Do I Need to Permit My Remodel? – Board & Vellum

Ask an Architect, Custom Residential, Interior Design

Do I Need to Permit My Remodel?

By Sara Emhoff and Sandy Wolf
May 9, 2019

What kind of building permit do I need?

One of the most common questions we get from homeowners planning a remodel is, “Do I need a building permit?” The easy answer, in Seattle at least, is nearly always: yes!

If your project is no more than minor repairs or costs less than $6000, then you can likely forgo a permit. If not, the question you should be asking is “What kind of building permit do I need?”

STFI, or “Over-The-Counter” Permit

The quickest and easiest permit type to get in the City of Seattle is what is called a Subject-To-Field-Inspection Permit, or an STFI, for short. That is a long name for what we often call an over-the-counter permit. If your project qualifies for this type of permit, then your architect can go into the City of Seattle permitting office, and walk out with a permit that same day.

This does not mean that your architect needs only one day to put together a drawing set and get a permit. The design process takes much longer than that, and every project and every client will vary in exactly how much time it takes to arrive at the design and then allow your architect time to create permit drawings. We often recommend that homeowners plan for at least six months from the start of design to submitting for a building permit, and you can read more about the design process here. Still, an STFI Permit is your fastest permit route.

So now you’re wondering, “How do I know if my project qualifies for and over-the-counter permit?” The City of Seattle has definitions for what kind of projects can use this permit type.

Here are the types of projects that qualify for an STFI in Seattle:

  • Properties Not in an Environmentally Critical Area (ECA) There are several ECA overlays in the city of Seattle, ranging from eagles nests to steep slopes. Before anything else, we will check your site to see if there are any ECA overlays that will require either up-front work so you can be granted an exception, or if you’ll be required to go through full permit review. Here, you can check your property for ECA overlays and a bunch of other information, including zoning and past permits.
  • Non-Structural Interior Alterations This term refers to what we often call an interior remodel. If you don’t plan on moving any load bearing walls as part of your project, then it falls in this category. Not sure if that wall is load bearing? Don’t worry, this is something we can help you identify when we create drawings of your existing home.
  • Structural Alterations If it turns out that wall you want to move is load bearing, don’t worry, there is still hope that you qualify for an STFI under the Structural Alteration category. Openings in load-bearing walls can be allowed, as long as that wall doesn’t support more than one story above, and your new structural opening doesn’t span more than 14 feet. Many of our more-significant whole-house remodels can still stay under this threshold.
  • Ground Level One-Story Additions If you are planning an addition, you are edging toward a full building permit, but if it is located on the ground level and it is no larger than 750 square feet, you can still do an STFI. Note that your addition area is limited to one story.
  • Detached Accessory Structures Similar to the rules for a one-story addition, you can construct an accessory structure, such as a detached garage or backyard cottage, as long as it is limited to 750 square feet.
  • Dormer Additions While nearly all of our second story addition projects have to go through full plan review, it is sometimes possible to do a dormer addition on your second floor as an STFI. The first limitation is that it cannot add more than 200 square feet of habitable floor area. Converting existing attic space that was under 7’ tall (and therefore didn’t count as “habitable” before) to dormered space with headroom clearance above that counts towards that 200 square feet. Second, the total width of the dormer cannot be greater than 14’. And, finally, there are structural considerations outside of the dormer size that may push it into a full lateral calculation, and that usually means a full permit review.
  • Repair If your remodel is a repair, say due to a fire or flood, it may be able to go in for an STFI, but there are limits on the total value of the project, and you are required to document the previous conditions with photos, so we recommend you (or your architect) discuss your project directly with the City of Seattle to determine what permit you require.
  • Seismic Upgrades If you are planning for seismic upgrades, you can qualify for an STFI permit by working with an engineer to prepare your retrofit plans.
  • Decks Decks less than 8’-0” above grade can generally be permitted as an STFI (if they also meet the above requirements for structural span length), along with most other site elements, including most site walls/rockeries.

Although this list is specific, the threshold for qualifying for an STFI can be a bit of a gray area, particularly if you are adding a detached garage and a single story addition, with a deck and a new dormer at your remodeled kitchen at the same time! Bottom line, an STFI is dependent on an individual reviewer’s discretion, and we often recommend a Plan B if you are looking to permit a more complex project, even if it technically ticks all the boxes for an over the counter permit.

Part of our job as your advocate is to present your project in a way that the reviewers have no reason to not give us a permit!

Now, all that said, if you read through the list above and realized that your project doesn’t fit any of those descriptions, then you need to keep reading, as you will likely need a full building permit review.

Full Building Permit

Okay, so what is full building permit review? As opposed to an STFI where you can get a building permit in one day, a full building permit involves review by multiple building departments, and so it takes significantly longer for the city to issue.

The full building permit process can take anywhere from 4-9 months from permit intake to building permit issuance. And, securing a permit intake date needs to happen about 3 months before the desired intake date. There is a lot to know about the process, but don’t worry, we have another post for that if you want to dive deeper.

Even if you do need a full building permit, there is no need to worry. The majority of our residential projects require a full permit, so it is nothing out of the ordinary. While it may be helpful to aim for an STFI if you have a tight timeline, we often find that it is important to determine your needs for your remodel without worrying too much about the type of permit.

It is more important in the long run to get you the remodel that is right for you, than to compromise the end result just to shorten the permitting. A skilled design team can walk you through your options and lead you through the permit process so you’re on your way to a beautiful home!

Would you like to read more from the team?

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Do I Need to Permit My Remodel?

More than likely, if you’re remodeling a home in the Seattle area and wondering if you need a permit, the answer is, “Yes.” The real question is, “What type of permit do you need?” Of course, we can help you figure that out, but here’s a quick preview to get you started.

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