Adventures in Berkeley Building Permits (aka Hell)

We want to build a deck in the back of our house.  The four people we got estimates from, all who have done a lot of work in Berkeley for many years, have said we don’t need a permit if the deck is 30″ or less, but because I am very law abiding, I emailed the City of Berkeley Permit Department just to make sure.  An architect there told me that I need a permit because the deck will be bigger than 120 sq ft.

I’ve heard that the permit process can be terrible in Berkeley, but this is a low to the ground, rectangular structure that plenty of people build themselves.  How hard could the process be?  So, I dutifully made an appointment during my lunch hour to talk to the architect who assured me it was a simple process.

I arrived at 12:20PM for my 12:30PM appointment, which the architect told me to make so I wouldn’t have to wait.  I check in and am told that the architect will be right with me.  I wait for 25 minutes, so 15 minutes after my schedule appointment, and check back at the counter to see if there is a problem.  The person says, “Oh, I’ll tell him you’re here.  He hasn’t come out yet?”  Did he not tell the architect that I was there?  It’s unclear.  I sit back down.  A few minutes later, the check in person says, he was eating his lunch, he’ll be right out.  What?  Why would you make an appointment during your lunch?  A few minutes later, the architect comes out – no apologies or explanations for being 25 minutes late.  Oh well, he’s going to explain this simple process to me, so I can pay my city some money and be law abiding even though I’m pretty sure most people would not go through this process for a simple deck like the one we’re planning.

He starts explaining all the drawings I am going to have to submit, but assures me I can just draw them myself on pieces of 11″ x 17″ paper.  He’s using words like ledger, joist, anchorage, tension ties that aren’t exactly common terms for someone who isn’t an architect or contractor.  I am starting to get overwhelmed, so want to revisit the size of deck that doesn’t require a permit.  He poo poos this and doesn’t want to discuss it at all.  He suggests I might want to hire someone to draw up the plans.

I ask about Simpson anchors and what the rules are around using them and tells me to just do it with concrete piers.  It seems like he doesn’t really understand what the requirements would be to allow the use of the anchors, which seems odd considering he is the city’s architect in the permit department.  When I ask how much the permit will cost, he conveniently “doesn’t deal with the fees” and tells me I can “ask over there”.

I go “over there” and wait a few minutes behind a man filling out some paperwork.  I say, “excuse me” and ask the woman behind the counter if this is where I can find out about fees.  She brusquely tells me that yes, after she helps this other person (who is still filling out a form), she can talk to me.  She’s acting as if I was trying to cut ahead, which I clearly was not.  When it is my turn, I ask her how to determine the cost of fees and she gives me a chart that is based on the amount you pay to build the deck.  I then ask what you do if you are building some or all of it yourself and she laughs rudely and tells me I need to get a contractor’s estimate.  Well, seeing as I have now gotten four estimates that vary widely, by a factor of 3, I am not entirely sure how to provide this information.  Do I just give her the cheapest one?  She doesn’t seem to understand how or why this might be confusing.

Then she says, “these are only the permit fees.  There could be other fees like zoning or other things.”  So I ask how I am supposed to determine what those other fees might be or whether I will have to pay them since I am not going to build a deck if I have to pay $1,000 in fees.  She says she can’t tell me until I submit my plans (the 11″ x 17″ ones that will be “so simple” for me to draw up).  I tell her what my plans are will depend on how much it will cost since we don’t have an unlimited budget, so I ask if there is any way to estimate the fees before I make the plans.  I understand it might not be 100% accurate, but I want some idea – are we talking hundreds, thousands, what?

She keeps repeating what she’s already told me and then obviously notices for the first time that I am near tears, so she tells me to go back to the check in desk and get a number.  Excuse me, what?!  There is no one else waiting to be helped.  I have been here now for over an hour and have gotten very little information and now she wants me to get a number so she can call it and I will come back to this same desk to speak to this same woman?  I’ve had enough and walk out the door.

I immediately called my partner exasperated to explain what happened.  I decided being law abiding was not worth the risk of trauma that I would almost surely be exposed to trying to go through this process, especially since I’m pregnant and the stress is probably not good for my child.  My partner tries to convince me otherwise because he is also very law abiding.  I will probably just let him deal with it.

I can’t even imagine what this process will look like when we eventually renovate our kitchen.  Ugh, it feels like moving would be easier than dealing with the permit office again!





One Response to Adventures in Berkeley Building Permits (aka Hell)

  1. jdavid york says:

    we have a commercial project which has been delayed now ten months by the city of Berkeley plan checker who has taken vacations, ‘lost our application’, then found it, then told us previously approved improvements(by him) are not code after we built them to his specs, to top it off the planner says because “we” are taking up so much of his time they have to charge us an hourly rate above the permit fee, and we have no control over the hours billed. We don’t have an infinite amount of money or time so it looks like we’ll just have to give up. Thanks city of berkeley

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