Foreword: If you are a building inspector / official, please try to understand that this rant is from a contractor’s point of view… Or at least try to be objective and unbiased.
Pros and cons of building permits:
Why do we need building inspectors (and do we really need them)? Well, they are supposed to inspect – right? They are there to protect homeowners from shady contractors, and ensure that construction goes in accordance with state / national building codes. That’s why we also have specialty trade inspectors (electrical, plumbing, mechanical, etc). But do they really do their job? Another question – why do we need building permits? Yes, to pay the building inspector for doing his/her job of doing the inspections. Yea, right!
I will purposely omit building inspectors in charge of large construction projects, such as bridges, sky-scrapers, factories, etc. There is a lot more responsibility there, and these inspectors are a lot more knowledgeable than your average “Joe, the building inspector”.
In my time being a roofing contractor, I had to pull many permits in the last 10 years – for almost every job we did. In all this time, only once have I seen a building inspector at a job site, and he was there to harass the home-owner about the “illegal kitchen” that came with the house they just purchased. In the beginning of my career as a contractor, I needed to get permits, but did not have sufficient / adequate insurance and in some cases did not have the Home Improvement Contractor registration in a state where I was doing work. Luckily for me, I was able to get permits, and because I have dignity (I’d like to think so) I did decent work without code violations and nothing bad ever happened. I once had a “stop job” order posted at a job site, where we forgot to pull a permit. Ahh… the good old days.
When you get into serious contracting like Metal Roofing and IB Roof installations, you can’t afford not to have proper insurances and licenses. Your clients by default expect everything to be current and you to be fully insured – both worker’s comp and general liability. And besides, it is easier to show proof of insurance than to explain why you do not have it, or better yet to ask a home owner to pull “an owners permit”. It is also much easier to get a permit in 5 minutes instead of waiting 3 days and hoping that the inspector is not a complete a$$ or is looking for a bribe – for some reason, I have a very strong suspicion that some building inspectors in Lynn, Revere, Malden and other surrounding towns in Massachusetts, purposely jerk contractors around, as if telling them – “give me $300 and you will have your permit”. I really believe so. Or they just hate people in general. But let me get back to building inspectors.
My experience with building inspectors and permits
I will try to be logical here, and present information in a chronological order. Here is a work day of a building inspector as I see it:
85% of the time I have walked into the building department of any city and town, the building inspector is not there. Apparently they are out, doing inspections. But as I mentioned before, I have never seen an inspector on my job site, inspecting my roof. If the inspector is in the office, he (I will use a “he” as all building inspectors I’ve met, were guys) will make you wait 2-5 minutes before asking you what you need. Apparently, they need to feel as if they have power and are in control. After the initial cold shoulder, I did get permits, so there is seemingly nothing to complain about. But there is. And it is about how I got my permits and why we actually need to pull them and pay for them. It is my honest belief that permits were instituted as a means for towns to raise money, and based on this assumption I’m more than happy to pay the fee. But any building inspector will tell you that the permit is necessary to pay for the inspection and enforcement on the building codes.
So I will tell you a few instances of how I got some of my permits, how horrendous the process can be for a contractor, and why so many contractors, including honest, illegal and shady ones, never pull permits. There is a provision in Mass. Building code that an inspector has up to 30 days to issue the permit. We installed a Metal Roof on an IHOP restaurant in Hyannis, MA (down at Cape Cod). When I went to pull the permit (which was an hour drive one way) I almost got rejected, as my Worker’s Comp certificate was generic and not made out to the Town of Barnstable. Fortunately, my insurance agent faxed in a copy 2 minutes before town hall closed.
As a side note, due to insurance fraud, in MA, your insurance agent cannot really give you an “all purpose” worker’s comp certificate, and the actual insurance company must print one out and mail it to you. This takes at least 3 days. Imagine a regular residential roofing company which installs a roof in one day and works 5 days a week. They have to get worker’s comp certificate for each roof, for every town they work in.
As my insurance certificate came out of the fax machine, the office lady called over the building inspector to look at my paperwork (after being there for an hour and a half, he never looked at it). He asked me for HIC registration ONLY, although all commercial work requires me having a CSL (construction supervisor license) and HIC implies that I do home improvement. When I offered the inspector my CSL, he said that he did not need it. Neither did he need my general liability insurance. Once he verified what he was looking for, he said: “You are all set – you can start in two weeks.” Why??? Why on earth do I have to wait two weeks??? I can lose a contract in two weeks. “Fortunately” half the roof on the restaurant was blown off by a storm wind, and it was more of an emergency roof work – this was the only reason he “allowed” us to start right away. So why do we need to wait two weeks I still don’t know. Time spent to get the permit – 4.5 hours.
Another time we did a roof in Grafton, MA. An IB low-slope roof on a residential home. Nothing fancy – a pretty straight forward roof. As I applied for the permit, I was told to first fill out 7 different forms, pay three different departments for some ridiculous things (even the health department) and I also had to submit a SPEC for an IB roof installation, including MSDS sheet (why?). They did not expect me to be back for a few days, but I was determined to either get a permit or permission to start work the same day, as once again I drove pretty far to make sure everything is ready for us to start when we planned to. I quickly ran to the town’s library and printed about 20 pages of IB specifications describing exactly the parts of the roof we were going to do (I love the IB online Quick Spec writer). When I brought back the whole package, the inspector was so surprised that he gave me an “ok” to start any time. Later, his secretary told me that he will actually read the specs. If I had known, I’d print out 200 pages, of exciting reading material. Time spent to get the permit – 5 hours.
There are many other stories I can tell about pulling a building permit. I do want to say that not all inspectors are evil. One time we told a building inspector in Abington, MA that we did not have MA HIC – only the one from Rhode Island. He was cool enough to tell us: “get the homeowner to pull the permit”, which we did and all worked out well. I also absolutely love the Boston building department. The flow of contractors there is so heavy that they do not have time for stupid things like full specs for a small residential re-roof. They check your insurances and licenses, collect a fee and give you a permit.
Many towns in MA and CT will give you permission to start and mail you the permit. Some will make you run around like a squirrel. They will want you to wait 3 days before you can start a job. So I adopted and “evolved”. Now I call the building department of any city or town where I’m going to work and tell them that I have a 3 hours drive to just get to their town, and if they could “please let me start the same day I will apply for a permit”. This usually works great. For example, when we installed an IB flat roof in Andover, CT – I never actually met the building inspector in person. I spoke to him on the phone – told him that the roof leaks and is covered with tarps (which was true) and we need to start ASAP. He gave an ok and all I had to do was apply for the permit and provide proof of insurance and a construction license.
The second flat roof which we did in the Andover, CT – I still had to talk to him on the phone. This time he wasn’t as happy, but since we already came to town, I “begged” him to let us start the job, without looking at it. Once again it was a complete tear-off and pretty straight forward, so he gave us a green light. But from now on, I have to apply for the permit by mail and he wants to see my work. Next time I’m in Andover, I’ll give him a call ahead of time. Here you can see the pictures of our second roof in Andover, Connecticut and of a roof in Westminster , MA: https://www.coolflatroof.com/flat-roofing-blog/low-slope-roofing-on-shed-dormers/
Why should you have a building permit for any construction work?
Bottom line – not all building inspectors are evil. Some are very nice, some are just bored and need things to do, and some need to feel powerful. It all depends on your luck. I learned how to coexist with any building inspector, and now do everything in advance – even have my insurance agent fax over my certificates before I arrive at city hall.
Why did I write all this? Well – this is my blog and I can do it! 🙂 Where else can I talk about it?
What is the point of all of this? I just had to get it out of my system after years of contractor – inspector interaction. Also my friend tried to pull a roofing permit for a VERY simple and straight forward roof – a measly 9 squares on a walkable gable roof in Malden, MA. And the inspector wants to inspect … maybe he had a bad day, but my buddy had to wait a few days until he could start. Really? So this was my inspiration.
Also, I want to make a point that many inspectors let shady contractors with fake certificates slide through or don’t even check for insurance and construction license, all-the-while they make other contractors chase their tails and waste time (and money), as if they have nothing to do. They also harass homeowners and issue stupid fines for stupid violations that should be grandfathered in. This creates situations where homeowners and contractors knowingly do not pull permits. It also creates a risk for homeowners to be left out if a shady contractor does a bad job and screws them – without a permit they cannot use the Mass. Homeowner Protection Fund.
Can this be fixed? I don’t see a solution, since there are too many hack inspectors and contractors out there, and homeowners really need to do their due diligence – check references, call people, look at the jobs, licenses, insurance certificates, etc.
I encourage any homeowner to read my article on how to choose a roofing contractor. You should also know that it is pretty easy to “scam” the building permit process. For example, a roofing contractor must have a full roofing general liability insurance, which can easily cost $10,000+ per year, and worker’s comp which runs at about 35-40% of payroll ($35-40 for every $100 you pay your guys). Many contractors will buy a siding insurance for $500-700 per year and use that certificate to pull permits. The can also claim to be “sole proprietor” on the Worker’s Comp form when they apply for a permit and get away with not having the insurance at all – even if they have employees.
As for licenses – in Rhode Island there is no construction license at all – only a contractor registration. You can do everything with it, except for electrical, plumbing, etc. In Massachusetts, only recently have they implemented a mandatory requirement for CSL to perform roofing, siding and windows work. Before, any hack could get a roofing permit with just an HIC registration.
So once again, always do your due diligence when choosing a contractor.
As for the contractors – have your paperwork ready, do good work and, good luck guys! 🙂
P.S. I’m not an angel and did not start my roofing business with $20,000 to buy all proper insurance. I did my share of getting around the permitting issue. Every one goes through it, but some remain in that stage forever. As for me – I prefer to do everything the right way, or not do it at all.