Permit or No Permit – That is the Question

Home / Expert Advice / Permit or No Permit – That is the Question

Permit or No Permit – That is the Question

What’s the Deal With Permits for Home Additions in Orange County?


Since inquiring minds (especially some of my clients) want to know – here’s a short course on building permits in Orange County.  Now realize – I am a Realtor, not a General Contractor or a City Employee.  This is a practical guide to help you navigate the permitting scenarios you may be facing.  The small print on this puppy is – check with the (insert name of the city where your home is located) Planning, Permitting, or Building Service department regarding your home.  If your home is in an unincorporated part of Orange County, the Orange County building department will be your contact.  And some Orange County cities are pretty high tech these days – permit applications, permitting history, and project flow charts are on line!

Why Do I Need a Permit to Make Changes to My Orange County Home?

The main reason is to make sure your home addition is safe for you, your family, and your neighbors.  It’s like when the appraiser has to come and verify the value of your home during a purchase – an independent third-party who has to make a judgement about the health and safety of the construction based on current code standards.  Probably not required for hanging curtains, but bigger stuff like plumbing, gas, and electrical work.  This is to make sure the electrical system is not liable to spontaneously combust or the plumbing is not likely to burst.  Typically, you would hire a contractor to manage your home addition.  He pulls a permit from the city, does the project, and has the city inspector(s) check the work at the stipulated points in the project.  Once everything is A-OKAY, the city signs off and the permit is filed as finaled or completed.  And the permit becomes a part of the public record.  You can actually go to the city office and ask for permits on any home you want.  And there are any number of reasons you may want to do just that.

What If the Orange County Home I Am Buying has Unpermitted Additions?

According to one city planning staff member, about half of the home addition projects in Orange County are never permitted.   Most cities in Orange County do not have a CSI department out LOOKING for unpermitted construction in residential real estate.  The only way the city would ever know about an unpermitted home improvement project is if they come to look at your home for some other reason and see work that makes them curious and they go back and try to find the permits.  In most cases this is unlikely, unless the improvement looks obviously dangerous to the subject home or the neighbors.  Lots of times home owners make additions like patio covers, outdoor BBQs, fire pits, and patio decks without even thinking a permit might be required.  A thorough home inspection will help both the buyer and the seller to evaluate the condition of the home and all additions or modifications.

What If the Home Inspection Notes Items of Concern Even Though the Addition is Permitted?

It’s not unusual for a home inspection report to show items that may be health and safety concerns.  Home inspectors are required to note  health and safety concerns according to guidelines established by organizations like CREIA – California Real Estate Inspection Association.  City inspectors certify that the construction was done to code that was in effect at the time the permit was pulled.  Building codes in all cities and counties across the country are constantly changing to keep up with new building materials, new information on what has caused health or safety issues.   In all cases, the manufacturers installation standards supersede even city code standards.  So, that new hot water heater has to be installed the way the manufacturer dictates, regardless of the city standards.  Get it?

What If I Want to Get Permits on Work That Was Done In the Past?

You can ask the city to come in after the fact and inspect your addition.  The city may require some “retro-fitting” to bring it to current code standards – the scope of each project will vary.  Usually, the city will try to work with the home owner to find a safe, economical way to bring the improvement up to snuff.  Key word being “usually.”  In the unlikely and unfortunate event that you have been strapped with a Winchester Mystery House addition that was bungled from the beginning, you may be looking at big bucks to re-do electrical, plumbing, load bearing walls, or grading.  You might just decide to tear the sucker down and start over. 

How Much Does it Cost to Get a Project Permitted?

In relation to the overall cost of a room addition or a swimming pool – it doesn’t cost much.  Around $600 for a $10,000 project is a good rule of thumb for most cities.  More complex, costly projects, especially swimming pools, may cost more.  In relation to the cost of the liability of having an unpermitted project result in an accident – priceless.

What’s the Risk of Buying a Home with Unpermitted Additions?

That depends.  It depends on the scope/size/complexity of the addition, the quality of the construction, the maintenance of the work over time, the use of the addition, and the location of the addition.  Overall, you need to ask yourself – what’s the worse thing that could happen.  Could the unpermitted balcony collapse if too many people stood on it to watch the 4th of July fireworks and could anyone get hurt or killed?  Could the unpermitted patio cover fall over in strong Santa Ana wind and hit someone in the head?  Could the gas supply line to the unpermitted fire pit corrode due to exposure to the elements and create a gas leak that explodes during the annual Memorial Day pool party?  And if anything unfortunate and unexpected did happen, what’s your liability?  Could a case be made about a permitted addition that had not been properly maintained?  Bottom line is – if you own the home, it’s your responsibility.  And as rampant as lawsuits are in California, I’d want to be as clear as glass on the condition of the property and your liability when you are the owner, wouldn’t you?

I’m Leslie, just keeping it real in Orange County Real Estate.  949-678-3373

Links to Local Orange County City Permitting Departments

County of Orange Building Permit Information

Irvine Building Permit Information

Aliso Viejo Building Permit Information

Huntington Beach Building Permit Information

Mission Viejo Building Permit Information

Rancho Santa Margarita Building Permit Information

San Clemente Building Permit Information

San Juan Capistrano Building Permit Information

Laguna Beach Building Permit Information

Newport Beach Building Permit Information

Leave a Comment

Contact Me

Have a question or comment? Send me an email and I'll get back to you, asap.

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt

Start typing and press Enter to search