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Ask the Architect

Asking for forgiveness instead of permission?

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Q. The pandemic caused prices to go up, and we really need to work on our home. We know you’d tell us we need a permit, but we have to save everywhere we can. I want to know whether we can get permits just for some things we do later. We’re doing the work ourselves, and have relatives helping who do plumbing and electric to make it possible to save money. How much are permits and, if necessary, fines? What are the penalties for the plumbing and electric work, too?

A. As I often must say, you need permits, but I also know that it’s a licensed professional’s job to provide a legal service. As people who are not enforcers, we professionals walk a fine line, trying to prepare what can be filed for doing work legally, with you, the property owner, the responsible party to follow the law. It’s always a concern when clients are pricing out the penalties for getting caught instead of intending to do things the prescribed way, but because government has placed a remedy for the problem that isn’t as extreme as the loss for being patient, you’re opting to follow the penalty route instead. You would rather ask for forgiveness instead of permission.

That being said, the system of getting government approvals leaves most people wondering why they ever tried to do the “right thing.” Yes, there are multitudes of requirements, and to do the project correctly requires at least five or six lengthy stages — planning, plan review, plumbing review, electrical, plumbing and building inspections, and often the need for resubmitting documents or re-inspection. The system of approval is arduous enough, but then it gets even more complicated when you don’t phrase questions properly after waiting 40 minutes on your third phone attempt.
The permit fees vary from $100 for smaller projects, like decks or sheds, to a few thousand for second-story additions where the first floor is nearly gutted. In your county there are over 70 building departments, and all require plans to be given full review and inspection, whereas New York City has one department in each borough, and “self-certification” to prevent the logjam of waiting months to get a permit. With self-certification, the architect or engineer submits documents, taking responsibility instead of the building department, a system I have always questioned because it means that you, the consumer, are completely in the hands of the same person who prepared plans, kind of like the fox guarding the henhouse. The second-party independent government review is reduced in that system.
Fines are usually a few hundred dollars to $1,000 for the offense in your community, while New York City charges $1,000 per day or more for offenses, as a comparison. I see work done without permits every day, and too often see missing components, like connectors or reduced insulation, etc. That penalty is worse than a court can assess. Good luck!

© 2021 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.