First Step: Get a Permit

Here's your guide to getting a building permit from your municipality before starting construction work on your home.

By Bob Vila | Updated Jun 17, 2019 2:33 PM

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Building Permits

Photo: Flickr

Building application and approval processes vary from town to town and district to district, but most municipalities will review plans and approve them directly through the building or planning office. Some will let you pay the fee and walk away with the permit to post in your window.

Other municipalities will require an appearance before the zoning or planning board prior to issuing approval. How closely they monitor your project and how difficult your permit is to obtain depend on a number of factors, primarily the size of the addition, whether it can be seen from the exterior, the degree to which it impacts the building footprint, and where your house is located.

In San Antonio, TX, a standard building permit for additions under 1,000 square feet that are a single story tall can be obtained immediately. “For a residential room addition of less than 1,000 square feet, all we need is a site plan showing the dimensions and setbacks,” says Jacob Sanchez of the San Antonio Building Department. Any addition that is more than 1,000 square feet or is two stories tall or more requires a plan review. “The review takes anywhere from 10 to 15 days,” Sanchez says. For an additional fee, homeowners can put a rush on their review, cutting the wait time to about five days.

Building Permits in Historic Districts
For buildings located in an historic district — be it Texas or Massachusetts — the process is much more involved. Many homeowners would say that the hardest part about renovating a historic structure is obtaining the permit. Each historic district has its own guidelines and process for reviewing designs and approving permits. For some, approval centers on creating an addition that is seamless, blends with the original structure, and is constructed of like materials. In Rowley, MA, David Masher had to show how the design and materials used would blend with the original facade of his 1890 Victorian home. Masher had reviewed the Historic District Commission (HDC) document that outlines acceptable and unacceptable practices and materials prior to his appearance before the commission. “We told them we were in complete compliance with their document. If anything, we’re bringing the house back to its original condition,” he says.

Masher’s addition is visible from the street, which triggers an automatic review and approval signoff from the Rowley Historic District Commission. Masher, who had been through prior approvals, knew to be prepared. “You have to know when they meet and be prepared,” he says. “I came with a full set of plans with four views. I left the plans and a request for review three weeks before the meeting,” he says. That gave the board time to review the plans and prepare questions for the presentation. With the signoff from the District Commission and approval from the Conservation Commission that oversees the wetlands that abut his property, Masher was on his way to obtaining all signoffs for the permit.

In San Antonio, all additions to historic properties are reviewed by the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC). “Certainly, they will review a visible addition with greater scrutiny than one that is in the back and concealed from the front,” says Brian Chandler, senior planner with the City of San Antonio Historic Preservation Office. All applications for additions require a complete set of plans with floorplans, elevations, a site plan, and relevant photos of the property. “The HDRC will look at the following factors: scale and massing in relation to the existing structure and for the district overall, and materials,” according to Chandler. The goal is to blend the addition into the existing structure while maintaining the integrity of the neighborhood around it.

Purpose of Permits
In all cases, the intention is the same — the goal of the permitting process is to ensure that safe, appropriate, and historically sensitive additions are made to local buildings. Masher has been through the process repeatedly and understands the goals of his local HDC. “The point is to keep the character of our historic district,” he says, and to ensure that existing architecture is cared for and improved whenever possible. Chandler adds that new additions and structures must fit within the context of the existing built landscape and demonstrate a certain “compatibility with the existing historic and architectural integrity of a district.”

Unlike the Rowley HDC, the HDRC of San Antonio does review the specific materials used for any addition to a structure within the historic district. The purpose is to ascertain that the materials selected will complement the existing building while remaining distinct from the original structure. “They encourage compatibility of design and materials without replicating,” Chandler says. Not all preservation codes want a seamless addition; some, like San Antonio, want the building to read as a history that includes transitions and adaptations. These changes can then be read by later historians who review the building for adaptations and authenticity.

Signoff Schedule
Every municipality has its own order of approvals to follow to obtain a building permit. They can be mundane — such as proving that taxes are up to date — or they can be a challenge. For Masher, the HDC approval was just one of many signoffs required for his permit. He had to have proof that his water, sewer, gas, electric, and tax payments were current, as well as approvals from the Historic District and Conservation Commissions.

In San Antonio, additional approvals may stem from the initial presentation to the Historic and Design Review Commission. “About four cases out of an average of 25 to 30 cases on an agenda will be sent to one of five different HDRC committees (sign, architecture, demolition, Riverwalk, and public art) for further review,” Chandler says. The commission may even require an on-site visit and interview with the applicant before a return appearance at the next meeting.