7 Quick Tips on HOAs and Project Permits

7 Quick Tips on HOAs and Permits

Most HOA construction projects in California require a variety of permits, and every city and county has unique permitting requirements. So unless your condo board is filled with general contractors, you probably don't have time to figure out which permits need to be acquired. But the board is still responsible to make sure that reconstruction projects are done correctly, legally, and safely - and permits are crucial part of that process.

So without going back to school or spending 10 years as an apprenctice and journeyman, here are some things you should do or know to make sure the job gets done right:

  1. Make sure "permits" are in the RFP or contract.
    Boards or Board Managers should be sure that the Request for Proposal (RFP) and any construction contract states that all necessary permits and approvals will be obtained from the city and/or county. The contractor is responsible for obtaining the permit; the HOA is responsible for paying permit fees.
  2. Create a system to check on permitting.
    A contract that mentions permits does not guarantee that a contractor will obtain them. Be sure you have systems in place to monitor the permitting and inspection process. Ask for copies of the permit cards before construction, during construction and before payments are made. Before the project begins, clarify how many separate permits will likely be issued and keep track of them. At the end of the job, make sure the project has received final approval from the municipality - otherwise the job is incomplete, possibly leading to future penalities and inspections.
  3. Be prepared to argue for permits: know what's at stake.
    Permits are not optional, and there is no “go free card” when an association is struggling financially. Resist voices (on the board or in the community) that minimize the importance of complying with the law; remind everyone that the legal consequences of failing to get a permit will impact the entire  corporation. A project completed without permits can affect insurance coverage and liability, and may result in an association being forced to redo a major project! And even if your contractor does great work, obtaining a permit after fact can cost more, and may require you to destroy completed work in order to give an inspector access. 
  4. Put permit costs in the budget.
    Make sure your project budget includes a plan check and permit fees. Contact your contractor and the local building department if you are uncertain about what permits and inspections are required for a certain project. Occasionally, the city will discount a large projects’ plan check and permit fees.
  5. Understand the time limitations on your permits.
    If the job extends over several months and an inspection is not called within 180 days of obtaining the permit or since the last inspection, the permit will be considered void. A new permit must be purchased.
  6. Don't rely on permits for quality control during a job.
    Do not depend on your permit and city inspections as a safety net for quality control. There is a difference between code minimum and the quality you specified or contracted to construct. If needed, acquire the services of an architect, engineer or construction manager to provide periodic inspections of the work.
  7. Inspect (or have a professional inspect) the completed work.
    At the job completion, it is the association’s responsibility to check the work that was never checked or approved by the municipality; ultimately, it is the permit holder’s responsibility to ensure that all work is up to code.

As a board member or owner, you aren't expected to know everything about construction or permits - that's why you hire a professional. But you are ultimately responsible for the work done by a professional, and you must take reasonable steps to make sure that your employees are doing their jobs. 

Of course, permits are only one part of major construction work. Read about 7 Common Mistakes in Approving HOA Contracts, or about What it Takes to Get a Major Repair Job Done.

Adapted from “When is a Permit Required?” by John R. Schneider, owner of All About Homes, a construction management and consulting firm.
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