Local permit officials provide guidance

March 14, 2005|by MALINDA SHAVER of HomeSource

It's a common office discussion: "We're going to remodel our kitchen, but it's such a big project. And somebody told me we'd need permits for everything!"

To get the right start when you are planning a major home improvement, an excellent source of information is the department that issues building permits for your local jurisdiction.

HomeSource talked to the Washington County Department of Permits and Inspections to find out how the building permit process helps assure that your home makeover has a satisfying result. The department staff recommends that even before you hire a contractor, it's worthwhile to call a permit technician at the county office (240-313-2460) to become better informed about the requirements for the changes you want to make.

First, the technician will help you check the zoning regulations in your area. For example, that new shed or garage may have to be six feet or more from the property line in one subdivision, but the setback may be eight feet or more on a lot two streets over. Restrictions can include minimum and maximum size and height of a shed, for example. Your project might change considerably dep[ending on local requirements.


Remember, in some areas you'll also need to check for any covenants governing the kind of materials you can use. Where they apply, covenants will be listed in homeowners' or property owners' association documents.

Permits Department Director Daniel Devito is putting increased emphasis on communication between his department and county residents, making information more readily available in person, by phone or through the department Web site:

"The only thing that's more important is making sure the job is done right, so you can use it and enjoy it without worrying," he said.

Both objectives benefit from an Interactive Voice Response System that allows requesting inspection by telephone, and provides reports at any hour. The department is also looking forward this spring to new technology that will allow inspectors in the field to have direct access to records of permits and plans. Inspection reports will be available quickly, allowing the job to proceed right away.

Another important government service is licensing or registering contractors and builders, helping to assure that the people getting your good money will give you equally good results. It is always a good idea to check license or state registration information that you should get from any prospective contractor. In Maryland, for example, state requirements include insurance and bonding provisions to protect the customer, and the state provides a checkup on how the contractor does business.

As to when a permit is required, Deputy Director Angela Smith advises that, "Anything outside over 30 inches high generally requires a permit." Interior repairs that don't change the original structure of the building don't require an application; windows and doors can be replaced if there is no modification of the framework. Generally, restoring the house to its original condition is OK, although all plumbing and electrical work requires permits and must be done by a licensed technician. Some jurisdictions allow homeowners to perform certain work on their own property, although a short test may be required before a permit will be issued.

Learning about the requirements will help you plan your project, and prevent surprises that could become expensive. If you go ahead without a permit, you might receive a Field Correction Notice, and fines can be assessed for non-compliance.

Here are some phone numbers and Web sites that will lead you to more information:

In Maryland:

Washington County MD: 240-313-2460

or visit

(does not cover Hagerstown or incorporated townships)

City of Hagerstown 301-790-4163

Allegany Co. 301-777-5951

Frederick Co. 301-631-2313

In West Virginia:

Berkeley County WV: 304-264-1966

Jefferson Co. 304-728-3215

Morgan Co. 204-258-8547

In Pennsylvania:

Franklin Co. 717-261-3855

Fulton Co. 717-485-3691

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