APPROVALS + PERMITTING
In order to build any project, you’ll need approval from your local jurisdiction. This usually includes the planning, zoning, and building departments.
You should assume that at various points throughout the project, you and your team will interface with local building officials to ensure your project will be built in accordance with local laws. Depending on your location, approvals can take anywhere from a few hours to many months, even years. It’s best to understand your specific approvals process early so you and your team can plan the design and construction schedule accordingly.
The best way to prevent problems is to educate yourself on the approval process and if it seems too complicated or cumbersome for you, work with someone who is experienced and familiar with the process.
Let’s explore the approvals process for typical residential projects.
UNDERSTAND THE APPROVALS PROCESS
When you purchased land, part of your due diligence was confirming the property was zoned correctly for the size and type of house you want to build. Let’s assume there were no red flags when you confirmed the property description and zoning maps. If you have zoning issues to address like getting variances, you’re going to spend more “quality time” with your friends at the planning and zoning office. So plan according!
Regardless of when you actually start corresponding with the building and planning departments, the first step in the whole approval process is actually learning about the specific steps you and your project will need to go through to ultimately get a building permit.
Here’s 3 ways to start this process.
- Look online yourself: Find your building department’s website and look up the approvals process on there.
- Make a phone call: Call the building department and ask to speak to someone who can walk you through the process.
- Set up a meeting: Go to your building department and meet with someone in-person who can walk you through the process.
- Some building departments are set up as one-stop-shops where zoning, planning, building, fire, and other government departments responsible for building approvals are all in the same vicinity so you might get bounced around from one official to another to learn what might affect your review process.
If you’re in a well-regulated jurisdiction, it’s best to speak to someone in person so you make sure you’re getting the whole picture. If you simply try to look the information up online, you may miss something important. “You don’t know what you don’t know”.
Most people find this step to be the most frustrating of all the homebuilding phases. It’s understandable why people find the approval process confusing and unpredictable. The time frame for approvals is always an educated guess at best. And you don’t really know for sure how the planning or building official is going to interpret the code or your design in response to the code.
And then comes the fact that all projects are different. And with that, most projects’ approval processes are also different. Some require early jurisdictional review for things like variances. Others may be in historical districts or sensitive areas that require early and frequent reviews with planning committees. And yet others don’t have any of these issues and may only interface with the building department when submitting drawings for a final building permit.
Not only can the approvals process vary by project, it also may vary by location. Each municipality operates slightly differently so don’t be surprised if your jurisdiction has a different process than the one in the next town over.
Approvals and permits can be handled by you, an architect, or a contractor depending on what your specific needs are. If you’re in an area where building regulations are lax then you may be able to handle most of the paperwork and process yourself. But, in areas that have complicated approvals process, it’s best to work with an experienced architect who has been through the process before, has relationships with the building officials, and can help guide you through the process in the fastest and most cost-effective way.
A Word About Special Permits & Approvals
Your jurisdiction may require special permits or approvals for other specific issues. You may encounter restrictions with septic systems, wells, and grading/erosion control to name a few. Some restrictions may govern the size of your house, the type of equipment or system used in your house, or the site work involved – all of which have a financial implication and can impact the scheduling of permits and construction sequence in general. Exploring these issues early can save you time and money. Find out about these issues before starting the design process so you can plan accordingly.
ZONING & PLANNING APPROVAL
Once you understand the process, you’ll have a better idea of what approvals you need and by whom. The first approvals your project most likely needs are zoning and planning approval.
The zoning and planning departments check for overall conformance to local zoning ordinances and any other local planning laws. This approval usually occurs early on in design process – usually after schematic design phase if you’re working with an architect or designer. In rural areas, you may not need early approval by these departments. Some of these jurisdictions handle zoning, planning, and building approval all at the same time when you submit for a building permit. If you happen to be in one of these lucky areas, you shouldn’t have too many headaches with this whole process.
If you’re renovating the interior of your house, you’ll most likely not have any zoning or planning approvals to deal with. Check with the building department to be sure. If all is well, then you can jump down to the section on building approval.
Here’s more on each department:
If you have issues with zoning requirements like setbacks, height limitations, floor area ratios, etc you’ll want to check in with the zoning official.
- Optimal time to start engaging: Talk to an official as early as possible, even as you’re looking to acquire a lot. The zoning official with help confirm floor area ratios and setbacks which could affect what you want to build and the size you can build based on the zoning ordinances.
- If you work with an architect, performing a zoning analysis will be one of the first tasks he or she does. The architect will need to know what’s possible and not possible on your property before starting the design process.
If you’re in specific planned districts, historical districts, or are governed by other specific restrictions you’ll want to speak with planning officials. They will be able to tell you exactly what planning commissions and agencies will be reviewing your project for conformance with their regulations.
It’s always a good thing to visit those planning commissioners to learn exactly what they require of your house. If a visit isn’t opportune, you can probably find the information published online or call them directly. To find out if you may be affected by any special planning regulations, you can find this information out in zoning maps published online or by calling your zoning official.
- Optimal time to start engaging: If you discovered that you’ll need specific planning approval, you should also learn the kind of requirements your house must meet. For complicated requirements and those that may have confusing interpretations, meeting with the planning department early in the design process is always a good thing, specifically after you’ve made some design decisions and have schematic drawings to review with the official.
- Optimal time to submit drawings for approval: There may be multiple planning commissions and agencies reviewing your drawings – from historical districts to environmental groups. Be sure to understand each of the agency’s review process in terms of drawing submittal requirements, what their review schedule is like, and how long their approvals take.
- Approval timelines: Some approval processes can be done on the same day over-the-counter. Others may take 30 days or require a design review meeting that occurs monthly. And others have even more extensive review periods that could last many months. Plan ahead for the planning approvals and submit design drawings early. You can always continue working on other parts of the design while the planning department is doing their review for parts of your design not affected by any planning approval, like the interiors and building systems.
BUILDING APPROVAL + PERMIT
In general, regardless of your location, all building projects are subject to building approval. Rural and city projects alike must meet minimum national building codes. Depending on your location, however, you might also need to meet more stringent state and local codes.
In any case, the building department reviews your drawings for conformance to local building codes. When your drawings are approved, a building permit is issued signifying construction can begin. But, because what appears on paper may not actually be what gets built, the building department sends out inspectors at various points during construction to confirm that the house is getting built according to the codes.
- Optimal time to start engaging: If there are tricky or complicated circumstances about your project, then it never hurts to meet with a building official during the design process. It’s no joke: building codes are confusing. Getting an official to interpret a confusing code or offer suggestions for how to meet certain requirements can go a long way. It also gives you a chance to get to know the official and form a relationship so that when you bring drawings in for approval later, they remember you and your project and might make the process go more smoothly.
- Optimal time to submit drawings: When the design drawings are complete enough to show compliance with applicable building codes for health, safety, and welfare of the occupants, you can submit drawings for review. Typically this occurs when construction drawings are roughly 75-90% complete which is when the building design is set and all major building elements are defined. After the permit drawings are submitted, the design team can continue working on the last remaining items such as aesthetic details, product selections, paint schedules, and smaller design drawings that aren’t affected by a code review. The intent is to submit the permit drawings before 100% completion so that any comments from the building official can be responded to and incorporated into the final construction drawing set and be ready for construction soon after.
- Many building departments offer preliminary review processes where the officials will look at your drawings before you submit them for permitting. They’ll let you know if they notice anything questionable so you can fix it before submitting. This ensures that the formal review process is fast and easy.
- Approval timelines: The timeline for building approval varies by location and project complexity. In some parts of the country, approvals are quick, like 2 weeks. In other areas, the turnaround can take many months. For smaller interior renovation projects it’s usually quicker than bigger projects like additions and new builds. To be safe, expect no less than a 30-day turnaround for approvals, but check with your building official to see if that estimation is way off for your jurisdiction.
A note on timing the building approval process with construction loan financing:
If you need construction financing and want to stay ahead of the game, you can work on starting the loan approval process while you’re waiting for your permit drawings to be approved. Coordinate with your lender on the exact timing, but if you get the paperwork together during this “waiting” time period, you’ll feel less rushed than if you did it later. During this month-long wait, you can work on your loan application, the appraisal, credit score check, underwriters work, etc so that when the building permit is issued, you can quickly send a copy to the loan officer and complete the loan process quicker. This will reduce the downtime between the design and construction processes and let you begin construction sooner.
ACTION ITEMS FOR THIS SECTION
- Review the approvals process for your specific project.
- Submit the necessary drawings and information to the various governmental departments for approval at the appropriate time. (If you’re using an architect, he or she will assist you in doing this.)
- Pay application or permit fees as required by your local building department and get building permit.
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- Sample Script for Conversation With Zoning Official
Over To You…
While you (or your design team) submit permit drawings to the local government, you can also start to get your financing together. If you’re using a lender, they’ll want to see your building permit so these two processes of getting governmental approval and getting lender financing go hand in hand.
You should already have a good idea of how you are financing your project by now, but the next section will go into more detail on the financing process and the options available to you.