Several weeks ago we responded to a reader’s question about possibly removing a fireplace in her 1920s Oakland house.

She made it clear she was going to hire this job out, but wanted our opinion on what we thought of the idea. We gave her the pros and cons as we saw them and also gave her a primer on what might be involved should she decide to take the plunge.

We pointed out that it would be a lot of work to not only demolish the fireplace but also replace the void she’d create. Pretty general advice, we thought.

But it struck a nerve with another of our readers, architect Neil Rains. Here, edited for space, is his view:

"Thank you for your Sweat Equity columns. They are generally enlightening, sometimes entertaining and, I’m sure, helpful and supportive to those who write to you.

"I am dismayed by your lack of informing your readers about the legal requirement for obtaining building permits prior to beginning work! On Sept. 13, you wrote about the possibility of removing a fireplace but did not suggest that a permit would be required to do the work. A permit is required for almost any alteration of this type.

"Following is verbatim from the 2004 California Building Code (language from the 2007 code now in effect is virtually the same):

"106.1: Permits Required. Except as specified in Section 106.2, no building or structure regulated by this code shall be erected, constructed, enlarged, altered, repaired, moved, improved, removed, converted or demolished unless a separate permit for each building or structure has first been obtained from the building official.

"Clearly, the writer for the fireplace (and many other alterations mentioned in your columns) would require a permit prior to beginning work.

"Most local building departments have technicians who are sympathetic toward homeowners attempting to do such work and are happy to walk them through the process and provide valuable assistance such as required wood size and spacing to support given loads, electrical, plumbing and mechanical requirements and energy conservation requirements.

"Those who think it is a hassle to go through the process of obtaining a permit before the work is done should try doing it after the work is done. Almost all cities will require complete plans of the illegal work, engineering (if required) and enough uncovering of work to confirm that work conforms with code requirements. Non-conforming work must, of course, be removed and made to conform.

"As an architect and retired building official, I couldn’t begin to tell you in this letter of even a few of the frustrations and heartaches I have witnessed sitting across the counter from people who have done work without permits. …CONTINUED

"So I hope you will be cognizant of the need to mention permit requirements and possible assistance from the local jurisdictions to those who write to you in the future. Your doing so will benefit them."

Agreed. It’s true that we don’t often mention building permits. Securing a permit is one of the first things to do, right after the initial planning.

In the case of the woman with the fireplace, this was not a do-it-yourself project. We assumed that the permit and inspection process would be explained in the bid from her licensed contractor and that the contract to do the work would address permits and inspections.

That we often omit mentioning permits doesn’t mean that we advocate doing the work without them. To the contrary, if a permit is required, apply for it before starting work.

And make sure to take advantage of the expertise of the local building officials. Our experience is that they often go the extra mile to help owner-builders and contractors alike.

Another critical reason to secure a building permit is that California real estate law requires disclosure of non-permitted work upon sale. In today’s tough market, work done without a permit could be a valuable bargaining chip for the buyer, or worse, a deal killer.

So, thank you, Mr. Rains, for pointing out our omission. To our readers, there a few things that we always mean, even if we don’t take the space to repeat them every time:

— Safety first. Know how to operate any tools you use in a safe manner. Wear appropriate clothing, eye protection, ear protection and dust/vapor protection.

— Plan before you start a project. Change-orders halfway through a job can be very expensive.

— If you don’t plan to do the work yourself, hire a licensed and bonded contractor. It is illegal for unlicensed contractors to take on jobs larger than $500. Check to make sure contractors’ licenses are valid at

— If required, secure a building permit before starting work. To find out if you need a permit, simply call your local building department.


What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor. To contact the writer, click the byline at the top of the story.

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