Poll a group of contractors on how they'd improve their local building department, and you'll get no shortage of ideas and complaints. Building departments are understaffed and reviewers overworked, they say, or certain reviewers aren't properly motivated or are out to get them. Or the prices don't make sense. Or the time it takes to get permits is too unpredictable. Many of these are legitimate grievances, but they're factors that are out of the remodeler's immediate control.
Of course, permitting is a bigger problem in certain areas than in others. Many remodelers report the whole process for a major remodel taking two weeks at most, while others tell tales of building departments so backed up that getting their permits within three months is cause for celebration. Additionally, certain municipalities have taken steps to make the process easier on contractors, including the processing of certain applications online (for more information about this and the possible future of permitting, go to www.remodelingmag.com/webxtras).
Most remodelers, however, are stuck — at least for the time being — in a world where permitting is an imperfect process. Some choose to offload the responsibility on the homeowner, preparing the documents but leaving it to clients to submit the application. Some homeowners even suggest this solution themselves, figuring it will save them money since they won't have to pay for the remodeler's time waiting in line at the building department. Most remodelers don't recommend this, however, noting that homeowners' unfamiliarity with the process can be counterproductive. Other remodelers hire permit runners. They have the advantage of knowing the process inside and out, but may not be worth the additional cost for some remodelers.
The good news, however, is that there are steps you can take to keep the permitting process as painless as possible.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK “The builders who consistently walk out of our office with a permit on the first try are the most knowledgeable,” says Dan Dziadosz, a building inspector in Rib Mountain, Wis. “They call in advance and ask what kind of information we are looking for.” It sounds too good to be true, but the solution to your permitting woes may be as simple as picking up the phone, calling the building department, describing your project, finding out what the backlog on permit applications is, and asking what documents are needed in order to issue a permit. In some cases, even the phone call is unnecessary; increasingly, the information you need may be available on the municipality's Web site.
“Being prepared saves me time and aggravation,” says Tammy Carp, production manager at Marlton, N.J.-based Nuss Construction. But the benefits extend beyond that: “My company is paying me to drive there and drive back,” she says, noting that multiple trips between the office and the building department costs the company.
Carp also makes a point of filling out all the paperwork prior to leaving her office, rather than doing some of it at the counter. Not only does this make it more likely that she has everything she needs, it is a great help if the reviewer calls her with questions. “I have copies of everything,” she says. “If anything does get shot back to me, I have it in front of me when I'm on the phone with them.”
PLAN YOUR ATTACK Familiarity with the ins and outs of various building departments is such an important part of this process that many remodelers — such as Nuss Construction — put one person in charge of securing permits for all their projects. If that's not feasible for you, consider taking a lesson from Fannin Remodeling Co., in Toledo, Ohio, where, according to production manager Brad Geer, different employees are assigned to different municipalities. Geer handles city permits, while his two “right-hand men” each handle one of the company's most-used county offices. “Knowing the little quirks that each examiner likes to see makes the project slide through without a glitch,” he says.
Some companies take a really scientific approach to permitting, similar to methods remodelers use for lead tracking. “We think about what day and time we're most likely to have success,” says Bill Millholland, senior vice president of the design/build and kitchen and bath divisions at Case Design/Remodel, in Bethesda, Md. “You don't want to be down there late in the week,” he continues, adding that “the guys at the counter ... start to cruise at certain times.”
“Who” is even more important than “when” at Case. “Some reviewers will page through [an application],” Millholland says, while “others will just grab it and throw it on a pile.” Millholland says the former is more likely to provide the kind of open communication and feedback the company is looking for to ensure a smooth permit process. “There are days we go to the permit office, and the wrong guy is there,” he says. In that case, “we'll turn around and leave.”