The Difference Between Building Permits

What is the difference between an over the counter permit and a full building permit?

An over the counter permit (sometimes called express permit, same day permit, etc.) indicates the expedited nature of the permit where it would typically be approved after a short meeting with a building official. This is quite different from a full building permit where, depending on the municipality, it could take weeks for the city to review. I am sure you are wondering which type you need and how to avoid the scary full building permit review. I assume that you have already deduced that the over the counter permits are for smaller project types. Right you are! You must verify with your building department which category your project falls under, as there are many caveats to both. Unless you are building a fence, changing out your front door, or painting your house, you will need one of these two types of permits. However, I wouldn’t let the possibility of needing a full building permit deter you from doing the remodel that you want. Why? Because if your project is large enough where you are on the fence about which permit to get in the first place, chances are the amount of documentation required for the over the counter permit can still be a good percentage of what you would need for a full building permit anyway. Simplified: I would personally prefer the more expensive $2/lb organic fruit over the non-organic $1.50/lb fruit, because the benefits outweigh the cost difference.

  • ·         As I referenced above, one of the main differences between the two permits is the amount of documentation (i.e. cost).  The architectural fees will be higher to do the extra drawings, and because the city has more paperwork to review, the permit fee will be higher as well. Again, if your project is large enough where you are on the fence between the two permits, the difference in cost might not outweigh the benefit of actually getting what you want. Talk to your architect. You should consider all options before reverting back to being freaked out by a full building permit. When you are standing in the middle of your torn apart Kitchen, staring at the 12” of annoying wall purposefully left in place to avoid the full building permit, the view of the water that it is blocking will seem like a much bigger loss than the extra bit of money it would have cost to just get the right permit.
  • ·         The other main consideration is time. Depending on the number of permits your building department is currently reviewing, it could take weeks, if not months, to review. You can call the building department and ask how long it is typically taking to get a residential permit reviewed. Make sure also to ask if there are wait times regarding submitting the drawings in the first place. In Seattle at the time of this writing, I have to submit an application to get on a wait list in order to submit permit drawings. Obnoxious, I know, but that’s reality. This time delay may or may not actually cause a problem, however. Think about it. Do you have all of your finishes, fixtures, appliances, siding, etc. already figured out? No? Then consider submitting the permit drawings, and while those are at the city, you can be working with your architect to nail down all the details the city doesn’t care about. You may also require a good chunk of time to find a temporary place to live during construction, pack, and move. My main point is that you need to look at the schedule in context with everything else that needs to happen as well. Don’t just let a 4-6 week permit lead time send you running wildly away from a project that would otherwise be the right fit for you.

In conclusion, make sure you think about the BIG PICTURE when determining what type of building permit you will need. Don’t just look at the $2/lb fruit and immediately decide you want the $1.50/lb fruit without considering that you have to take the time to go to the store either way, and the benefits of the more expensive organic fruit could outweigh the cost difference. Ultimately the short time delay and cost increase associated with the full building permit shouldn’t be the determining factor in the design or scope of your project. The oasis you create for you and your family should be inspired by the things in which you find joy and that help you live a better and happier life.