BUILDING PERMITS AND INSPECTIONS
by Mercedes Hayes, Jersey Log Homes
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 project.
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 our shortsightedness.
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 permit)
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 up?
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 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.
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