Before modern times, there was no building code or building department. As city’s population increased and technology advanced, buildings grew taller and more complicated. The Ancients learned of the need for building codes the hard way, from collapses and man made disasters. My contractor has told me, “you gain good judgement from the experiences of bad judgement”. If you are lucky enough to survive the experiences of your bad judgement, you wisen up.
The oldest surviving example of a ‘building code’ is the Code of Hammurabi (282 Laws), which dates back to 3000 BC. It was carved in cuneiform onto a basalt obelisk.
Excerpts from the Code about building:
#229: If a builder has built a house for a man and his work is not strong, and if the house he has built falls in and kills the householder, that builder shall be slain.
#230: If the child of the householder be killed, the child of that builder shall be slain.
#231: If the slave of the householder be killed, he shall give slave for slave to the householder.
#233: If a builder has built a house for a man, and his work is not done properly and a wall shifts, then that builder shall make that wall good with his own silver.
The Code of Hammurabi was harsh! This code is where the phrase “Eye for an Eye” originated.
What is a building Permit?
The Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety regulates construction in the city. It is their goal to make sure that all new construction projects are built to code and safe. Recode LA wrote a great article on the history of building in Los Angeles.
Building permits are two things: a process for quality control and a detailed record of construction history.
The Permit Process:
The first step in the permit process is to file a permit application. Express Permits and Over the Counter Permits are for small to medium budget projects that do not require a full set of plans. General Building Permits are for large budget projects such as changes in use, and structural alterations like moving walls, windows, and doors.
Construction History Record:
Building permits contain a lot of useful information: the property address, a site description with details of any existing structures, the proposed project, an estimated project valuation, the name of the architect or contractor who did the work, project completion date, the permit #, and in some cases a siteplan.
The city of Los Angeles has changed the design of building permits over the years, here a few examples of different permit designs.
When are building Permits Required?
According to the Los Angeles Municipal Code a building permit is required:
For any construction work that costs $500 or more. Permits are required to build, remodel, add on, repair, demolish or change the occupancy of any building or structure. Updating or upgrading a property also requires a permit. Depending on the size of the job, several different permits might be required. (Los Angeles Municipal Code Section 91.106)
Here are some Examples of work that requires a permit: Demolition, Grading, Roofing, kitchen remodel, bathroom remodel, New pool, installing or replacing HVAC, Solar Panels, upgrading electrical, new plumbing, exterior stucco, new windows, chimney repairs, Fences above a certain height, decks, seismic retrofitting, foundation repairs.
If you follow the letter of the municipal code exactly, you are pretty much suppose to permit everything!
How do I search for building permits?
Recently the city of Los Angeles has uploaded many of the historic building permits online. You can search for building permits on LADBS website https://www.ladbs.org/services/check-status/online-building-records
However, if you want a comprehensive permit search, you still need to go into the Records Counter yourself or hire a permit company to pull the permits for you. Permit pulling services charge $60.
Permit Pulling Companies:
Los Angeles use an archaic microfiche system – not every single microfiche is going to be looked at.
I’m in Escrow, should I review the building permits?
I recommend for buyers to always review the building permit history while in escrow. I want to verify that the property has a certificate of occupancy.
When a project has permits, a buyer knows that a city building inspector monitored each phase of the construction and gave it his final approval. Permits gives you assurance that the work done is reliable and not substandard. Permitted work meets building and safety codes at the time it was completed.
What if you can’t find the permits for construction work?
If you cannot locate the permits for a construction job, then it is probably Non Permitted Work.
When does a permit expire?
You have 180 days from when the permit is issued to commence work and two years total from the permit issue date to complete the construction work. If you do not finish in that time you may have to reapply for a permit and pay the permit fee over again. You have 30 days after expiration of a permit to apply for an extension. (Los Angeles Municipal Code Section 98.0603)
New construction and Additions that add square footage absolutely must have permits. The risks are too great if you don’t. Follow the permit process for new construction and when the work is finished, you will receive a certificate of occupancy from the building department. This certificate of occupancy shows that the building is legal. Lenders require a CofO to give the additional square footage or building value on their appraisal. No CofO = no value. Aside from adding no value, a building that does not have a certificate of occupancy can be a liability to the owner, because the city could demand that it be demolished if they believe it is unsafe. Sellers might have trouble later on down the road selling their property when they disclose that the addition or building was unpermitted to buyers. Don’t have a CofO for a building or addition? You may be able to get a Retroactive Permit.