement dishwashers.

* New or replacement plumbing fixtures (tubs, sinks, toilets, showers).

* Installation of outdoor irrigation systems that are hooked up to the household water supply.