BUILDING PERMITS AND INSPECTIONS by Mercedes Hayes
Probably the most intimidating part
of building your own house is the permit process. Not only do the
the requirements vary from township to township, but at times the
decisions made seem so subjective that we find ourselves seething in
frustration. However, permits and inspections are a necessary step,
and they are in place predominately for your protection. Ask any
earthquake victim in Iran. Because I am concerned here with new
construction, I won't go into the permits required for renovation;
that's another story.
In a new development, the buyer usually doesn't have to think about
permits; the builder takes care of all the details. With independent
projects, you may end up engaging a contractor who hires all the
sub-contractors and takes care of the permits. This makes life
infinitely easier for the buyer, but you'll pay for that
convenience. In rural areas, because township officials are usually
volunteers, they tend to work only one or two hours a week, and
often after five o'clock. If you miss their time, you'll probably
have to wait another week. This could run your builder ragged and
cause unwelcome delays.
If you decide to get the permits yourself, the first thing you want
to do is go to the township office and acquire their Code
Requirements for Single Family Dwellings, and also their Building
Permit Requirement Checklist (or whatever they call these
documents). The Code Requirements will cover everything from smoke
detectors to egress windows, from stair requirements to insulation,
from foundations to chimneys and anything in between. It wouldn't
hurt to send a copy to your log home manufacturer, just in case. The
Building Permit checklist, though more simply worded, will be the
most important document to familiarize yourself with. If even one of
these items are unchecked, you won't get that permit that day!
Once you start the process, you come to realize that the
Construction Permit is the most important, the most sought-after,
the most critical objective in your immediate scope. Without it, you
cannot even break ground. Since everything ties together, the
township wants to make sure you have your "ducks in a row" before
they "permit" you to start. There will usually be a one-year time
limit to the permit, or a six-month time limit if construction is
stopped in the middle. You should budget about $1500-$2000 for your
average building permit, unless there unusual circumstances attached
to your project (wetlands delineation, variances, etc.).
Because every township is different, I'll limit myself to my own
building project, which took place in rural NJ. We chose to sign up
as Homeowner Builder, which the owners can opt to do if they are
going to live in their own house. We were technically responsible
for getting the permits and the subs (although we hired a contractor
who hired most of the subs for us). This meant that we had to climb
a steep learning curve to understand all the components of the
Here is what we had to acquire to qualify for the building permit:
TAX CERTIFICATION: This document came from the township, and
verified that not only did we own this piece of land, we were up to
date with our property tax payments.
TWO SETS OF SEALED BUILDING PLANS: We learned very quickly how
important this was. What they wanted was an Architect's or Building
Engineer's stamp on the plans that came from the log home
manufacturer. Do not assume that the plans will come pre-stamped.
Not all manufacturers have the ability to apply a seal from every
state. Our plans were not sealed, and we had to scramble around and
find someone willing to stamp someone else's plans. This is not an
easy task, because most architects do not want to take on that
responsibility. This snag set our project back two months.
Included in the building plan will probably be a separate foundation
plan, since most log homes do not provide a foundation as part of
the building. If there is a separate foundation plan, it too will
need to be stamped by a qualified engineer or architect.
SIGNED, SEALED ELECTRIC PERMIT APPLICATION: Don't expect the log
home manufacturer to provide electrical drawings. Once you hire an
electrician, you'll have to sit down with him and determine where
you are putting your outlets, light switches and fixtures. Local
code will determine how close together your outlets will go. Do
yourself a favor and put in many more outlets than you think you
will need; retrofitting could be unsightly. Also, plan on twice as
many light fixtures than a standard home – wood sucks up light like
a sponge. While you are at it, it helps to include your cable wires,
phone wires and CAT5 in every room, even though you may not think
you'll need it. Once you move into the house, you may change a
room's usage from your original conception – we did, and regretted
SIGNED, SEALED PLUMBING PERMIT APPLICATION: This is another set of
drawings that will not come from the log home manufacturer. You and
the plumber must figure out where the fixtures are going, and if you
live in the country remember that the plumbing needs to hook into
your septic. (This permit is separate from the septic design
APPROVED COUNTY SEPTIC DESIGN: The septic design came from the local
civil engineer. The permit application came from the township, but
the septic approval came from the county.
HVAC DIAGRAM showing where your ductwork is going.
DRIVEWAY PERMIT: In our case, this came from the Director of Public
Works. We had to make provision for a pipe to be installed beneath a
24' paved apron at the end of the driveway. This allowed the water
runoff unimpeded access to the stream down the block.
STATE WELL PERMIT and TOWNSHIP WELL PERMIT if you are digging your
own well. If there is a drought going on, they might put a hold on
new well permits, which will put a hold on the whole project. So get
it as quickly as possible.
PLOT PLAN AND ZONING APPROVAL: the Plot Plan will come from the
local civil engineer. This is not the same as a survey, which will
be required by the mortgage company. The plot plan shows the
location of the house, driveway, well and septic as well as the
perimeter of the building envelope.
WATER TABLE INVESTIGATION REPORT: this will help you determine
whether you can dig a basement, or do you need to raise the house
These are the big ones. You might have local wetland delineation
issues, easements, or setbacks to worry about. Once you get that
Construction Permit, treat yourself to a celebratory dinner. You'll
have earned it!
The Construction Permit needs to be prominently displayed on the job
site. You also need to keep one of those sealed sets of building
plans on site at all times, just in case you get a surprise visit
from an inspector. Hopefully by now you will have made friends with
the township inspector, because he's going to have a big say in the
ease or difficulty of your project. The inspections are all spelled
out and will be required at each step in the process before you can
move on. This could cause a delay of one to several days (not
counting bad weather), so think ahead – but not too far ahead. The
first inspection will come pretty quick. When your excavator digs
the hole for your foundation, the township may inspect the bottom of
the footing trenches before placement of footings. If you are using
a Superior Walls precast foundation system, there will be no
footings so this inspection will be unnecessary. However, the
footings for your deck and porches will need to be inspected.
There will be a foundation inspection before the backfill is
shoveled in. The big inspection will be the framing inspection. This
must be done before the insulation is added. Then, there will be an
inspection for the plumbing, the electrical panel and wiring, the
septic or sewer service, then insulation. At the end of the project,
there will be a final inspection before issuance of a Certificate of
Occupancy; the inspector will look at the finishing work, the smoke
detectors, fixtures, etc. There may be other inspections in between,
depending on the township.
Unless you are acting as your own general contractor, inspections
should not concern you, except that if something fails the whole
project grinds to a halt. If you are the Homeowner Builder, you will
probably be arranging the inspections yourself, and it helps to know
what the township is looking for.
About the Author
Mercedes Hayes is a Hiawatha Log Home
dealer and also a Realtor in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. She
designed her own log home which was featured in the 2004 Floor Plan
Guide of Log Home Living magazine. You can learn more about log
homes by visiting www.JerseyLogHomes.com.