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Permits: What to Know Before Renovating Your Backyard

Updated: Mar 10

No matter how many projects Water and Earth works on in the Bay Area, there is one common thing that unites them all—a need for permits. The Bay Area is woven together by a diverse fabric of different cities. And with different cities come separate rules and regulations that result in permitting differences between projects.


So, while every project Water and Earth undertakes requires permits, not every project requires the same set of permits. Confused? Let’s talk about it.


Common Permits

The smaller details of what does and does not require a permit can change by locale, but there are a few permits that are universal. Those items include:


Pools

No matter how big or small your new pool is going to be, you will need a permit to install it. This can lead to frustration on the homeowner’s part when a city drags their feet on giving a project the okay. For a while, you may even feel frustrated with your contractors thinking that these delays are their fault.


We often hear homeowner’s express frustration that their hired team “hasn’t made any progress”. While we understand where this irritation is coming from, understanding more about why this happens can help to relax those concerns. We’ll touch on how permits can set project development back in a bit.


Gas Lines

Outdoor kitchens, fire pits, you name it. If it needs a gas line hook up, it needs a permit. This is important to keep in mind when thinking through your design. Even small fire features will need to be approved if they are being hooked up to a gas line.


Pergolas and Patio Structures

The last project set that always requires a permit are pergolas and patio cover structures. Any of these kinds of structures need to be approved by your city.


No matter where you are, or how complicated your project is, the above items will need to be permitted. But for many of our clients, the designs they are building are intricate, and incorporate a wide range of design elements to create a seamless and beautiful space. Unfortunately, the more intricate and expensive your design gets, the more permits you will likely need in order for the project to proceed while remaining “above board.”


This long list of permitting can make it tempting for homeowners in cities like San Jose to skip the permitting steps altogether. Maybe they figure it’s not worth the wait for what they consider a ridiculous rule, or they figure nobody will notice.


Either way, skipping permits, while tempting, is never a good idea, and here’s why.


What happens if you ignore permits?

Ignoring permits can result in consequences that range from mildly inconvenient, to a moderate headache, to a complete nightmare. Some of the most common consequences of neglecting permitting on the front end of a project are:


Project Delay

It can take time to get all of the permits you need for your project to be approved. However, not being proactive in obtaining permits can cost you big time-wise later on. Let’s say you start a project. You decide to skip the step of permitting the install of a gas line in your yard. Work begins, and a few weeks later the city catches on, and you’re caught adding this gas line without a permit.


Well, then your project is red flagged, and work must be stalled. Instead of proceeding from start to finish, you need to stop work and wait for the city to approve the line. This is annoying for both clients and contractors, as it drags out the active construction of the project, and pushes back the timeline.


Project Cancellation or Revisions

In more extreme circumstances, being caught without a permit can cancel a project entirely, or force a major design revision. If your designer created a pool or a pergola that you love, only to find out that it is not up to code, then not only is your project set back, but you have to go through a design revision and deal with the disappointment of your first dream backyard falling through.


Difficulty in Home Resale

Finally, one of the last major reasons we strongly advise against neglecting permitting is home resale. Even if your project is built without issue, and the city does not catch on at the moment, there’s a good chance they will catch on later. If you ever plan to resell your property, unpermitted items are likely to be caught during inspections. These items can cost you huge money down the line, and become a headache you never saw coming.


How Permits Create Construction Delays—And Why That’s Okay

The final thing to note about permits is that even when you are committed to obtaining every permit necessary, it is still likely that construction may stall at some point. A project that seemed well underway a month ago may seem to come to a standstill while clients wonder where all of the crew transforming their backyard has suddenly gone. While this can be a frustrating experience for homeowners, we think it may be helpful to understand why this happens.


Homeowners Approve a Project

Let’s say you approve a rendering from your designer or contractor. Upon review, you identify which elements need a permit. After all is said and done, only 20 percent of the items in the design need city permitting to go forward. This means that 80 percent of your yard is clear to move ahead.


Work Begins

In these situations, many contractors will eagerly begin work. Homeowners feel satisfied as they see their dream backyard begin to take shape. For a few weeks, it seems as though your project may even finish ahead of schedule. And then suddenly, work seems to stop. What gives?


The Project Stalls—Why?

If your project has suddenly stalled, it’s likely that construction has now been completed up to the point of permitting. At this point, your contractors will need to wait for your permit to come through to begin work on the fire feature, or the pergola, or any other item that is in need of a green light from your city. This is a frustrating scenario.


Many homeowners look at the amount of money they are spending and wonder why they aren’t seeing a team in their yard every day. Afterall, they’re paying to have their space completed on a schedule. But what many people don’t realize is that sending a team out to your property where there is very little work to be done is not only unproductive, but it costs your contractor money as well.


Time that they are spending doing little more than moving dirt around while they wait for a greenlight on your pergola is time that could be better spent doing significant work on another project in the area. So while this is a frustrating scenario for all parties involved, it is simply part of the process.


Thankfully, homeowners can sleep well knowing that as soon as the required permits do go through, your contractor will be there to wrap up work. And with only 20 percent of the project remaining, it should go relatively quickly.


The Exception to the Rule

There is a final scenario worth mentioning when it comes to permitting. That is, it’s important to note that no project that includes a pool should begin until a permit has been obtained. Why? Well, when it comes to your backyard, the item with the largest footprint goes to construction first.


Most of the time, the largest design element is usually going to be the pool. In many ways, it is counterproductive to begin a project without pool permitting, as you simply won’t get very far, and if an element like a pool needs to be revised, then the entire design will likely need to adjust with it.


Permits—A Necessary Inconvenience

Look, at the end of the day nobody likes to be kept waiting. Watching your project stall or wait in the queue while the city approves an elevation, or a small fireplace, or anything else can be frustrating. It can be tempting to skip the whole process and just go ahead. After all, your time is valuable!


While we understand all of these feelings, and even sympathize with this experience, permits are a necessary inconvenience. Whether you’re patiently waiting to see your backyard design wrapped up, or you’re waiting for your contractor to begin, the long term security from having the permits you need will always outweigh the satisfaction of ignoring them altogether.


Have questions? We have answers.

Check out our blog for insight into some of our clients’ most frequently asked questions, or browse our portfolio of work.


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