Blogging Bayport Alameda

July 23, 2014

Alameda permits for newbies

Filed under: Alameda, Development — Lauren Do @ 6:03 am

Interesting that a discussion arose around the permit department in yesterday’s post.   I had been meaning to write this post for a while but got distracted by other things going on.   Recently I had a project that required pulling permits for, so I guess my advice for anyone who doesn’t know anything about the permit process in Alameda is: hire an architect.   Seriously, just do it.

However, if you are a cheapskate like me and rationalize that my hourly rate is probably way lower than that of a professional architect, read on.  So, like a dumbass, I decided that I would pull all the permits myself, because see cheapskate above.  Now, I read everything that I could get my hands on about the permitting process and honestly I still was rather puzzled about what I was supposed to do.  I knew that I had to pull permits, but honestly that was all that I knew.   So I tried calling in to understand if I needed to bring in drawings or something like that and I was given kind of a cagey answer.   I think the person on the line wasn’t officially supposed to give out information in case he gave out the wrong information so he was vague at best.   I figured it would be best to make a trip down there just to talk to someone in person.

The first time I went I attempted to squeeze in a visit about an hour before school was to let out so around 1:30 ish.   I thought that it wouldn’t take more than an hour to wait, right?   Wrong.   I left empty handed without talking to anyone at my first visit because the wait was that long and I had to pick up my kid at school.  I did, however, take home a bunch of the printouts they had, determined to, at least, fill out the application prior to the next visit.

The next time I came, I decided to take the morning off, figuring that I would be in and out there in less than two hours with permit in hand, especially if I went bright and early when the office first opened.  Naively I had actually had a whole day off planned that revolved around finishing up some pillow cases and maybe some baking.   Did that happen?  Nope.   Turns out I needed to have DRAWINGS.   This is something that I was trying to figure out over the phone and at the last visit because the City’s website is not clear about when and if you need drawings.   If you’re questioning at all whether you need drawings or not, let’s just say that you need ’em.   They don’t have to be pretty, but you need them.   I will add that every single person I dealt with at the permit office was absolutely lovely.   The clerk who broke the news to me that I needed drawings pulled out a pad of graph paper to share a few sheets so I could draw the plans.   She also shared the fact that she visited garage and estate sales and picked up these pads just for this purpose.  See?  Lovely.

So, I went back and drew and measured to the best of my abilities, which are pretty pathetic at best, and returned to the permit office.   FYI, bring a book or something, it really does help pass the time.   I forgot my Kindle one visit and spent some time downloading the Kindle reader on my iPhone because otherwise I probably would have gone crazy with the wait.   I seem to remember that there is free wifi.   When my name is finally called a different clerk, equally lovely, tells me that my drawing is too small and that I need to make it larger.   Now, realize that the first time around was difficult in itself, but now I was being asked to redraw it.   But the  nice clerk hands me over another piece of graph paper and a straight line (oh yeah, did I mention that I attempted to draw the first one free hand too :)) and says that I can take a seat and that when I was finished I didn’t have to wait in line again.  See?  Nice.

I spend what feels like an embarrassing eternity trying to redraw the plans, and the nice clerk even shows me how to draw in GFCI outlets and such.  Anyway, fast forward and eventually I have the permits in hand and further fast forward to the end, the project is now finished.  I must have visited the permit office at least six times during this entire process and every single time the clerks there were completely nice and helpful.   At one point the office was so slammed that Building Official Greg McFann had to step in to help too (he helped me get my gas line permit, drawings needed too I had to return at least three times to get that gas line permit).   I only realized it was Greg McFann when I saw the notation on my permit.

Anyway, the one really neat thing about the permit office is that you can get some really juicy gossip there.   Like the fact that over one weekend some update to the City’s computer systems caused the printers to stop working.   Also I learned about the location of the raided house on Webster while waiting in the permit office waiting room.   I also saw someone from the Collins property wheel in a bunch of plans to file at the office.   City Hall “smoother” Barbara Price made an appearance at the permit office during one of my visits.   I caught sight of Assistant City Manager Alex Nguyen rolling through the office as well and Community Development Direct Debbie Potter chatting up some suited muckety mucks  in a small office next to the permit office entrance.   Once the person who was on the sign up board two people before me was one of the newest appointees to the Historic Advisory Board (the one that isn’t John P.) so I was disappointed when it appeared that he had cut out before his name was called.

The TL;dr on this is, get an architect or a contractor who knows the ins and outs of the permits office if you don’t want to make 100 visits to the permit office for something that should be relatively straight forward.  And while it was oftentimes a painful and frustrating experience, mostly because I had no idea what I was doing, the clerks are super helpful and really want to get you what you need.  Oh, special shout out to the charmingly chipper guy who answers the line from 7:30 – 8:30 a.m. to make appointments for inspections.



  1. So a collection of petty bureaucrats eat up a large amount of your time, something which you recommend hiring an expensive professional to handle in the future, but it’s all good because they smiled?

    Am I reading this right?

    Comment by dave — July 23, 2014 @ 8:19 am

  2. Remodeling a home properly is complicated, but the staff at Planning and Building were helpful to me also when we retrofitted our house, upgraded the electrical system, and replaced the furnace. With the Gallant-era budget cuts, there aren’t enough staffers to handle all the permits (and questions) as quickly as they did things when we remodeled, but the staff is excellent and they know their stuff–which saves homeowners lots of grief later on. Once the work began, calling for inspections and having someone show up became much easier and faster.

    I don’t know of any justification for Dave’s snarky comment…

    Comment by Jon Spangler — July 23, 2014 @ 9:09 am

  3. Lauren, your experience sounds about right, best chance at no problems is an architect or contractor. As a contractor I used to draw most of my own plans as they were very small jobs. However if it was a room addition or more I would use an architect. One thing I would do is get all of my information together, pictures of the area that I would be working on, drawings, and what I thought needed to be filled out. I would go to the permit office assuming that it would be the first visit, most times I would get out of there with no problems, sometimes I would need more information, but when I left I new exactly what they wanted so the next visit was easy. One problem that I guess we just can’t fix is seven or ten people coming in all at once, then you will wait. If I saw many people waiting I would just leave and come back later. Now I just go to the golf course pay and play.

    Comment by John P. — July 23, 2014 @ 9:15 am

  4. For people who can’t afford to hire a contractor or architect to smooth the process over, at the very least the clerks are nice and helpful and really want to assist you in whatever way they can. It could be the opposite where they are jerks and you still have to suck it up.

    Comment by Lauren Do — July 23, 2014 @ 9:58 am

  5. Lauren ,
    Hiring an architect to draw an electrical circuit is far more than a waste of time it is also a waste of money put in perspective , would you hire an Alameda Fire Captain to water your dead grass…….
    In the context of remodeling Architect are pretty useless unless you touch the outside , should you need to make internal structural changes you need to go to a Structural Engineer far cheaper than architect , eliminate the middle man the Architect.
    Other design can be made by a qualified Kitchen designer or Interior Designer and licensed contractors at a fraction of the cost .

    Before signing anything from an architect have an Attorney look at the contract or you will pay dearly as my neighbors did.

    Based on the fact of assisting Hundred of Customers in the County ,across the Country and the world by the Hundred over the years , rely on local contractors with well established record, you do not need a drawing to install a GFCI , always get a contractor to pull any permit , never pull a permit yourself to have someone else do the work .

    Stay away at all cost from these cheap unknown contractors , one of them drive a white escalade , which He need it to carry His cellulite , the gold chain and the amount of atrocious perfume the Oakland’s Hookers drenched Him off,
    Local contractors will smile and say I know that guy ……
    Home remodeling is the biggest racket in California , simply look at the list of the wanted by the California Contractor licensing Board it is sobering , there is not a quarter when a Customer walk in and say they have been cleaned 20 to 30 K….. You want and need insurance , workman comp , license and a bond , Check feedback and review as well.
    I have the funny memory of being called all the names in the book by a Chinese contractor {some were even in English} everything was done wrong in My Customer residence , I really did not care , that residence will not go up in flame .

    That local contractor may appear scrungy , to many and you , yet they have more knowledge and experience than any of these suit and ties stuck in the mud so call professional with more diploma than any wall can support , saved by miracle at graduation time,
    you look for experience not appearance . Sadly too many look for the opposite .

    I strongly and totally disagree with cost of permit being aligned with San Francisco , different market , different income.
    To the contrary lower the cost , more people will take them , resulting in a safer community .

    Comment by Joel Rambaud — July 23, 2014 @ 10:38 am

  6. What is “helpful” about instructions so vague and incomplete that it took you 6 or more visits to accomplish this. If they were actually helpful, wouldn’t it be possible with just one or two? Or without hiring an expensive professional?

    Comment by dave — July 23, 2014 @ 10:42 am

  7. Some of the additional visits were for extra items (gas line which I initially wasn’t going to do, subpanel, etc). Could they have been more clear with better instructions on line? Absolutely. Do I think they have the man power to create those those instructions? Nope. Just seeing how busy they are just processing permits and answering questions, unless more people are hired, they are just barely keeping up with the current demand they have. And they do it with a smile.

    Comment by Lauren Do — July 23, 2014 @ 10:57 am

  8. The system is bureaucratic so the participants are by definition bureaucrats, I guess, but labeling these folks “petty” is kind of petty, isn’t it? It’s a gig.

    They have sheets which tell you when you need a drawing. But you are correct dave, they could make be more explicit in terms of asking people to use a straight edge ruler to render them and some sort of scale ( like one inch on paper equals a foot). I got my window change by talking to the planner using my neatly scaled elevation drawing and thought I would have permit in hand quickly, but THEN was told by permit tech I needed a structural schematic for the window framing so it could be run through plan check. I was in there for an over the counter bathrrom permit and sort of forgot the window change bled into another purview. DAMN! I came back with said drawing, thinking I needed to call out the header size and framing detail for some reason. The plan checker was called to the counter to approve the drawing on the spot. What he needed most, which I should have realized, was to see about shear wall. Even though my old home is not built to current specs with plywood sheer nailed to specifications, there is a rule of thumb about modifying an existing wall which is that you cannot reduce existing sheer ( continuous wall without an opening) by more than 10%, regardless of how the existing wall is constructed. My alteration triggered that rule. Catch 22. I think this code rule is arbitrary since existing could be to any standard, but the rule was not made up by the plan checker.

    When I am looking at perspective jobs I generally tell folks that I do not do design as a billable service and this is why. There is enough to keep track of just as a contractor. Rather than go hire an engineer or an architect I knew that if I added interior sheer plywood to current code specs at the two 4′ wall panels each side of the new window that it would fly. It is like double shear, inside and out. Aha! The plan checker is qualified to let me add that and approve it right there, which he did. I almost got shot in the foot by my lax approach to my own remodel, but was able to dodge a bullet because of experience. Bathroom and kitchens don’t necessarily require a design person, especially if you don’t change location of fixtures and the drawing requirements are something most home owners can do, but there are often odd details laying in wait to ambush you. These pitfalls may be the product of a bureaucratic system but they are not they not the fault of people working in the system who are also not being petty.

    I like to swing a hammer to vent my aggressions, and building actual shelter is an archetypical endeavor which is satisfying, but construction is so fraught with pitfalls it can be extremely stressful and I cannot wait to follow John P. Most folks don’t really appreciate that when they are looking for the lowest bid, but you do get what you pay for.

    Comment by MI — July 23, 2014 @ 12:30 pm

  9. #8 = “You almost shot yourself in the foot, but were able to dodge the bullet”. That mixed metaphor conjures up an interesting cartoon visual.

    Almost as good as Lena Tam’s remark that the City was “robbing Peter to pay Paul & Mary”…????

    Lauren, just think of how hard it is at the permit office for property owners who don’t speak/understand English well. Now you understand why there is so much unpermitted work still being done on this island…It’s easier to talk with & faster to work with your relatives than with the Permit Office

    Comment by vigi — July 23, 2014 @ 4:19 pm

  10. Room addition in the mid 80’s of 400 + square feet with a new master Bathroom and Bedroom and 6 new windows and a new roof and all new electrical with new box and new sewer line .

    Total Permits and fees for Inspections and plans and sign offs

    Electrical 28.00

    Interior 48.00

    Plumbing 48.00

    Shell, Roofing , 106.00


    Total Cost of Project 41,000 …….House Value 250k at the time

    Everyone at the City was very helpful thru the whole process. It was like dealing with family.

    Comment by interesting times — July 23, 2014 @ 4:52 pm

  11. Both times we have had major work done we hired an architect, once just to draw plans, and once to supervise the whole project. Both of those times we brought the architect’s plans to the permit office and obtained the permits ourselves. I know the plans saved us time and headaches in the end. In all visits I have made to the building department, the staff there has been unfailingly kind and helpful.

    Comment by Kevis Brownson — July 23, 2014 @ 8:53 pm

  12. 12. FYI- the level of transparency and potential over share in this thread is NOT an attempt to fish for business, and as usual might even deter it. That knife cuts both ways. Anyhow my blogging comment ethos is centered around trying to include information which is helpful and through transparency and detail, hopefully credible. Here’s my latest report: inspections used to be “same day” that you called for appointment. Those days long gone. Last job it was two or three days out. I called at the stroke of 7:30 this a.m. and the hold system took about 8 minutes to connect me with an inspector. By the way, the guy who answers the phone in some random rotation IS the inspector who will book your inspection and show up. Anyhow, I asked for Thursday, having worked all weekend to make sure I would be ready. I was told the last Thursday slot went to previous caller, how about Monday? Sure I’ll take it. Could have asked about availability of other inspectors but just didn’t for various reasons. So, call in early because you can always cancel. The up side is I have an extra 4 days to catch up, but on many jobs it could mean catastrophe for schedule. Like chess, thinks ahead and have contingencies.

    Comment by MI — July 28, 2014 @ 12:06 pm

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