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When do you need a Building Permit?

Spring is here, and that means the building, remodeling, fixing-up season is upon us!


Are you considering adding on, fixing or replacing your roof, enlarging your deck, making a new driveway or adding a shed? Do you know which of those things require a building permit? If not, do you know what to do to find out?


It’s been ages since we’ve talked about building permits, so we thought we’d gather the latest info. and share it with you. But first, here’s a word or two about why there are building codes.


Benefits of Building Codes

Building codes were created because public safety is a top priority for government agencies. Building any structure in a uniform manner assures you, as well as future owners or contractors working on your home, that certain conditions will exist. Building up to today’s code may even help lower your insurance rates.


To be honest, however, today’s building codes can be a bit complex. So, the key is to go to the experts and to realize that your local building official can really help you.


In Grays Harbor County, if you live within the city limits of one of the nine incorporated cities – Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Cosmopolis, Ocean Shores, Westport, Montesano, Elma, McCleary or Oakville – or the Quinault or Chehalis reservations, you will need to check in with the building official in that city or tribe to get your answers. If you reside in the unincorporated part of Grays Harbor County, you need to talk with the folks at the Grays Harbor County’s Planning and Building Department.


At the County

Suresh Bhagavan, Grays Harbor County’s director of the Planning and Building Department, said that typically just about everything requires a building permit, adding, “We do have a list of structures that don’t require building permits, but we really encourage people to contact us even on those and/or check the department webpage. The regulations are complex and then depending on your property, there are the shoreline regulations, critical habitats concerns, zoning setbacks, etc., to follow.”


While there are standard exceptions to placing new accessory structures 800 square feet or less, storage sheds of 200 square feet or less and agricultural buildings of 5,500 square feet or less (in certain zoning districts), there still could be an issue. For instance, “if you wanted to put a shed on your property, but needed to grade or fill the area, you do need a building permit,” Bhagavan said.


In the county, some of the things that always require a building permit include drywalling, insulation, grading and filling, demolitions, mechanical work such as hot water heaters, propane tanks and ductless heat pumps, garages, additions, covered patios and carports, repairs to existing structures, alterations to existing buildings as well as changes in use of an existing structure and, of course, new construction.


Typically, things that don’t require a permit include painting, replacing a fence (if it isn’t too tall), and reroofing (if not replacing or repairing structural components) and other work exempted by the International Residential Code and/or the International Building Code.


At the county, once it’s determined you need a permit, the first step is a pre-application conference, especially if it is a commercial project. “It is not required for residential, but sometimes is a good idea especially if starting with a bare piece of land. There may be reasons why it is bare,” Bhagavan said.


“You don’t necessarily need a site plan drawing – just a sketch,” he said of new construction or additions, adding, “It’s always the best to tell us what the overall plan is for the future up front so we can help plan for the future, taking things like zoning requirements into consideration.”


The county has an extensive website ( /permit) that answers many questions, as well as contact information to ask specific questions.


There is good news for residents in the county about the permitting process, the Planning and Building Department now has an online permitting system as well as the ability to have some of the meetings online.


“We can save a lot of time and money now by using Microsoft Teams (like Zoom) for our pre-application conferences so people don’t have to drive all the way in. It also allows us to connect with, say, a consultant in Seattle, to join meetings more easily,” Bhagavan said.


 In Various Cities

As mentioned, each area has slightly different rules and concerns for building. This may have to do with the weather, topography or zoning in that area. For instance, in Aberdeen and Hoquiam many homes are within the FEMA floodplain.

“That means that if a certain amount of work is done on a building, it triggers the necessity to build the whole house above the floodplain,” said Dorian Wylie, Hoquiam’s building official.

“For buildings in the floodplain, if more than 50 percent of a home’s worth is spent in remodeling during a five-year period, the whole building must to be built up to above the floodplain. In some properties, one sheet of plywood could do that,” he said.

“However, in Hoquiam things like roofing and siding are classified as maintenance so it won’t count against that 50 percent number,” Wylie said, adding that it should all change in a few years after the levy is built to protect Aberdeen and Hoquiam. Then the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reclassify the area so it won’t be considered in the floodplain.

In Hoquiam, building permits are not needed for driveways, small decks under 200 square feet if they are under 3 feet tall and not attached to the house, and small accessory sheds or buildings under 120 square feet, Wylie said. Also, any finish work, cabinetry, painting and floor covering don’t require a permit.

In Ocean Shores, the building department is hopping, said Roy Simmons, the city’s sole building official.


“It’s crazy here right now,” said Simmons, who said he has received 50 permit requests for new houses in two days alone as a mid-March deadline approached, after which  new construction would fall under a new building code.


“We’ve been bombarded with new permitting and plans; we’re breaking records these last few weeks,” said Simmons who’s serving the city as a plan reviewer, building official and building inspector.


After March 15, The International Code Council, comprised of nine books, became updated from the 2018 to the 2021 code cycle, he explained, adding that within those codes are many changes in energy codes, in particular, that will cost builders an average $5,000 to $20,000 more to construct a house.


“It’s things like the addition of a continuous insulation at exterior walls, added ceiling insulation,” etc., he said. “These new code changes will trigger new techniques, more expenses and more time during a build,” he said.


Simmons said that the influx of people to Ocean Shores, in particular, has to do with cheaper land costs and permit fees. “It’s getting tough to build anywhere, but people can still come to Ocean Shores and for a reasonable amount build a house,” he said.


While of course, builders know that they must obtain a permit to construct a new house, it’s good to realize how many home projects require a building permit. So, be sure to check with your city or county building official before you get started!



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