CFAH

A plugged-in reader’s story and perspective on unpermitted work:

Well, I’m neither a buyer, seller, planner, architect, nor nimby, and have never filed a [Discretionary Review]. I’ve lived in my home for 30 years and have always followed the rule that my neighbor’s home is his business. But, that was not prudent as I discovered over the past several years with regards to my next door neighbor.

The first two owners, for the last 20 plus years lived in the home. The last, rented it out, but not before putting in an illegal unit downstairs. We later found out that his permit only covered “new windows.” But, instead, he put in a kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom in the former basement of a single family home with the new unit having 6 foot ceilings, a couple of windows, and no vents for the illegal heater, stove, etc.

How did I know about that? Well, the last group of tenants in the main upstairs home, subleased that space to a couple of Hells Angels who ran a repair shop for stolen motorcycles in part of the garage space. They were arrested when an alert cop saw one of the stolen bikes in the driveway. Then, an alert permit officer at the local police station and some concerned neighbors, called the city planning department which sent an inspector and made the owner pay fines and pull out all the dangerous and illegal plumbing and electrical.

Now, the R-1 home is truly R-1, and the owner, has only been able to sporadically rent the property to other tenants over the past several years. As one contractor told me, after I pointed out that kids were living in the unsafe illegal unit, “I’m surprised no one died in this place”.

Now, not all work without permits is dangerous but all is illegal. I’m sorry that it’s a hassle to obey the law. Yeah, I like doing 90 on I-5 to L.A. too. But, if I get ticket, I don’t tell the cop that it’s inconvenient and a hassle to do 70.

And one more note, what happens if there was a fire and someone was hurt or killed? Do you think the homeowner’s insurance company, looking for anyway to diminish or eliminate its liability, would cite the lack of permits as a mitigating factor?

As always, food for thought and room for discussion and debate. Permitted room, of course…

More Than Meets The Eye Permits At 674 15th Avenue [SocketSite]
An Architect’s Nightmare And Discretionary Review Irony [SocketSite]

Comments from Plugged-In Readers

  1. Posted by noearch

    One of the best commentaries yet about “illegal and unpermitted” work. Thank you for posting.
    I have essentially been saying the same thing over and over again here on SS. Glad to see this getting more attention. Again, you can NOT do whatever you want in your own home when it comes to construction, remodeling and changing structure or occupancy.
    There are reasons our building and planning codes exist in the first place: To protect the public from unsafe construction, and secondly, to allow for EVERYONE’s right to light, air and open space.
    Yes, it can be a “hassle” to secure a permit, but not impossible. But citing “hassle” to oneself is no excuse, as the author above notes, for not getting permits and building safely and according to the law.
    Great post and thanks again.

  2. Posted by Bb

    I am adding laundry to my condo unit. The entire job will cost me about 1k. The process of getting permits, inspections, approval etc will cost about three times that.
    i will not be getting a permit.

  3. Posted by R

    @Bb: No it won’t. Maybe you should look into it a bit more.

  4. Posted by noearch

    Sadly, Bb, there are many others just like you who choose to do illegal work. I understand your concerns about the permit issues and costs. Not knowing what you really mean when you say “adding laundry” to your condo unit, I would question that the permits will, in fact, REALLY cost 3 times as much as the work.
    Are you doing construction? Are you adding the right electrical? Are you venting and draining this laundry safely and properly? Will your (unpermitted) work affect other condo owners in your building? What about their concerns and safety?
    Thanks for your honesty, but you are approaching this in a very selfish way. Good luck.

  5. Posted by noearch

    @R: I agree with you. Perhaps Bb is adding a bit of hyperbole and drama to this whole thing. Who knows?
    But I would solidly bet there is NO way the permits and inspections are going to cost $3k.
    More importantly he should be concerned that his condo homeowner association may not like him doing work without a permit one bit. Take heed.

  6. Posted by Not Bashing

    Can’t argue with the poster or with noearch on this kind of situation – this is the reason cities have a permit process. In this situation, the owner’s probably were not going to comply with a permit process of any kind, as they were doing completely unreasonable work (6 foot ceilings? Really?) and they clearly didn’t care about even their own property, much less the neighbors. Renting to Hell’s Angels to work on bikes – stolen or not – definitely shows a lack of judgement and regard for everyone, including their own long term interests.
    The problem in San Francisco is that we passed “protecting the public interest” long ago, veering into “everyone can (and will) object to every little inconvenience as though it is the end of the world”.
    My main point is this: as long as we allow the DR process to “work” the way it currently does, many people will choose to do projects without permits. For good, logical reasons. It should not take more than a year to get a permit. As a matter of fact, more than a few months is completely unreasonable. A DR hearing should not be required every single time a neighbor complains about a project – this should be reserved for situations in which the planning department sees a good reason for further exploration of the project and it’s impact. Why send so many projects to the planning commission with a “planner recommends that the project be approved in it’s current form” rider?
    Most people who choose to do work without permits would not make that choice, given a reasonable process that does not hold the promise of economic ruin and a year or more of fighting with every nutjob neighbor and activist that comes out of the woodwork. We definitely protect neighbor’s rights, where is the protection for reasonable people trying to do reasonable work on their own property?

  7. Posted by Brahma (incensed renter)

    Great post.
    A guy in my office was complaining several months ago about “the cost” of adding a partial deck to the area outside of his kitchen. This was on the second floor of a residence and he was doing the work himself, not that he had the slightest bit of training in light construction. He justified not getting a permit because getting one “would cost more than the materials”. Well, duh, you can’t do anything for less than the cost of a few beams, decking and 2x4s.
    My point is that you’ll never be able to convince self-justifying egocentric, narcissists like “Not Bashing”, in the previous thread, that any constraints on their ability to act as the Nietzschean Übermensch they believe themselves to be is valid, though I applaud noearch for attempting to reason with him.
    It doesn’t have anything to do with the ease with which a concerned neighbor can file for a DR, if it wasn’t that, they’d complain about something else, like the cost, as “Bb” does above. If the cost were lower, they’d complain about having to pay it at all. Then they’d complain about having to wait on an inspector for sign-offs. Later, rise, repeat.
    The solution is to pass a municipal rule that requires sellers of property that have unpermitted work to, during escrow, pay out of the funds they’ve taken from the sale to bring all work up to code by a licensed contractor before any commissions go to any agents or proceeds to the seller. That would provide the necessary economic incentive to bring all this illegal work to an end, or at least reduce it substantially.

  8. Posted by noearch

    Excellent comments Brahma:
    I was about to try reasoning (somewhat) with not bashing, or others here, but I don’t think it would work.
    Non bashing basically made very broad generalizations about the DR process and permits in general. His comments are generally not true, and full of drama:
    Some permits do take a year. That’s reasonable for a major addition or complete tear down of a house. Saying “more than a few months is unreasonable” is simply throwing out words, and bears little connection to the actual type of construction involved. I have secured many permits “over the counter” for work I have designed, with thorough drawings and information. It is possible.
    The DR process, although cumbersome and complex, is designed to protect EACH of our properties and open space from overzealous and uninformed neighbors who may decide to “do whatever the hell they want”.
    I do like your last proposal about requiring sellers to pay for illegal and unpermitted work before reaping profits. Good idea.
    I would also like to see realtors (agents) become more responsible for advertising and promoting properties that are clearly NOT as they define them. A defined “bedroom” in one recent realtor website shows a bedroom with a window opening to a crawl space. Blatantly illegal and the realtor should not be allowed to advertise it as a bedroom.
    If I stated something in a contract, or on a drawing or specs that was “illegal” I could lose my license.

  9. Posted by Lori

    Bb, if you’re using a contractor to secure the permits and you’re being quoted 3x the price of your actual project, you’re getting ripped off. By probably a lazy contractor who won’t be doing the job correctly and up to code in the first place.

  10. Posted by no permit

    So, this brings up a question — what about the THOUSANDS of illegal units that exist in this city? Everyone knows about them, and for the most part people look the other way.
    Yet, if you try to legalize one of these units, for the most part you lose — even if it is perfectly safe and habitable.
    So, for a city that is always crying about lack of affordable housing, isn’t it time to put a process in place to legalize all these places where people are living anyway?
    Either that or actually enforce the law and remove them all.

  11. Posted by Jimmy (No Longer Bitter)

    Just remove them all. Most owners would probably be glad to get rid of those old rent-controlled tenants anyhow. This would be a net positive for the city by getting more poor people out.

  12. Posted by no permit

    Actually, I believe if you have a tenant in a rent-controlled illegal unit, it is one of the few easy ways to get rid of the tenant in this city. If the unit is illegal, it must be removed, and therefore the tenancy ends. As far as I know the owner doesn’t owe the tenant anything further.
    Of course, I’m sure each case is unique and I can think of many scenarios where the owner may be on the hook for something, but mostly what I’m thinking of here is a situation where a new owner buys a property, and if they want to get rid of the unit they should do it right away. I think that works.
    SS readers?

  13. Posted by GarrettinSF

    We just completed a major kitchen remodel (wall removal, walls down to studs, etc.). The cost for the permits was nominal – $1,500 on a $35K project. The only issue complaint I have was the need to pay for the parking permit outside (the city never came to hang the “no parking” signs). The permit process was simple for an interior remodel. Note, getting permits means you will need construction drawings. These cost less than $1500 for ours. I personally would never undertake a major reno without drawing regardless of the permit process. How else will you ensure the GC will build what you want them to?
    Prior to this, I have done a several other renovation on other homes and they have all been equally as easy and cheap.
    I would never trust a contractor who didn’t want to go the permit route.

  14. Posted by Not Bashing

    Brahma said:
    “My point is that you’ll never be able to convince self-justifying egocentric, narcissists like “Not Bashing”, in the previous thread, that any constraints on their ability to act as the Nietzschean Übermensch they believe themselves to be is valid, though I applaud noearch for attempting to reason with him.”
    Wow, Brahma. Nice job, making a simple debate into a personal attack. Clearly, you are easily incensed.
    My comments about the DR process are 100% accurate and factual. There is no gatekeeper. This is absolutely true, I don’t understand how you can possibly not be aware of it. The DR process and the permitting process in general in San Francisco is a train wreck. Why is this inspiring such scorn and the need to demonize me for saying as much?

  15. Posted by Brahma (incensed renter)

    One reason among many that the egocentric, Objectivist paradigm adopted by folks who think like “Not Bashing” makes me angry is that it frames the conflict solely between the property owner who wants to make a change to “their own property” and nosy neighbors who are intervening in the property owner’s manifesting his will to power. Those aren’t the only two parties involved, however, that’s why I think it’s petty narcissism.
    At some point, the property owner doing the unpermitted work is going to sell the property, and the buyer either has to detect the unpermitted work and correct it (there are a lot of cases where in an SFH this is actually tricky and for a new homebuyer that doesn’t have a residential construction background; then the burden becomes getting a thorough home inspection before the close) or just suffer with it or go on living there without knowing that his or her safety is in question.
    We have the permit process and building codes to protect the people who are the owners or occupiers of the property after the current owner is no longer the owner, as well. If an addition, such as the second floor deck example I mentioned earlier, fails after the person doing the unpermitted work is long gone, dropping a party full of guests on top of a few people on the first floor, there’s nobody around to sue, and even if there were, the statute of limitations probably has run out (I’m not an attorney). Is te homeowner’s insurance going to cover the liability for unpermitted work?
    The only way we have to make sure that the addition was done correctly and provide some modicum of assurance that a minimum level of safety will be supported is to require permits and inspections.

  16. Posted by Willow

    I replaced a garage door on a rental property 3 years ago and needed a permit. To replace the garage door (materials and labor) it cost $1200. The permit was more than $700. Completely insane so I sympathize with Bb…

  17. Posted by Not Bashing

    @Brahma
    Who said anything about not requiring permits and inspections? All I am saying is make the process reasonable and provide some protection for the applicants, not just the naysayers. And that yes, of course people are going to go around these requirements as long as they remain so unreasonable. Why is this so horrible?

  18. Posted by GarrettinSF

    Bb — be sure to review the CC&Rs for your condo association. Most have a clause which states you must get the required permits for construction.

  19. Posted by unwarrantedinlaw

    If the permitting process were all about safety, that would be great, but it’s not. It is about taxing for support of well-fed government employees.
    Some people believe in obeying government regulation no matter the purpose. [Removed by Editor]

  20. Posted by noearch

    @ not bashing:
    Many of your comments about the DR process are simply not true. They are false. I agree they may be cumbersome and complex, but there are “gatekeepers” at the Planning Dept. who determine in a verbal interview if the DR filer has a legitimate complaint. That person is REQUIRED to fill out a lengthy form,about 12 pages, answering in detail about the proposed project. Not EVERY person requesting a DR gets filed. Let’s be clear on that.
    There is “promise of economic ruin”. Saying that is pure drama and of no use.
    And: when a “reasonable person wants to do reasonable work” on their property, here’s what they are REQUIRED to do:
    GET A PERMIT.

  21. Posted by PN

    @ Not Bashing –
    Since you’re clearly so schooled in the way of the SF DR process, would you please explain the DR reform that’s been working its way through the Planning Department for the past 3-4 years? How will the changes make things better/worse? What experience have you had with the SF Planning Dept that reinforces your expertise/experience.
    I ask as a SF homeowner who went through the DR process three years ago. Also received all permits required for a major renovation. No big deal.

  22. Posted by OneEyedMan

    As a Board member of our condo’s HOA I certainly hope Bb is not being sincere in his adding a laundry unit w/o benefit of permit. One of our biggest recurring problems in our building is leaks from laundry rooms (all original and fully code compliant) and the associated insurance and mold issues with common areas and adjacent affected units. If I were Bb neighbor and witnessed what was happening I would certainly report anonymosly to the Board. If there is any type of work that is really in need of permitting I would put plumbing right near the top of the list.
    The garage door replacement permit is another thing. Replacing like for like should not require a permit.

  23. Posted by geekgrrl

    My husband and I did an interior renovation prior to moving in, all with over-the-counter permits thanks to our architect. He knew exactly what to do and who to talk to at the permit office and took care of everything, totally worth his hourly rate. We were also perfectly willing to NOT do something if it meant a variance or non-standard permit, not worth the extra cost.
    In terms of work without permits, the problem is once you go down that path you can get stuck. Our next door neighbors have an elaborate, unpermitted backyard deck built by the previous owners that can never be legitimized, it will never meet existing fire codes. Since they feared having to tear it down should they get permits for any other work, they have done interior renovations without permits and it has been a nightmare for them. The first contractor/workers did things incorrectly so they had to tear it up and start over with a different contractor. It’s taken nearly 3X as long and more expensive than if they had gone the fully permitted route. We always warned them when we would have inspectors coming by so they could keep their work under wraps but another neighbor filed a complaint so they ended up getting a permit for something minor and having it done to keep the inspectors from looking around the house at other work.
    Now to add insult to injury, they’re looking at redoing the backyard deck because of issues with their homeowner’s insurance due to it not meeting fire codes. They have said several times that they wish they could start over, tear out the back deck and do everything with permits.

  24. Posted by around1905

    There are occasionally good reasons to skip the permit/inspection. Lets say you find yourself owning an old house and are trying to quietly bring it up to code. Once a city inspector gets inside, you might be required to deal with everything at once, rather than at the pace you can afford. Of course, you have to know what the code is, to ensure that your tradespeople do compliant work….

  25. Posted by noearch

    @ GarrettinSF:
    Excellent comments. Thanks for posting. You pointed out that:
    1. Permits are not prohibitively expensive.
    2. The permit process can be relatively simple.
    3. The importance of drawings, including for a kitchen remodel. They define the Scope of Work in clear, detailed terms. They define what YOU as the homeowner want to get built. They define the quality and assembly. They make sure that the contractor is building what you pay for.
    4. You point out the importance of working with a contractor (always licensed) who requires a building permit for the subject work.
    As for the street space permit (for your contractor), typically you or the contractor picks up those signs at the building dept. They write in the hours and dates of use, and then you or the contractor posts the signs at the curb. The city should have told you that during the permit pickup.

  26. Posted by Not Bashing

    @ Noearch – which comments are not true? Besides your argument that you do not get a hearing if you take the 10-15 minutes required to fill out the DR form? I can assure you, anyone who wants a hearing gets one. It’s a very simple matter, and not expensive.
    As for pure drama, that is Brahma’s schitck, not mine. This is about reality and the reality is the following:
    People know they risk a lot of money and time by permitting a project. Therefore, they oftentimes choose not to.
    So, until we overhaul the DR process, many people will try to to get away with no permits or a few small permits to do a much larger job. Which I agree, is not ideal. It is not a good thing, for the city as a whole or for future property owners. But these people are not “losers and cheats”. They are rational people making a rational decision in the face of an irrational process. As long as the system exists in it’s current form, it will continue to encourage people who would otherwise just get the permit to go around the rules, just as all clearly inefficient legislation always does.
    I have done a lot of work, on 15 separate properties in San Francisco. It has all been permitted. Some took a long time, others were quick and easy. One project did take a year and a half of bickering with a neighbor – only one, with no support – who filed for a DR. The planner was very clear that they could not prevent the hearing, even though the neighbor’s claims were – in her words, not mine – “clearly ridiculous”. We offered to use the city’s (free) mediation process. The applicant refused and the city does not require it. Then, after delaying the hearing as long as possible and being practically laughed out of the hearing room on a unanimous vote by the commission, she appealed. She told me that she didn’t want any construction in the neighborhood, at all. Her argument against the project o the planning department’s form? Limitation to light and air. Her windows were above the top of my property. Her building was over 40 feet away. EVERYONE involved was absolutely clear that this was a ridiculous claim, including the planning department. But they couldn’t do anything, because it was her right – under our current system – to get her hearing. And to delay it. And to appeal the ruling.
    Clearly, this was an extreme case. But it doesn’t change the fact that many DR applications are ridiculous and the planning department is forced to humor them and pass the project along to the commission for a hearing.
    I am not advocating not getting a permit, I am simply saying that I understand why people would choose not to do so and that the current system creates the incentive not to do so. We’re working against our own best interests.

  27. Posted by inmycountry

    Not Bashing….you don’t get it, do you.
    In the previous thread, for 674 15th Avenue, you made these same comments regarding the DR process and I attempted to set you straight on how it works. I’ll try again.
    First of all DR has nothing to do with building permits or the lack there of in most remodels such as the kitchen at 674 15th Avenue. The DR only comes into play for additions or substantial exterior alterations. Generally, only projects which the Planning Department has determined a “311 Notice” be sent out to the neighbors are subject to a DR. Everything else is free and clear. So there is a “gatekeeper” of sorts. The chances of expanding a building without permits and not getting caught is pretty slim.
    On the other hand, a permit for most interior remodels such as kitchens and bathrooms can be pulled in an afternoon “over the counter” by hand carrying the drawings and paperwork from department to department and getting things signed off. Even projects with wall removel or minor structural alterations can receive approvals this way. Anyone can do this, though usally it’s best if done by the architect. I would venture to guess the majority of permits issued in SF fall under this process. Even for more complex remodels such as a “whole house” remodel where full structural and architectural drawings are submitted for plan review, permits are usally issued within a few months.
    So, getting back to 674 15th Avenue and the like, there is really no excuse for not getting a permit, except cheating, as noearch has pointed out.

  28. Posted by PN

    FWIW (and since no one else has referenced it):
    http://www.sf-planning.org/index.aspx?page=1891
    Some key quotes:
    Currently, anyone for any reason can file a DR application and bring a project before the Planning Commission for a public hearing.
    On July 1, 2010, the Department presented Interim DR Procedures to the Planning Commission. For the remainder of this interim year, the Department will continue to provide every DR request with a public hearing, while reducing the amount of staff time required to process DRs
    The Committee felt that it was not the right time to reform the DR process, but that in a year it may be more appropriate to move forward with DR Reform.”

  29. Posted by Trixie

    @around1905 I’m pretty sure that the planning department can only require that the actual rooms being affected by the permit need to be brought up to code (ie: redoing your kitchen will not require your living room wiring or bathroom to be brought up to code). It *is* a pain to have to re-wire one’s kitchen just to get a few simple changes to the cabinets and counters, but I now have more outlets than I know what to do with!

  30. Posted by Not Bashing

    @ PN – Thank you very much, this is all I was trying to say on this particular issue.
    @ inmycountry – I ignored your last post because we are talking about different things. I’m talking about larger projects that could involve a 311 (or 312) process. Thank you for clarifying and yes, you are correct that most interior remodels do not fall into this category.

  31. Posted by lark

    There are so many knowledgeable people on this thread I have to pop a question. We own a 1907 house that we have upgraded with permits but no major remodels. We have an illegal deck which the prior owner put in and an illegal room downstairs which is probably 70 years old.
    I did not think we could be forced to tear this stuff out, because we did not put it in. It predates our buying the house.
    But above someone states an inspector could require us to tear it out.
    Is that true? How likely is it? Would our situation be vulnerable to that?
    thanks, guys.

  32. Posted by LD

    Before an owner is allowed to sell their property in Tiburon, the Building Inspector is required to do a walk through to cite anything that needs to be brought up to code.
    Might be a good idea to do this here in San Francisco.

  33. Posted by noearch

    Clearly, there are two camps with regard to securing building permits in SF.
    One camp: “Permits are a hassle, they are expensive, why shouldn’t I be allowed to do what I want with my property? It’s not hurting anyone.Permits are just fees for feeding the fat government employees.I hate driving the speed limit; it’s not gonna hurt anyone if I go 95 instead of 65.”
    The other camp: “Permits are not that hard to get; they are not that expensive. They are designed to protect the public from unsafe work. They protect neighbors from a scofflaw neighbor from destroying my rear yard light and air. They are part and parcel about living together in a civil society.”
    Guess which group the “cheaters and losers” are in?

  34. Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

    The fully code compliant home is a rare beast. I rarely visit a house for sale without noticing one or more signs of work that is not up to code. Maybe there was a permit but the inspector failed to notice the problems. And I see these problems without getting unto the dirty spaces of the house. Maybe there’s unpermitted work too but I can’t tell because it was done correctly (and I’m too lazy to estimate the date of the work and correlate that with the DBI records).
    Here’s a game to play the next time you’re at sLowes or Home Despot : watch the people checking out their fairly technical building supplies and see if you can guess whether or not they are bothering to pull a permit for their handyman work.
    Even if you’re savvy about construction and the seller has prepared their own inspection report it is always a good idea to spend a few hundred dollars on a building inspector. He/she will almost always find problems. A good inspector should be able to explain the ramifications of those problems so you can decide whether or not they affect the value of the home. Some problems are minor and might not be worth correcting. Others are more serious and should figure into the bottom line of your offer.

  35. Posted by sfrenegade

    “If the permitting process were all about safety, that would be great, but it’s not. It is about taxing for support of well-fed government employees.”
    Right, part of the process is broken. As I mentioned in the prior thread, I don’t think people should compromise safety at all, but what the code apologists are missing is that certain things people do under the table don’t involve safety at all. Two such changes were mentioned in the prior thread.
    In particular the DR process jumps out at me as something particularly obnoxious, considering the massive abuse that takes place by busybody neighbors who don’t have substantive objections other than some nonsense about light and air or that they just don’t want construction noise for a few months. There’s already too much design by committee in SF.
    As for removing illegal in-laws, the city would complain about removing rent-controlled/affordable units. You’re screwed either way.

  36. Posted by noearch

    @ Lark: Good questions about your “illegal” deck and lower level room. I’ll try to answer you by asking some key questions;
    1. Is your deck illegal by dimensional standards or Planning code setbacks and rear yard open space? Or is it “illegal” because it is unsafe structurally? Rotting framing, low railings, or?
    2. How is your lower level room illegal? Low ceilings, no windows, no power, no heat? What, in your mind is making it “illegal”?
    You could certainly leave your deck and lower room “as is” if you are not planning to remodel or change either of them. But, if either the deck or room is “unsafe” as I mentioned, then you should consider improving them with permits; Not only for your enjoyment and safety, but for future resale as well. You could consult with a licensed contractor, architect, or engineer for a few hours of time to determine your best decision.
    Good luck.

  37. Posted by EH

    Some police officer just happens to spot a “stolen motorcycle” in a driveway? Must be the only time that’s ever happened in San Francisco. I’m calling shenanigans on the reader’s story.

  38. Posted by a homeowning engineer

    As someone that purchased their first home a year ago and intentionally bought something sturdy but out of date with the intent of fixing it up myself, I have to say that the permitting and inspection process is not good for live-in owners intending to do small and incremental improvement.
    I’ve gotten permits for the big projects I’ve hired out for (replacing the 40A electrical panel and foundation work), but I also discovered that it would be either prohibitively expensive or inconvenient to get much of the work permitted that I’m choosing to do myself. For instance I’m slowly replacing the knob and tube wiring, and doing it in a code-compliant manner, however I’m not getting permits for it. I basically have an hour or two per day to work on it and am basically doing it room by room, outlet by outlet. While the ~$250 permit & inspection cost may be reasonable when you could do so for a large number of junctions (I think the limit is ~20 at that price), I’d either need to pay that amount for 3-4 at a time or else go without large parts of the functionality of the house I’m living in. So it’d basically be $250 in permit costs for around $20 of supplies and a few hours of my time, and as such is simply not worth it to me. The permitting scheme and costs are really not well suited for the sort of small incremental changes a homeowner with a full-time job can realistically take on themselves.
    On the other hand, adding a deck, installing outdoor circuits, adding/redoing substantial amounts of plumbing, and gas work are things I definitely feel should be done with permits due to the risks involved.

  39. Posted by Not Bashing

    @ noearch – I actually do respect your opinion and see where you’re coming from, despite not agreeing with you. With that said, I’ve taken an awful lot of abuse over the past few days about the DR thing. After PN’s posting, can we finally agree on this issue, at least?
    @ Lark – the only way this is likely to happen is if you apply for a permit to do work on your house and an inspector gets interested in something while he or she is on the premises. Even this isn’t too likely. Of course, if you rent the space downstairs out, someone could report you. When you sell the property, all you have to do is be honest on the disclosure documents and you’re fine. There are questions regarding unpermitted work – whether you did it or not, just be honest that you are aware of it.

  40. Posted by noearch

    So, let me get this right:
    You just bought a house a year ago..and you can’t afford, or more correctly don’t WANT to spend about $250 for an electrical permit?
    Not to offend you and I really mean that: but how do you know you are doing the work “code compliant”? Who is inspecting your work? Are you a licensed electrician? Are you experienced in doing this? Are you 100% sure that your work could not cause a fire in the future? I certainly hope not.
    Just because one is a “live-in owner” (what is that?) doing “small and incremental projects” does not excuse you from doing work with a permit.
    But you certainly showed us that many people think just as you do. We know what camp you are in.

  41. Posted by FormerAptBroker

    around1905 wrote:
    > There are occasionally good reasons to skip the permit/inspection.
    > Lets say you find yourself owning an old house and are trying to
    > quietly bring it up to code. Once a city inspector gets inside, you might
    > be required to deal with everything at once, rather than at the pace
    > you can afford. Of course, you have to know what the code is, to ensure
    > that your tradespeople do compliant work….
    I try and avoid ever having an inspector or anyone that works for the city or the county ever set foot on a property I own, since almost every time they come to your property they will find something that costs you money. If you own a property built in 1905 that hippies lived in from 1967 to 1977 there are probably a lot of things they will find since getting permits required talking to “the man” and stoner hippies did a lot of weird stuff to old San Francisco buildings in the 1960’s and 70’s (my best friends Dad bought a lot of them when I was a kid and we helped him turn them in to rentals).
    Then Trixie wrote:
    > @around1905 I’m pretty sure that the planning department can only require
    > that the actual rooms being affected by the permit need to be brought up to
    > code (ie: redoing your kitchen will not require your living room wiring or bathroom
    > to be brought up to code).
    Most inspectors are lazy and don’t go out of their way to spot unpermitted stuff and make you change it, but they can if you let them in to the house and they see it (so it is a good idea to plan on paying for more work).
    Then lark wrote:
    > There are so many knowledgeable people on this thread I have to pop a question.
    > We own a 1907 house that we have upgraded with permits but no major remodels.
    > We have an illegal deck which the prior owner put in and an illegal room downstairs
    > which is probably 70 years old. I did not think we could be forced to tear this stuff
    > out, because we did not put it in. It predates our buying the house.
    As I mentioned most city workers in the past have not been real interested about spotting illegal work that was done in the past, but they “can” make life hell for you if you have anything illegal and/or not permitted. With state, county and city incomes down I’ve noticed that almost everyone that works for the state county and city looking harder to find ways to fine people and generate fee income (If the budget is cut it is hard to fire the guy that brought in $300K of income to the department after finding building code violations or gave out $300K in safety violations or wrote $300K in parking tickets)…

  42. Posted by a homeowning engineer

    @noearch: You’re correct in your assumption that I am not a licensed electrician, and while my few years of graduate school may allow me to explain in great detail how the electrical system of your house works mathematically, that didn’t give me knowledge of the individual parts sold by an electrical supply company. And I can’t be 100% certain that my work won’t cause a fire in the future, as 100% certainty is impossible regardless of the level of skill or inspection involved.
    What I can say is that the electrical code is written in text and available for anyone to read, and all aspects of electrical work (or plumbing, carpentry, or whatever area you care for) are easily researchable. And that I have gotten inspections on some projects, and as such am reasonably confident that an inspection of the others would pass without difficulty.
    Legally you are correct that nothing excuses me from doing work with a permit, however the system isn’t well implemented in general. And there is no real incentive for it to be overhauled. Frankly its ridiculous that applications can’t be submitted solely electronically.

  43. Posted by A.T.

    Amen. I’ve put in new fixtures (including over 50lbs) and run wiring for new lights and switches. These were all jobs that took between 10 minutes and 2 hours and any idiot who could read could do it safely. No way am I going to take the time or spend the money for permits for the reasons a homeowning engineer notes, and no way do I want SF inspectors on my property unless absolutely necessary for the reasons FAB notes. If I ever get busted, so be it – well worth the risk to save the time/money/headaches. We all make cost/benefit analyses with respect to regulatory requirements all the time (I admit it – I’ve rolled through stop signs too).
    When we did a major kitchen remodel, it was all with permits as the scale and stakes warranted it.

  44. Posted by tc_sf

    “Some police officer just happens to spot a “stolen motorcycle” in a driveway? Must be the only time that’s ever happened in San Francisco. I’m calling shenanigans on the reader’s story.”
    While I can’t comment on the truth of the original story, I have heard of people putting a Lojak or some variant into their bikes. Or even an informant’s tip.
    Regarding the permitting issue, if you consider enhancing safety the goal with permitting the means to an end. You could make an analogy to the issue of preventing software piracy that plagued some tech companies in times past. circumvention
    Specifically that if you make the process more difficult for legitimate users ( Calling or faxing for auth codes, hardware keys, requiring an internet connection back when that was not a given,…) without increasing the difficulty of then you end up penalizing legitimate users without materially affecting the rate of piracy.
    Even as a layman, it would appear that in SF it is quite easy to evade the permitting process for internal work while the process can be quite burdensome. It would seem that to best enhance safety you’d have an easier process that would be more uniformly applied. The inspection on sale mentioned above seems reasonable.

  45. Posted by tc_sf

    ^ “increasing the difficulty of circumvention”

  46. Posted by EH

    While I can’t comment on the truth of the original story, I have heard of people putting a Lojak or some variant into their bikes. Or even an informant’s tip.
    This wasn’t a Lojack, it was “an alert cop.” Hinky. An informant’s tip? Maybe, but you’d think Hell’s Angels might, you know, swap out license plates or whatever. It would have to be quite the alert cop with a good amount of free time on the job to investigate serial#s.
    I’ll reiterate: this would probably be the one time per decade that a stolen motorcycle was recovered by police on donut time. And Hells Angels to boot? It’s a wonder we all haven’t heard this story before now.

  47. Posted by joh

    Maybe Bb is planning on doing the work himself, which will cost $1K. If he does it legitimately, he will need to hire a licensed electrician and a licensed plumber, as well as pay for the appropriate permits (DBI doesn’t issue owner/builder permits for condos). I can easily see it costing $3K.

  48. Posted by johnqh

    Question.
    If a home already has “illegal” work, what’s the processor (and cost) to make it legal?
    Do you have to use the per-square-foot cost as estimate (even if there is nothing to be done), and then pay tax for the “new additions”?

  49. Posted by eddy

    @johnqh, the proper protocol is to get unpermitted work permitted. This can mean massive damage to tile work, drywall, etc. for finished bathrooms, etc… And of course if the work is not done to code you are required to finish it to code or demo the work.

  50. Posted by lark

    Thanks for the input, knowledgeable people!
    @ Lark: Good questions about your “illegal” deck and lower level room. I’ll try to answer you by asking some key questions;
    1. Is your deck illegal by dimensional standards or Planning code setbacks and rear yard open space? Or is it “illegal” because it is unsafe structurally? Rotting framing, low railings, or?
    Not enough rear yard open space. Actually our whole house is oversize for the lot. And no setbacks for the deck. But otherwise safe.
    2. How is your lower level room illegal? Low ceilings, no windows, no power, no heat? What, in your mind is making it “illegal”?
    It’s illegal because the ceiling is 6 ft. And it has no heat (but does have power and a window). We use it as a home office.
    Sounds like only a real busy body would trouble us about this?

  51. Posted by noearch

    @ Lark:
    All of your questions sort of beg the basic question: Why do you want to “legalize” the deck and the room?
    I can understand the room issues since it is only 6′ high..and must feel creepy to even be in there.

  52. Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

    …how do you know you are doing the work “code compliant”? Who is inspecting your work? Are you a licensed electrician? Are you experienced in doing this? Are you 100% sure that your work could not cause a fire in the future?”
    You can ask the exact same questions for work done by a licensed professional. I’ve seen cases of professionally done work, inspected work, and even inspected work done by a licensed contractor that was neither up to code nor safe (that last case was on a brand new house, basically a construction defect).
    In general I’d agree that a licensed contractor will do better work compared to the average homeowner. But I feel that a diligent concerned, and properly skilled homeowner often can produce better work than the average contractor. He/she will probably take a lot more time but the resulting work can be high quality.
    But in any case an inspection is a good idea because another perspective can see problems that the original worker missed. And that goes whether or not the inspector hails from the DBI or is your highly skilled but unlicensed buddy.

  53. Posted by tc_sf

    “Why do you want to “legalize” the deck and the room?”
    While second hand, so possibly incorrect, I knew someone who seemed to believe that when permitting older work you need to bring it up to the current code rather then the code when the work was originally done.
    Specifically, he seemed to fear he’d need to add a sprinkler system were he to permit at a later date, which seems odd for a SFH.

  54. Posted by noearch

    Why don’t we wait for Lark to answer?
    My own questions have to do with trying to understand the full scope of the work and some of his reasons.
    And why would he “fear he’d need to add a sprinkler system..”? I didn’t see that asked nor implied.
    And btw: you can find many of these answers right on the DBI website. Lots of free info.

  55. Posted by lark

    I don’t want to legalize them if I can help it. But I would like to have the freedom to do other work – with permits – without having to be worried that the inspectors will come in for one project which we do have permits for, take a look at the deck or room, and give us an expensive extra project as the cost of getting the permit for work we want to do. The risk is what I am trying to gauge here. Thanks for any help!

  56. Posted by noearch

    Ok, now I understand a little more clearly.
    From my understanding of the building and planning codes (and they are complex); If you do NO work on your existing deck or existing lower room, I don’t think the inspector looking at other permitted work will require you to upgrade those existing items.
    But here’s another thought: Why NOT upgrade and legalize the deck and room? Decks are allowed to encroach into rear yard setbacks under certain conditions and dimensions. Why not get some decent ceiling height in that lower room and make it “habitable”?
    Long term or short term, you will be adding value and functionality to your home.

  57. Posted by tc_sf

    While as I mentioned above I can’t vouch for the facts, I’ve heard people talk about legalizing in the present to avoid needing to comply with what they fear will be more stringent code requirements in the future.
    Specifically I’d heard this about sprinkler requirements, which a quick google seems to indicate are now in the code in some form. Although I personally don’t have any real knowledge to be able to comment as to if these requirements apply to SF or any particular type of work.

  58. Posted by sfrenegade

    “Maybe, but you’d think Hell’s Angels might, you know, swap out license plates or whatever.”
    My first thought was whether they were actually Hell’s Angels(TM) or whether they were just biker dude-looking people who happened to fix bikes that occasionally “fell of a truck.” If you use the assumption that the Hell’s Angels engage in organized crime, they’d probably be smarter criminals than that, as EH said. If they were just thuggish biker dudes, a lot of criminals are dumb.

  59. Posted by condoshopper

    noearch,
    what’s germaine to lark’s situation is that the deck was built and the lower room remodeled or “finished” out without permits, not whether or not they appear to safe or meet requirements. if any inspector notices it and is able to observe that they were not permitted for any reason, they can definitely make you get a permit to legalize or tear them down.

  60. Posted by noearch

    Sorry, condoshopper: not true.
    In order for me to help answer Lark’s initial questions with any kind of logic or information coming from ME, it was important to know more than just what you stated. That’s part of my job; it’s what I do for a living, that’s all.
    And no, I’m not trying to be defensive, but have you had similar experience?
    But, from my actual experience, inspectors do not look around at every single part of a house, focusing on unpermitted work to tag…unless you are making changes or additions to those components.There may be unique exceptions, but not as a “rule”.

  61. Posted by 4noearch

    @noearch: Just because you hire a “licensed” professional, and just because you get inspections, is hardly any assurance in this town that the work is done well. yes, of course, there are great and responsible contractors out there. There are also poor contractors.
    As for the inspectors, well — let’s just say I’ve never seen them break much of a sweat looking at the details of jobs. On my jobs, they see what I want them to see.
    Only one inspector in the last 20 years actually looked at stuff on the job, and that particular inspector was driven from the business very quickly. (In fact, threatened by a contractor is what I heard at the time — about 10-12 years ago.)
    Not sure where this leaves us, but a license and an inspection does not automatically equate to no electrical fire down the road.

  62. Posted by DeniseB

    Here’s why I remodeled my bathroom without a permit:
    I wanted to keep the locations of the fixtures and just replace them; if I had to rearrange things I didn’t want to do the project at all. I met with a designer and she said the current arrangement was grandfathered in. I paid her to draw up the plans. Then there started to be a question about whether the city would approve, in part because the sink had been moved at some point decades before I bought the house without a permit. I got different opinions from different people. No one was confident of their answers – everyone said it depended on which inspector you got, whether he knew the contractor, and what mood he was in.
    I was told that even when you hire an architect there’s no guarantee that the plans will be approved. So you have to spend a lot of time and money before you find out what you can and can’t do? When you hire an architect or designer, shouldn’t they know whether what they design is up to code? If not then there’s something really wrong with the process.
    I had a limited budget, plus I liked the way my bathroom was arranged better than what people thought I might have to change it to. So I went ahead without permits. I didn’t want to, but I didn’t see an alternative other than forgetting the whole thing.

  63. Posted by Brahma (incensed renter)

    Not Bashing wrote:

    All I am saying is make the process reasonable…yes, of course people are going to go around these requirements as long as they remain so unreasonable. Why is this so horrible?

    Yes, I am easily incensed. The key word you’re using is “reasonable”, but the point I was making and the problem you’re not understanding is that we can’t ever define “reasonable” requirements when everybody gets to define what constitutes reasonable for themselves and to deny the common definition whenever it’s in their economic interests to do so.
    And as I wrote above, for some people that’s not a solveable problem because they’re Objectivists or egocentric narcissist types and as such they aren’t even amenable to reason. Or perhaps they think there shouldn’t be any government rules regarding their perceived absolute rights as property owners to do anything they damn well please.
    You gave an example, possibly fictitious, in the previous thread that you didn’t think it was reasonable for somebody to file for a DR because they didn’t want to listen to your power saws for multiple weeks. But the person in the neighboring unit filed for the DR because they didn’t think it was reasonable to be forced to listen to your power saws for multiple weeks.
    And I’m sure it wasn’t that simple, anyway. That’s why we have a public process for resolving these kinds of disputes.
    Same thing goes with a reasonable amount for fees and/or permits. If anybody can decide that whatever DBI charges is “unreasonable” or the process to get a permit is “unreasonably complex”, like some of the commenters above, then we get nowhere. And of course “unreasonable” is almost completely arbitrary and probably shifts in the mind of the complaining party over time.
    If DBI decided to lower the fees for a permit to some level, let’s take the $700 permit for a garage door replacement from Willow above as an example, stipulate that it’s correct and suppose that it gets lowered by half, well…that doesn’t stop the next Joe Handyhacker who just moved here from Podunk and bought a multifamily fixer from coming along later and comparing that amount to some other random dollar figure such as the cost of hinges or the amount that he would have paid in Podunk and saying that $350 is “too high” and he’ll just do the work without permits.

  64. Posted by legal beagle

    “Why NOT upgrade and legalize the deck and room? Decks are allowed to encroach into rear yard setbacks under certain conditions and dimensions. Why not get some decent ceiling height in that lower room and make it “habitable”?”

    Just wanted to point out that bringing these two specific items up to code can be time-consuming and expensive. Wouldn’t a deck that violates rear yard setback requirements require neighborhood notification and a variance? And adding nearly 2 feet of ceiling height is not an easy task, either. We are currently trying to do that via excavation–and we will essentially be spending 100K on a new foundation. The difficulties in legalizing existing non-compliant work should not be minimized.

  65. Posted by Davester

    You people are just absolutely crazy. In most parts of the country if the work you are doing on your house is within the current zoning constraints of the property your neighbor(s) have no right to object. Just crazy! Only when you request a zoning variance should your neighbor(s) have the ability to chime in!

  66. Posted by noearch

    Of course, working with a licensed professional does not “assure” that the work will be done well, nor will inspections assure that.I sure didn’t say that. However! You are much more on the right road to quality and safety by doing so. An owner should perform due diligence when selecting people to work on their house. Interview several and ask for references. Good start. Educate yourself.
    DeniseB makes a very good case why you should NOT hire a “designer” whatever that means. Anyone can call themselves that, with no training or licensing. You get what you pay for. Certainly an architect does not “guarantee” you will get a permit, or get to build what you want. The wise homeowner, again, should ask a lot of questions, get clear answers from the Building Dept. and educate themselves as to the permit process.
    And Brahma: You are so right on with your commentary. People like nobashing and others simply want to make up their own rules because they DON’T LIKE the existing rules (codes). They are arbitrary and prefer to complain rather than work with the system, or work to change it. And they fall into the “cheaters and losers” category I have previously mentioned.
    And legal beagle: Yes, you are right. Making existing components code compliant can, in fact, be expensive and time consuming. Absolutely. New foundations can easily be $100k or more, as you said. Depending on many factors, bringing that deck up to code “could” require 311 notification. That’s how the code works.
    If an owner wants those changes “bad enough” they will work thru the process and costs to achieve their goals. Remodeling takes intelligence, skill,perseverance, patience and money.

  67. Posted by FormerAptBroker

    noearch wrote:
    > Of course, working with a licensed professional does not “assure”
    > that the work will be done well, nor will inspections assure that.
    Especially since the odds are that “licensed professionals” these days usually have a Mexican guy actually doing the work. My Dad always said if you want something done right you have to do it yourself. You can call me and others that don’t always get permits “cheaters and losers”, but that does not mean that the unpermitted work I do is not better than any work done by “licensed professionals” who just want to get in and out and get paid and who do not plan to own the building for the rest of their life (as long as prop 13 is in place I have no plans to sell any real estate before I die).
    > I sure didn’t say that. However! You are much more on the right road
    > to quality and safety by doing so. An owner should perform due diligence
    > when selecting people to work on their house. Interview several and ask
    > for references. Good start. Educate yourself.
    In most cities in California you need to get a permit to change a light switch or to replace a free standing electric stove (that does not have a plug).
    I agree that it is a good idea to “perform due diligence when selecting people to work on their house. Interview several and ask for references” before a $200K remodel, but to tell me that I have to do that and then wait to get a permit every time a tenant has a light switch go bad in a windowless bathroom or has a stove die and can’t cook is ridiculous, but I guess only a “cheater and a loser” would want to cheat his tenant out of showering in the dark and cause local restaurants to lose business while a tenant waits for the “licensed professional” to connect three wires with wire nuts in the box behind a stove.

  68. Posted by Rillion

    Since we are on the topic of permits, what work is allowed without a permit? For example the doors on my bathroom vanity cabinet are broken, the thing is a cheap piece of crud, can I remove it and replace it with a new one without a permit?

  69. Posted by Not Bashing

    noearch said:
    “People like nobashing and others simply want to make up their own rules because they DON’T LIKE the existing rules (codes). They are arbitrary and prefer to complain rather than work with the system, or work to change it. And they fall into the “cheaters and losers” category I have previously mentioned.”
    Well, at least you consistently fail to understand what you read. How am I a “cheater and loser” when all the work I’ve done has been permitted? Seems to skirt your own spurious definition.
    Still no comment on the DR issue? Are you just going to continue to call me names or are you going to acknowledge your mistake? Sorry to keep bothering you with all of these pesky “facts”. It’s very difficult to take someone seriously when they insist they know what they’re talking about then completely ignore it when they are proven wrong…

  70. Posted by Brahma (incensed renter)

    I agree with legal beagle that “the difficulties in legalizing existing non-compliant work should not be minimized”, that’s why we should discourage it from happening in the first place and the current system isn’t providing enough disincentive.
    My experience is that Milkshake’s comment of May 25, 2011 1:50 PM is entirely correct even though I only go to a single digit number of open houses in a year; unpermitted work is rampant in this city.
    If a flipper knows that they can crank out a half-baked unpermitted addition, illegal garage conversion, etc. and accordingly increase the sale value of the property even though the work was illegal, all they are doing is shifting the costs for bring the work up to code to the next or future buyer, which is why I think (as I indicated above, May 25, 2011 11:23 AM) the only solution is for the city to force the seller to disgorge some of the unjust enrichment from the sale.

  71. Posted by propmanager

    It seems there is an assumption non-permitted, owner installed work can not be done in a quality manner that meets all applicable building codes. I disagree. Lots of folks, including DBI employees, perform work that meets code and is of greater quality than minimum requirements yet they do not pull permits. The inefficiency of the permit application process (esp. the staff that administers it) is one of the primary reasons the current system is so hotly debated. Creating a balanced and efficient permitting process would go a long way to decreasing the amount of non permitted work in SF.

  72. Posted by noearch

    I stand by what I said. I agree completely with Brahma.
    I know what I’m talking about. Take it or leave it.

  73. Posted by Skirunman

    The Hells Angels are much worse.
    @Rillion: The 2010 SF Building Code is online, see section 106A.2 for the 22 exceptions to “no building or structure regulated by this code shall be erected, constructed, enlarged, altered, repaired, moved, improved, removed, converted or demolished unless a separate permit for each building or structure has first been obtained from the Building Official.”
    With that said, I don’t believe a SF DBI employee would expect a building permit to be pulled to replace a bathroom vanity door or even the entire vanity as long as it could be done without disturbing existing plumbing and wiring, but this is just my interpretation. There are going to be gray areas such as yours with something as complex as building codes and permit requirements. I certainly would not pull a permit to do this minor work on my own house. I would consider this work to fall under the exception for “painting…and similar finish work” or “Surface mounting of readily removable materials on interior walls.”
    IMO, the SF Building Code requires permits for some work that makes absolutely no sense, except to collect fees (taxes). These include the aforementioned garage door replacement ($160 fee by the way), replacing roofing material, minor excavations, kitchen and bathroom remodels (should require electrical and plumbing permits as needed, but not building permits), replacement of like windows, as well as many other types of minor work. I expect many home owners don’t pull permits anyway for this minor work so it may be a moot point.
    Building code enforcement and permit requirements are typically done at the municipal level of government and differ greatly across the country. SF is generally acknowledged as having the most comprehensive, and expensive, building regulations in the country. Some are justified, such as earthquake requirements for new construction, but many are politically and financially motivated. For instance, to my knowledge San Francisco is the only jurisdiction in the USA that requires all plumbing to be done with copper and cast iron. Both are good materials, but this requirement is the result of lobbying by UA Local 38, the plumbers and pipefitters union. There are more modern and less costly alternatives, such as PEX and PVC, that are used throughout the rest of the world and there is absolutely no reason they should not be allowed here, except to protect union jobs.

  74. Posted by BobN

    “except to protect union jobs” of people who, mostly, live outside city limits.

  75. Posted by Not Bashing

    @ noearch – as you still insist on denying the facts of the matter, I choose to leave it. For your client’s sake, I hope they have a contractor or real estate lawyer who knows how the application process works…

  76. Posted by joh

    @Rillion
    Since we are on the topic of permits, what work is allowed without a permit? For example the doors on my bathroom vanity cabinet are broken, the thing is a cheap piece of crud, can I remove it and replace it with a new one without a permit?
    @Skirunman
    With that said, I don’t believe a SF DBI employee would expect a building permit to be pulled to replace a bathroom vanity door or even the entire vanity as long as it could be done without disturbing existing plumbing and wiring, but this is just my interpretation.
    The SF Building Code is interpreted differently by different inspectors, in my experience. Aside from referencing a couple of sections, I haven’t read it myself.
    With that said, changing a bathroom vanity requires the disconnection and reconnection of plumbing. According to a plumbing inspector I spoke with, any time a P-trap is disconnected, a permit is required. However, a building inspector told me the only time a plumbing permit is required is when the pipes behind the walls are altered (he was wrong, btw).
    If you live in a multi-unit building, then you will have to hire a licensed plumber to pull the permit for you. If you live in a single family dwelling, and you can convince the plubming inspector that you know what you’re doing, he/she might be willing to issue you an owner/builder permit.
    One of the reasons it costs so much to hire a licensed contractor to do the work (regardless of whether they’re using day laborers to do the actual work) is because THEY pull the permit, and THEY are liable for any problems resulting from their work. So if owner decides to change the bathroom vanity, and as a result of the work, a leak damages the unit downstairs, then the responsibility lies with the owner.
    If I have time later today, I will post my own recent DBI horror story for a minor kitchen update I recently did in my condo. Let me just say that dealing with DBI was so frustrating and stressful that if I ever buy a single family home and decide to do a similar update, I will consider bypassing DBI altogether.
    And to the point about homeowners not capable of doing excellent work is pure hogwash.

  77. Posted by Skirunman

    From SF DBI website FAQ:
    “Do you need to be a licensed plumber/electrician to do repair work?”
    For minor plumbing work not requiring cutting into or removal of piping, a permit is not required.”
    It always been my understanding that replacing plumbing fixtures, removing a trap, etc. DOES NOT REQUIRE a plumbing permit. Anything behind walls, yes. I agree, gray areas subject to different interpretations of different inspectors.

  78. Posted by Skirunman

    It seems there is a lot of confusion on the topic of building codes and discretionary review (DR) process so here is my attempt to provide some clarity for those not involved in these subjects on a daily basis. I’ve simplified things below to keep this post as short as possible, but it is still VERY LONG so skip it if you get bored quickly.
    It is important to understand why building (plumbing, electrical, mechanical) codes exist. They are meant to protect the public welfare and safety. They are the MINIMUM requirements to ensure that a building does not fall down, you can get out of a building safely in a fire, you don’t get shocked when turning on a light, sewer water does not back up in to your drinking water, etc. Building codes are technical in nature and can generally be interpreted in a very objective fashion. Building codes DO NOT mean that a building will be built with quality just as a licensed contractor DOES NOT mean work will be done either to code or with quality. Public buildings generally are subject to more stringent requirements than single family homes and buildings in dense areas such as SF are subject to more stringent codes than those in the country. This makes sense as a fire in your zero lot line house in SF could cause much more damage than a fire to a home separated from the next house by hundreds of feet. To simplify, building codes tell you HOW to build.
    In SF we also have planning codes. Planning codes do have an objective portion, primarily zoning regulations, setbacks, etc. However, much of the SF Planning Code is very subjective in nature, just as are the aesthetics of architecture. What does it really mean to fit in to the “neighborhood context”? This is highly subjective even with provided examples. Also, what about protection of “light and air”? How much is protected and how much is not? To simplify, the planning code tells you WHAT you can build.
    Only building permits for new construction or that change the exterior dimensions (additions) or permitted use of an existing building typically require planning department approval. All other building permits either can be picked up “over the counter” or require some routing and sign-off by other departments within SF DBI. The changes to to building dimensions also require neighbor notification (311 process) and are subject to DR process, and yes, any one can file a DR for any reason. This makes sense as in a dense environment like SF what you do to change the dimensions of your building does impact the neighbor’s property values and quality of life. There is just no way around this when living in a city like SF IMO.
    As a developer, I actually have no problem with the DR process, and let me tell you, I have been subject to some long and nasty battles including one lawsuit. The Pre-Planning Meeting requirement now in effect also help stave off some DRs. I also would not want the DR process to be subject to the whims of a single planner as the gatekeeper. It is much better to allow any one to file a DR, even if it is frivolous, and have the matter settled through negotiation directly with the DR filer or at a vote of the Planning Commission (PC). Where the process is broken, IMO, is actually how the PC is allowed to operate and the time it takes a matter to come to the PC. They are given WAY TOO MUCH latitude during meetings to change project plans and to continue items ad nauseum. They should be required to vote on the matter without making changes, YES or NO. If no, project sponsor should be able to make changes and resubmit directly to planning department and then another vote at PC or resolve matter with DR filer. I’ve thought about this issue quite a bit and I don’t have a better solution for DR process that balances the needs of all parties involved. We need to increase velocity of decisions and design by committee IMO.

  79. Posted by noearch

    @ not bashing: sorry but not gonna take your “bait”.
    I have commented extensively here on this subject matter. (I’m sure some people think I’ve talked enough. fair enough.)
    I currently have two projects in the 311 Notification process; basic, straightforward. I’m well versed in this area. No DR’s are anticipated.
    Others like “pn” and “inmycountry” seem to feel you are not well “schooled”in the DR process. Brahma expresses similar sentiment to me.It’s not just me talking. You say you have worked on 15 or so properties in Sf. As a contractor, homeowner, architect? or?
    If you want to know more about how I continue to feel about the entire permit process, read back on my extensive comments.

  80. Posted by Skirunman

    … NO design by committee IMO, especially PC.

  81. Posted by noearch

    @ Skirunman: all good points re the building/planning permit process. thanks.
    Some minor adjustments: There are some exemptions to the 311/312 process for exterior changes to the existing envelope in a Zoning Administrator Bulletin dated October, 2002: replacement in kind, roof parapets, some decks, some enclosure under decks, railings, other small components.
    All of this information is available to the homeowner or contractor or anyone, on line at the DBI and Planning websites; tons of downloadable PDF’s. Tons of information to read.

  82. Posted by joh

    From SF DBI website FAQ:
    “Do you need to be a licensed plumber/electrician to do repair work?”

    For minor plumbing work not requiring cutting into or removal of piping, a permit is not required.”
    That’s for repair work. I was told that if the plumbing work is a result of updating or remodeling, then a permit is required.
    Regardless, if I were replacing the bathroom vanity with one of the same dimensions and were planning to use the same countertop and sink basin, I wouldn’t bother pulling a permit and would just do the work myself. Not sure how fussy the HOA would be about that, though.

  83. Posted by Skirunman

    @noearch: yep, I agree, I was simplifying a complex process.
    @joh: You have an HOA to deal with, which does complicate matters. For my own personal home I would never pull a permit to do such minor work. For my developments, I don’t do minor work and typically work is done with a “down to the studs” remodel so fully permitted of course.
    As I said earlier, IMO SF building codes overstep what should be required for building permits for minor work. Is replacing a tile floor in a bathroom a “public safety and welfare issue”? Of course not, just a chance to get more taxes from the citizens.

  84. Posted by Not Bashing

    @ noearch – actually, it was PN’s post that backed up what I have stated about the dr process and that clearly shows you have no idea what you’re talking about. See below:
    http://www.sf-planning.org/index.aspx?page=1891
    Some key quotes:
    “Currently, anyone for any reason can file a DR application and bring a project before the Planning Commission for a public hearing.”
    “On July 1, 2010, the Department presented Interim DR Procedures to the Planning Commission. For the remainder of this interim year, the Department will continue to provide every DR request with a public hearing, while reducing the amount of staff time required to process DRs”
    How is this not clear? Do you even read these posts?

  85. Posted by noearch

    LOL..oh dear. we have a live one.:)

  86. Posted by sfrenegade

    Skirunman’s comments have been the most helpful. As I mentioned, the parts of the building code that have to do with safety obviously make sense. It’s the random handouts to special interests, as Skirunman mentioned, that make no sense. The Planning Commission stuff is a hash here, and I don’t fully agree with Skirunman that the DR process is the best that we can do, although a direct up or down vote by the PC does make sense.
    My impression of what PN said is that you can get a DR for any reason, no matter how frivolous under the current process. No surprise that we see all the meritless DRs that SocketSite profiles.

  87. Posted by Brahma (incensed renter)

    In answer to “propmanager” and “joh’, I didn’t say that every single homeowner isn’t capable of performing excellent, code-complaint work (I know that some are, and when I become a homeowner, I’ll be in that category). This is a strawman constructed by people who want to employ any excuse that comes to mind in order to avoid coming to grips with their decision to deliberately and knowingly not follow the law and get a building permit when applicable. Usually (in my experience) because they don’t want to pay the expense, but can’t psychologically then admit that.
    That said, the example I mentioned early on in the thread with the guy in my office adding the second floor deck and railing on about the cost of the permit? That guy had absolutely no training in light construction, architecture or structural engineering, but he was very good at sitting in front of the boob tube watching HGTV and scheming about how he could make more money as a flipper. And doing unpermitted additions was part of his plan. Actually investing the time to figure out how to do it safely, correctly and to code wasn’t.

  88. Posted by Skirunman

    Regarding handouts to special interest groups, the code requirements to now fully sprinkler even single family homes in the burbs is the most egregious example of special interest groups (fire departments, inspectors, fire sprinkler manufacturers and installers) getting codes changed to the detriment of the general public. These systems don’t really save lives, but they do drive up construction costs and cause huge amounts of damage through leaking and broken sprinkler heads. What a sham IMO.
    Regarding Planning Commission, what would also help IMO would be to tone down the “political” nature of the group by only allowing the Mayor and the Supervisors to appoint only 4 (2 each) of the 7 members. The other 3 should be appointed by industry groups like maybe 1 from SF AIA and 2 others from other local building or industry groups. Anyway, just a thought that I have not fully formed. Term limits at 6 years also.

  89. Posted by joh

    Long post regarding my horrible experience with DBI last year. Let me just say that I appreciate that they are a necessary agency, but a lot of dealing with them is just stupid, red tape. Perhaps if they did their jobs properly…
    I bought a condo last year with trashed kitchen cabinets. I decided it would be easier to simply replace all of the cabinets with new ones of the same dimensions than to refinish. I had no plans of moving any gas, electrical, or plumbing. Just the cabinets, and maybe a new countertop and sink. There was also this stupid half wall that was about 3 feet long in the kitchen, which was really just in the way. I wanted remove that as well, but figured I could do it sometime later.
    I ordered the replacement cabinets I needed, and started removing the old cabinets. A neighbor in the building saw what I was doing, and threatened to report me to DBI. I told him that I was only changing the cabinets, and I wasn’t changing anything structurally, so I didn’t think I needed a permit. He told me to talk to DBI and get a permit within 48 hours or he’d report me.
    Well, it turned out I was wrong about not needing a building permit for the cabinets. So I go to DBI, talk to a clerk on the ground floor, who tells me that I should just get an owner/builder permit. She gives me all the documentation I need, and tells me I need to sketch out a new floorplan (even though I’m not changing a thing). And since I’m there, I also asked about removing the stupid half wall. She says it shouldn’t be a problem, but refers me to the Technical Services counter. I spoke to a guy whom I assume is a bldg inspector, and he says I need to hire an engineer to sign off on the removal of the half wall. I emphaisze that it’s a half wall, and that it’s not bearing any load. He insists on the engineer. And then he tells me I need to hire an architect to draft up the new floorplan, even though it’s not really changing (except for the removal of the half wall). And in fact, strongly discouraged me to go the owner/builder permit route and suggested I hire a licensed contractor to do the work.
    I called some architects and got outrageous quotes for floorplans (ranging from $800 to $2500). I contacted some engineers one said that he’d come over and take a look that evening since he was working on a site nearby. This engineer told me that there was no need for his approval to remove the half wall. He told me to sketch out the floorplans myself and try to push the permit through as owner/builder. That’s what I did the next day, and they granted me a building permit. Yay! Or so I thought.
    I asked my permit issuer at what stage of my project should I schedule the inspection. She referred me to the bldg inspector in charge of my district, who told me that he wanted to see it (1) before I did anything. Then he’d like to see it (2) after I remove everything. And then he’d like to see it (3) after the drywall is up (which I wasn’t doing). And then (4) after the cabinets were up. So he basically wanted 4 inspections! He also insisted that I get a stamp from an engineer for that half wall I was removing.
    The cabinets were already removed before I got the permit, so I made an appointment hoping the inspector wouldn’t be too pissed about me proceeding without the first inspection. A different inspector came by, took a look around, and signed off on the “OK to cover” section of the job card. I asked at which stage should I make my next appointment, and he said to call when I was finished. I asked about the removal of the half wall and the engineer’s stamp, he said it wasn’t necessary, since the scope of the job was so minor.
    I finished the work, made an appointment for the final inspection, and yet a different inspector came out. He looked at the job card, and asked me why I didn’t have the “plumbing” and “electrical” sections of the job card signed off. I told him that I didn’t do any plumbing or electrical, and that the only thing I changed were the cabinets and the countertop. And besides, I got the OK to cover signed off by the previous building inspector. Well, aparently, all kitchen remodels require a plumbing and electrical permit, regardless of the scope of the work. I tried to get those myself, and was told I needed to hire a licensed plumber and electrician to pull the permit for me. Sigh.
    I called several electricians, and had 3 come over to take a look. All of them said the same thing — that my kitchen needed one additional outlet behind the counter (2 of the outlets were spaced too far apart by about 4 inches). I asked how that could be, since the building is only 11 yrs old. Well, sometimes DBI inspectors don’t do their job, and they end up signing off on work that doesn’t comply with code. And despite their incompetence, it’s up to me to bring everything up code. I paid ~$800 for a single $5 outlet, a $160 electrical permit, and less than a couple hours (total) of the electrician’s time.
    The electrical inspector came over and was a little pissed that the work was completed. He wanted to see the rough work behind the walls. The electrician and I explained that the drywall never came down, and that all he did was add an outlet to bring it up to code (even though it already should have been code compliant). I even showed him the OK to cover signature, and he grumbled that there are a lot of building inspectors who don’t know what their doing. He signed off on the permit, though he was still pissed about not seeing the rough work.
    I had several plumbers come by, even though the work was already done by me. I got quotes ranging from $600 to $1000, just to pull the permit ($160) and show up for the inspection. They all agreed that the work was up to code, and that they didn’t need to do a thing. I went with the cheapest $600 plumber. When the plumbing inspector came by, he apparently didn’t even want to come up to my unit to see the work, and was willing to sign off on the permit right there on the sidewalk (apparently this is common). Well, the permit was up in the condo, so he came up and signed off on it. And then he questioned the fact that I had an owner/builder permit in a condo. He apparently didn’t realize that DBI does in fact issue building permits to condo dwellers, and that he’d look into it when he went back to the office. Anyways, this plumbing inspector is the one who told me that with the exception of emergency repair work, anytime a P-trap comes off, a plumbing permit is required.
    So after all that, I call for the final inspection. The same inspector comes by and signs off on it without looking at anything. I assumed that he would have opened up the cabinets to see how they were mounted, or at least asked me questions about how I mounted it all. He never even stepped foot in the kitchen!!!
    So this process had me questioning…what exactly did I pay DBI for? Basically, some bad attitude, conflicting information, and an official record of the work I did. Except for the electrical inspector (who was an ass), none of the other inspectors seemed to actually care enough about safety to physically inspect the work conducted.

  90. Posted by noearch

    Love the comment Brahma..as always you seem to hit the nail on the head..so to speak.
    It really is about the cheapskates (a sub-part of the cheaters and losers group) who dislike following the law because they somehow feel “entitled and special”.
    And it appears from some of the comments that there are many folks out there who believe in that approach.

  91. Posted by joh

    Usually (in my experience) because they don’t want to pay the expense, but can’t psychologically then admit that.
    I can admit that I didn’t want to pay the expense of pulling 3 permits and paying for 2 licensed contractors. And the whole process didn’t make my condo any safer, whatsoever. With the exception of the added electrical outlet, all of the work I did was up to code, and was never inspected by the authorities to ensure it really was up to code (except on paper). And the electrical outlet that was added doesn’t really make my kitchen any safer. Just because two of the outlets are too far apart by a few inches isn’t necessarily a risk — it just simply didn’t meet some arbitrary, bureaucratic guideline by a tiny bit (just like someone who is 24 isn’t necessarily a bigger driving risk than someone who is 25).

  92. Posted by Jimmy (No Longer Bitter)

    @joh: one more reason to buy a real house, not a condo!

  93. Posted by Not Bashing

    Lol is right! Debating noearch is like trying to teach a chimp calculus – it’s just not going to work out for anyone. Time to move on.
    The current system encourages people to go around it. Until it is overhauled, many people who otherwise would just get a permit are going to make different choices. If you’re truly concerned with public safety, this is a good place to start.

  94. Posted by Skirunman

    @joh: I think you were snookered, if not blatantly lied to by DBI inspectors. In my experience some of them will say anything as it is in their best interest to do inspections and they are used to people saying they are “only going to replace cabinets” that end up doing full “to the studs” kitchen remodels. They will always err on the side of permit required when maybe one is actually not.
    To my knowledge, and in reading both codes and documents on SF DBI website, you DO NOT need permits for replacement of electrical receptacles (20a), switches or light fixtures and repair or replacement of faucets or sinks or toilets, as long as you are not replacing or cutting in to pipes. No way you need a permit to just replace kitchen cabinets IMO as this would fall under exception of “Surface mounting of readily removable materials on interior walls.”
    Also, if you aren’t opening up walls to install new electrical in kitchen there is no reason you have to bring electrical up to current code. You were snookered again.
    You also don’t need a permit to do small sheetrock repairs and I would consider the removal of the 3′ high knee wall and repair of subsequent sheetrock to fall under this exception. Yes, a bit of a stretch, but if we are talking about a wall that is only 2′ or 3′ long to begin with, who cares?
    The only time I would pull a permit is if I was going to move or add plumbing and electrical locations. If you are just doing cosmetic stuff no need to pull permits and I don’t believe they are needed as per code no matter what a SF DBI inspector says. In fact, many inspectors I have dealt with recently are actually pretty clueless to what is actually in the codes. My subs typically are way more knowledgeable.

  95. Posted by sfrenegade

    “In fact, many inspectors I have dealt with recently are actually pretty clueless to what is actually in the codes.”
    Yes, I’ve noticed this too. Aren’t there minimum qualifications for being in this job? Or it it a political appointee or union thing?

  96. Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

    “Also, if you aren’t opening up walls to install new electrical in kitchen there is no reason you have to bring electrical up to current code. You were snookered again.”
    Yes, that’s what I understood and it makes sense. Opening and then closing a wall requires a lot of work so it is a good opportunity to upgrade systems exposed behind the wall. That’s because you can use “new work” techniques and materials rather than the more cumbersome and complex (and lower quality) “old work” stuff. Insulate while you’re at it too, even if it is just a partial wall.
    Bummer for joh that the DBI advised opening the wall when that wasn’t in the original plan.

  97. Posted by Skirunman

    “Aren’t there minimum qualifications for being in this job? Or it it a political appointee or union thing?”
    One would think, but to my knowledge it is “an old boy Irish club” here in SF and no offense to the general Irish population. In many areas building inspectors are retired contractors. It can be a good job with driving around checking out job sites, telling contractors what to do, and all without having to do any real work. This of course is not true of all inspectors, but many in my experience.

  98. Posted by curmudgeon

    Very sorry for your experience joh, you must want to kill the busybody in your condo who started this whole mess. I have had my own similar experience with DBI, but at least they were for projects that actually required permits in the first place.
    That people have these experiences is EXACTLY why people avoid getting permits for minor interior projects. Thanks, Skirunman, for your cogent descriptions of why permits are important, and also why and where SF (and sometimes CA) goes way too far.
    Noearch, of course, say that it is only “cheapskates and losers” who evade the permit system. However, from Joh’s experience it’s pretty clear why people often do. It is dysfunctional, and there is no certainty how much time and money it will take. My first advice to anyone doing minor, non-health and safety related work to the interior of their homes would be DON’T try to pull a permit.
    The example of the neighbor building a second story deck without a permit is clearly the other side of that story, and there are many many things that any homeowner SHOULD get a permit for.
    Anecdote, and fortunately not expensive. When doing a condo conversion on a TIC, I was written up by the plumbing inspector because I had a hand held shower. I was told it didn’t meet code because it could siphon water back into the water supply. (this was despite the fact that the hose didn’t even reach the shower pan, so there was no physical way this could happen). I was told I’d have to correct the situation and schedule another inspection. I switched out the handheld for a showerhead, took a picture of it, and took it into DBI. Luckily I found a sympathetic inspector who was willing to sign of on it right there, and so I avoided the time and cost of another senseless inspection. But there are a million silly stories like this, and many of them (like Joh’s) are not so cheap.

  99. Posted by tc_sf

    The chron just seems to have posted this timely bit of humor.
    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/cityinsider/detail?entry_id=89840&tsp=1
    It would seem that at least the planning people are aware of issues with the process.

  100. Posted by noearch

    Look people. I’m not sure why some of you have had a very difficult time with permits and inspectors. I don’t for a minute doubt you. But I wonder why…?
    Over the past 11 years in my practice I have designed probably 100-150 projects, as the architect of record. They have ranged from small bath remodels to full kitchen remodels to decks and stairs, to lower level expansions to garages to rear additions to 3rd floor additions to full house renovations to brand new houses.
    We have experienced some “minor” delays in securing permits and approvals. We have won all of our DR cases (only 4) and have had generally good rapport with inspectors during the entire construction process. Maybe my experience is unique. Maybe not.
    But I have to tell you, that, in general, the inspectors do NOT screw around with projects that are well detailed and drawn by architects. I have worked with Irish, Asian and Hispanic inspectors, among other and they all have been fairly reasonable to work with. Some have been obstinate. We talk, listen, and work it through.
    Would I like to see some of the permit process simplified? Absolutely. Is some of the process wasteful and expensive? Yes.
    But for now, I HAVE to work within the system, and do the best job I can.
    Food for thought.

  101. Posted by Brahma (incensed renter)

    Skirunman wrote:

    Regarding handouts to special interest groups, the code requirements to now fully sprinkler even single family homes in the burbs is the most egregious example of special interest groups (fire departments, inspectors, fire sprinkler manufacturers and installers) getting codes changed to the detriment of the general public…

    I don’t know if this was intended to be a slam on S.F. in particular, but if it was, it’s misdirected.
    The requirement for automatic residential fire sprinkler system installation in one-and two-family dwellings started in 2009 with that year’s edition of the International Residential Code, which is a model code book, so if it is indeed law in The City, it’s because it was adopted as a useful measure in a city with a unique history with respect to fires.
    The same requirement has been adopted by other cities in California, where it has also been loathed by residential contractors who are mostly concerned about…wait for it…THE COSTS. There’s nothing sinister or underhanded about it being adopted specific to San Francisco.

  102. Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

    noearch – I assume that you are passing on the cost of preparing inspector-pleasing documentation and the effort to overcome problems and delays to your client. No wonder you’re happy to work within the system: it generates revenue.
    Those complaining about the DBI are the same as those who are ultimately affected. None of the DBI evaders here seem to be trying to unsafely cut corners to save on actual construction costs. They just don’t want to stick their neck out and risk being slapped.

  103. Posted by Skirunman

    @Brahma: Don’t even get me started on the 2009 IRC requirement for sprinklers in ALL 1 and 2 unit residential buildings. IMO it is a sham, misguided, costs too much money, and I could go on and. You are entitled to your opinion as well, but most states and municipalities that have adopted the 2009 IRC are in fact not adopting this specific rule at this time. CA is one of the few states to do so and buckled to big pressure from fire alarm system manufacturers and installers IMO.
    I’m fine with previous rules for SF that 2 unit buildings that are 4 stories or higher require them, but to require them in single story, single family homes does not make sense to me. The other stupid requirement in the 2009 IRC is the carbon monoxide monitoring devices outside each bedroom. Most of them don’t even work that well and I think it is overkill and just more misguided government intervention.

  104. Posted by joh

    No way you need a permit to just replace kitchen cabinets IMO as this would fall under exception of “Surface mounting of readily removable materials on interior walls.”
    This is one of those things that I believe is open to interpretation.
    During the permit application process, I asked if I needed a permit to install wall shelves. I was told I didn’t. I asked how that was different from installing cabinets, as both were held up by screws secured to studs, and both were intended to hold up a reasonable load. The response I got was that cabinets are permanent (or something to that effect), and that was why I needed to get a permit.
    A similar issue came up with a different inspector at the Technical Services desk regarding project cost (this guy was actually really friendly). He told me that I only had to include the cost if it was a permanent part of the remodel (again, something to that effect). I asked about a refrigerator, and he said I should include the cost. I responded by saying it wasn’t to be mounted to anything, and he said good point, and that he’d look into it. I told him not to bother, as I’d be upgrading the fridge AFTER the inspections passed. He said that was fine.
    Speaking of project cost, here’s another area where DBI screwed me. Since I was doing the work myself as owner/builder, I asked if it was okay to total up the cost of my materials for my permit. The guy who reviewed my permit at intake said that was fine. I asked what happens if I went over that amount, and he said that I could amend the permit later and pay the difference, and that it wasn’t a big deal. So I put $3500 for my project cost. $2K for my cabinets, and $1.5K for my granite countertop. I was planning on using the existing appliances for the time being, so I left it at that. Well, I ended up replacing my sink and dishwasher, so being the honest guy that I am, I contacted my DBI inspector and told him I went over budget, and that I’d like to amend the permit amount. I figured by doing so, it might alleviate any more headaches and additional inspections (I had already taken too much time off of work for the plumbing and electrical inspectors). Well, the inspector told me that based on the square footage of my kitchen, the project cost should be ~$15K!!! I showed him my receipts for the big ticket items, but he said I didn’t factor in labor costs. He didn’t care if I did the work myself, and said there’s an industry-standard formula for determining kitchen remodeling project costs involving square footage. He then cited some code in the SF building code that says something to the effect of how building inspectors have full discretion on determining what a project’s costs are. Well, can’t argue with that. I tried to make the case that materials and appliances I purchased were on the lower-end of midrange, and again showed him my receipts. He was “nice” enough to lower the total project cost to $11K, and wrote my a notice of correction stating the difference ($6.5K). Well, it turned out that DBI doesn’t amend permits, they just issue new ones. So I was stuck paying for new permit for $6.5K, which costs a few hundred dollars more than the additional amount I would have had to pay if the permit were $11K in the first place. The worst part of this process was getting the second permit signed off by the fire dept inspector, who said that he’s never seen anybody get a new permit for going over the project cost, and then laughed at me for reporting myself. Asshole.
    I realize that this last bit about the project cost is totally my fault, and that I should have done more research. Unfortunately, I only had a couple of days to get the permit in the first place before my neighbor would have reported me (for work which might not have been illegal!).
    Sorry about another long post… I thought I had this traumatic event behind me, but apparently not. Now it’s time to try to go to sleep without this racing through my head all night. Hehe.

  105. Posted by 4noearch

    joh – Learn the system and stop whining. The fire inspector was right.
    It seems like your real problem in all of this is that you don’t get along with your neighbor, who threatened to report you. That seems like the cause of all your pain and suffering!!
    So, lesson learned for all those who want to avoid/evade DBI. Be good to your neighbors. 😉

  106. Posted by Skirunman

    @joh: I’m sure the SF Examiner would love to hear your story.

  107. Posted by BobN

    “There’s nothing sinister or underhanded about it being adopted specific to San Francisco.”
    Having done a bit of reading, I believe that sprinklering a building that is already in the midst of a total rehab is a wise thing to do. Granted, it may not really help much in the conflagration that the next big earthquake will probably bring, but it will help minimize damage should we have a less spectacular blaze here at the house.
    Still, if what I found out at the last PCBC I went to, I wouldn’t go so far as to say there was “nothing” underhanded about SF’s adoption of the international standard. I was told — and I’d be thrilled to find out it wasn’t or isn’t now true — that SF will not allow you to use the new systems with PEX-like tubes and, as in all other water-delivery systems, requires metal pipes.

  108. Posted by noearch

    @ MOD..wow, you really know how to “spin” a comment.
    So, by me making a living as an architect, by clients who seek me out to produce detailed documentation for permits and construction..which you call “inspector pleasing documents”..
    Seriously, that’s how you see it? wow. The revenue I generate is called MAKING A LIVING.
    You might want to re-think how you see the world.

  109. Posted by tc_sf

    “Having done a bit of reading, I believe that sprinklering a building that is already in the midst of a total rehab is a wise thing to do. ”
    So out of curiosity, is it now required to sprinkler a significant new addition or a permitting of previously unpermitted work?
    What stuck me as odd when I initially heard this was that I can’t recall ever having seen sprinklers in anyone’s home. In fact I’ve been in friends houses who have done work since 2009 and this one person is the only one who even mentioned this.

  110. Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

    noearch – no spin, just pointing out your conflict of interest on this matter.

  111. Posted by noearch

    oh dear.. and praytell oh great wise one MOD..what exactly is my conflict of interest?

  112. Posted by joh

    @4noearch
    joh – Learn the system and stop whining. The fire inspector was right.
    Yep, I’ve definitely learned to work the system. I’ve learned that the best way to deal with DBI is to be dishonest and hide stuff from them. I’ve also learned that for small projects that might require a permit, it’s best to avoid dealing with DBI altogether. And finally, I learned that DBI gets ordinary folks like myself tangled up in unnecessary red tape, and that in practice, safety is not DBI’s main objective.
    It seems like your real problem in all of this is that you don’t get along with your neighbor, who threatened to report you. That seems like the cause of all your pain and suffering!!
    I didn’t even know any my neighbors when the neighbor threatened to report me, since it was only 3 days after I bought the condo. This neighbor lives on the other side of the building on another floor, so it’s not like he was pissed about noise or anything. The only reason why he knew I was remodeling was because he happened to see me and my friend carrying loading my old cabinets into my vehicle.

  113. Posted by Jimmy (No Longer Bitter)

    That’s why you should always hide stuff from nosy neighbors, building inspectors and busybodies, of which there are thousands in SF. Surreptitiously breaking up the cabinets and stuffing the bits down the trash chute would be the preferred method of disposal. Paranoia rules. Live and learn, I guess!

  114. Posted by sfrenegade

    “what exactly is my conflict of interest?”
    An architect benefits from a complex code and complex and tortuous planning process because he/she is paid higher fees to navigate it. Anyone with a direct financial interest should rationally be a code and planning apologist. But it sucks for the non-rent-seekers.

  115. Posted by sfrenegade

    “I didn’t even know any my neighbors when the neighbor threatened to report me, since it was only 3 days after I bought the condo.”
    Nice welcoming party, eh? You have to love busybodies in SF.

  116. Posted by Not Bashing

    Of course architects have a conflict of interest in regard to the complexity/difficulty of the permit process. It’s the same conflict an accountant has – the more complex the tax code, the more time and specialized knowledge required to navigate the waters. This results in fewer people doing their own taxes. In the same way, architects benefit from a complex, intimidating and difficult to navigate system.

  117. Posted by noearch

    I’ll tell ya. SFren and MOD are certainly in the same camp these days. Pretty strange analogy in trying to trash my business and skills.
    I’m actually not paid “higher” fees, I’m just paid fees. Period. Higher than what? I assume that’s the “benefit” you don’t think I am entitled to and should not earn. Right?
    Does a medical doctor “benefit” from understanding diseases and actually curing someone? You mean he/she should not be paid a salary because of their intense amount of training and skills, which BENEFIT the patient?
    Does a qualified lawyer “benefit” from understand complex laws and is successful is defending a client from a legal problem? I assume you don’t want the lawyer to make a salary also.
    Does a skillful and experienced general contractor “benefit” from helping move the construction process smoothly when dealing with inspectors on the job site? Guess they shouldn’t be paid either, huh?
    Truly, SFren and MOD, your type of thinking defies logic.

  118. Posted by anon

    One more story as to why people don’t pull permits. My hot water heater burst the Friday before Labor Day weekend, and I have houseguests. My plumber friend agrees to install a new one before he goes on vacation, but says I’d need a permit. I do some quick research and find out two things: 1) SF code says I need to elevate the tank to avoid possible combustion of garage fumes and 2) all HWH on the market now have anti-combustion features and the international code no longer requires elevation. Raising it would require moving it and significant repiping (the old one clearly wasn’t up to code), so I called DBI and asked whether they were aware of the new rules, and whether I could just replace it without elevating it. The answer: No, even though DBI acknowledged that all new HWHs had the new technology, and the City was likely to adopt the new international code within “the next year or two.” End result, I convinced my plumber to install it without a permit and without jeopardizing safety. I know because he actually brought the plumbing code with him and showed me how everything he did (other than elevating it) met the code.

  119. Posted by sfrenegade

    “Truly, SFren and MOD, your type of thinking defies logic.”
    No, it doesn’t. In fact, with all the examples you gave, you agreed. 🙂 No one said you aren’t entitled to earn a living from the complexity. We just said that you have a conflict of interest in being such a code and planning apologist.

  120. Posted by OneEyedMan

    Here’s the joke about getting a contractor’s license in (insert name of flyover state here):
    If you want to get a contractor’s license in ______ you go to the building department and take a 2 question test from the inspector.
    Q #1 – Do you have $50?
    Q #2 – Do you have it with you?
    I wouldn’t want to encourage anyone to cheat, but the correct answer to both questions is YES

  121. Posted by noearch

    LOL..well now we can also add Not Bashing to your little club, sfren and mod..I was expecting him to join any minute.
    But why not clarify in very clear terms what your club means:
    1. What is my “conflict of interest”?
    2. What is an “apologist”?
    I can’t wait to learn more.

  122. Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

    No, not trying to trash your business nor skills. Just pointing out that your argument is tainted by self interest. Overly complex procedures increase the work required and you can bill the client for that work. Why would you care whether or not that extra work is unnecessary? You’re not paying the costs in the end. And in fact it increases billable hours which is generally in the interest of the person doing the billing.
    My concern about excessive complexity isn’t about costs but rather safety. It deters people from filing for permits and having their work inspected. The inspectors that I’ve dealt with so far have been reasonable but maybe I’m just lucky compared to joh and anon.

  123. Posted by sfrenegade

    “My concern about excessive complexity isn’t about costs but rather safety.”
    My added concern would be that many things have NOTHING to do with safety, but rather are complexity for the sake of complexity, NIMBYism, handouts to special interests, etc. Safety is a good thing.
    noearch, I think what Milkshake and I are saying is pretty clear to everyone except you. Btw, stop the name calling. :p

  124. Posted by noearch

    Gentlemen..although I’m using that word lightly here.
    So now I’m “tainted by self-interest”..ah..ok.
    You still do NOT get it. I don’t make the Planning and Building code regulations. I work with them, and, in fact have to. Anyone who builds or remodels here in SF HAS to. Part of my services is to assemble the documents, forms, etc. in order to work with the codes. Where is the self interest in that? Should I not charge a fee for that service?
    And of course I bill the client for my hours necessary to complete the right kind of documents in securing the permit. What is it that you do not understand?
    I would suggest you direct your frustration with the real source: the building and planning code complexities, rather than someone who must work with them to achieve a clients goals.
    You really are digging yourselves into a deep hole. You may need a bigger shovel real soon.

  125. Posted by Observer

    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”
    – Upton Sinclair

  126. Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

    noearch – I’m not giving you grief for working within the system. That’s a fine response. The grief comes from defending the status quo as if nothing is broken.
    But you’re not directly feeling the pain so it is no surprise that you don’t see a need for reform.
    I though Not Bashing’s tax accountant analogy was apropos. At least my tax account commiserates about the complexities of the tax code and doesn’t try to defend their legitimacy.

  127. Posted by noearch

    Dear mod: please read more carefully.
    The very first comment here by me stated that getting a permit can be a “hassle.
    My numerous other comments all talk about “complex and cumbersome DR process.”
    And no, I don’t feel the pain, because I CHOOSE not to “feel the pain”. When I come upon a tough code issue or conflict, I either get on the phone to DBI, I go there in person, or spend more hours re-reading the code.
    I get the problem solved and move forward. That’s my style.

  128. Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

    You forgot to mention that you bill the client for that effort.

  129. Posted by 4noearch

    Dear Noe Arch, (aka The Noe Artichoke)
    I think you unintentionally let us all know just how you run your business when you wrote: “…or spend more HOURS reading the code.”
    And, we all know who pays for those hours.
    I’ve been in this business, in this city, for over 20 years and I’ve never spent HOURS reading the various codes.
    May I suggest a summer speed reading course at City College? 😉

  130. Posted by 4noearch

    PS for Noe Arch:
    You may want to focus on a reading comprehension course as you said: “RE-reading the code.”
    To adapt a carpenter’s phrase: Read once, bill twice.

  131. Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

    I don’t think that there’s anything out of line with spending hours reading the code. For some situations the code is obtuse. It can take a lot of time to sort out what looks like an ambiguous situation.
    And just for clarity there’s nothing wrong with a professional billing for the time spent working on their client’s behalf. I only take issue with noearch’s lack of sympathy for those directly affected by overly complex code. Saying that it can be a hassle is sort of a lukewarm response to a situation that is spinning out of control.

  132. Posted by Not Bashing

    I agree with MOD – noearch may be a bit of an ass, but there’s nothing wrong with making a living. And the code is overly complicated as is the system as a whole, so spending a lot of time reading up on it is probably wise. Now, if he would just spend five minutes reading the planning department’s website before popping off about DR’s…

  133. Posted by noearch

    Re-reading is what intelligent people do to clearly understand a complex issue. I do it a lot to give my clients the best and most accurate advice. Doctors do it. Lawyers do it. Smart architects do it.
    I “love” the amount of jealousy and true mis-understand of what most architects do and how we make our living. All of my fellow practitioners work the same way as I do. That’s how we MAKE MONEY.
    What a concept. It’s probably why I own a house in SF and a vacation home. Tough life, but some of us deal with it.
    🙂

  134. Posted by sfresident

    Greetings.
    We purchased a SFH in SF in 2002.
    Since that time, we have not conducted any work on property that requires permits.
    We are now considering a bathroom renovation and we are deciding if we will get permits or not. There are no pipes/electrical being moved. The scope of the proposed work is changing tub/toilet/sink and wall/floor tiles. No structural work. No adding windows/fans.
    In the last couple of days, while looking into permit process, I noticed on the SF DBI web site that a complaint was logged for our property in 2000, about 2 years before we purchased, to previous owner, for no permit for interior remodeling/renovations and work progress outside 7am-8pm hours. I had never seen or known about this complaint before.
    When we completed inspection process prior to purchase, we were informed that renovations were strictly cosmetic, meaning interior painting/flooring.
    I have a pretty good idea of who may have complained, a neighbor busy body who created a lot of trobule for a lot of people and moved out a few years ago.
    Here is the key question. I noticed that the status of the complaint logged in 2000 is still active. The details in the log state case was received. There are no comments at all logged. There are no follow up comments or closure.
    Looking though this thread, I am in general concerned about possibility an inspector would be able to ask questions about anything unrelated to bathroom remodel. In this case, I am even more concerned because there is a complaint that is still active.
    I am wondering if we should approach the SF BDI and close out the open case first or proceed to apply for permits without concern to complaint status or not apply for permits at all.
    I don’t have a problem getting permits but I am also looking to be practical.
    I appreciate any advice from those knowledgeable with these matters.

  135. Posted by sparky-b

    You should clear the complaint, then do the work with permits.
    More often than not complaints don’t have merit and are just done by busy bodies. Should be easy to clear up. Not getting a permit opens you up to more complaints and the inspector looking for other things you may have done without permit if another neighbor calls you in. You may end up doing work you wouldn’t otherwise have needed to do and pay a 9x fee for the bathroom work.
    Besides, what advantage would there be to not getting permits for your remodel? You might save a week of time getting it done and a little money on the permit but you would have to disclose that you did it without permit when you sell.

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