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Ask the Architect

A pandemic doesn’t change proper procedures


Q. My daughter and son-in-law have purchased a home and are planning to move in this summer. They want to put up fences, and add air conditioning and a new deck to replace the old one. Some people we spoke with have said they don’t need permits for the fences or decks, since there were already fences there and there was a smaller deck they just want to redo and make bigger. They want to be sure to do things the right way, so do they need permits, and are they easy to get, since they want to get started right away, and the building department was closed, so we can’t ask them?

A. Even in this difficult time, you have to do the right thing. The first thing I would do would be to call a surveyor and get an updated survey that shows setbacks to property lines, and also have them stake the lines. Fences not only need permits, even for replacement, but I often read surveys showing fences that are clearly not even close to the property line.

They can avoid the anguish of having a property dispute with a new neighbor by having the stakes show exactly where the fences will go. The staking should be done close to when the fences will be done, because I’ve also seen where people move the stakes in the middle of the night. Even spray-paint the line once you know where the fence line is going, to keep things honest.

Everything you described requires a permit, and it takes time to document with plans for what you’ll be doing. If the deck is less than 3 feet above the ground, then you may be able to draw the plans yourself, according to some jurisdictions, but the plans must have enough detail and reflect the requirements in the building code to show the correct connections, structural spans and anchorage to the ground. The same goes for anything built outdoors, except the fences. For example, built-in kitchens and barbecues, awnings trellises and even air conditioning units are required to have a location plan with distances to property lines and some drawing that clearly shows the size and way it will be built.

For anyone to tell you, even during an emergency shutdown of services, that you don’t need a permit is more for their convenience than yours. It’s the most common scam in property ownership, and building departments regularly see undocumented, illegal pools, fences, decks … which need to not only be filed for, but with penalties, need to be corrected, relocated or, once in a while, removed. Because people miss the mark with notes and code compliance in their drawings, frustrated homeowners call who have already tried doing the plans themselves. The installers walk away scot-free, and the property owner has to clean up the mess, at greater cost than it would have been to do it the right way at the beginning. Patience and planning are important, especially now.

© 2020 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to yourhousedr@aol.com, with “Herald question”  in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper,  architect.