Herald and Journal, March 29, 1999

When comparing building permit fees, you really can't compare

By Luis Puga

Paul Waldron, of Paul Waldron of Associates, knows the routine by heart.

As a certified building inspector, he fears a newspaper's home improvement issue.

Why? Because Waldron knows that newspapers often run fee schedules (permits costs, plan review costs, SAC and WAC charges) from area cities in their home improvement issues.

Then, some angry reader realizes that he or she paid more in fees in town X than town Y, and the ball gets rolling. It ends up with Waldron having to come to the city council and explain in a public meeting why those fees are different.

An inspector for 23 years, Waldron knows the ins and outs of the Minnesota State Building Code - all three volumes.

As a Minnesota-certified building official, he knows the code is set up for the safety and welfare of the consumer and can tell you the benefits of having that code.

In disaster relief, the code can mean a considerable difference in how much a city receives in aid from the government. Because the code regulates the minimum quality of a house, the Insurance Service Organization rating will be better if a city adopts the code.

A consumer can also know, when looking at different builders, that prices quoted are for homes that meet the minimum requirments, no matter how low the cost.

Waldron said,"Without the building code, there is no assurance that you're going to get a minimum quality home. This builder could say, 'Gee, I like you, so I am going to build (the house) for $5,000 less.' Well, somewhere along the line, they are going to have to make up for that $5,000."

With that in mind, Waldron doesn't think much of scrapping the code.

With 13 cities and one county contracting with Waldron, each with different fee schedules, zoning codes, and amount of building activity, having having the consistancy of a buiding code is a valuable asset for a building inspector.

"It is a big paper chase and that's the part of the job the public doesn't necessarily see," Waldron said.

So why are the fees in one town higher than others? Waldron can go on forever.

Take building activity. Waldron pulls out the file for Waconia, Lester Prairie, and Watertown. Waconia is the thickest, followed by Watertown, and then Lester. The files are full of recent permits.

Because of that, the prices are different.

A city with a higher degree of building activity has more problems associated with development. Those cities will regulate more of the building process to stem off some of those problems.

This might include assigning deposits for street damage, requirements for planting trees, driveway deposits, or landscape deposits.

Waldron said that a city's proximity to the metro area will probably dictate building activity and influence permit fees as well..

Moreover, cities in the metro area are required to adopt the state building code.

In McLeod and Wright Counties, cities over 2,500 population are required to follow code, while smaller cities had to formally declare in the 1970s if they didn't want to adopt the code.

Most cities have adopted the state building code, but the process still allows a lot of local discretion on what services are provided with a permit such as the number of inspections an inspector makes, plan review, and what type of inspections.

For example, some cities may allow more variances than others, have different types of setbacks, require furnaces to go through carbon monoxide inspection, require an inspection before you put a stake in a plot, or a whole plethora of different services and attitudes towards construction.

Beyond that, each city is different and charges may be adjusted for specific attributes.

Some cities have lakes, others have rivers, others have no natural waterways, and fees may be adjusted for such attributes. The valuation of the house will also play a big role in how much a prospective owner pays in fees.

Lastly, the rate may depend on what the city is funding with those fees. Some cities do not have enough building activity to justify a building department.

Rather, they go with a certified building inspector like Waldron who covers the massive amount of paper shuffling that goes into building new homes, decks, additions, and three-season decks.

A city might opt to use its fees to pay for the building inspector, who gets a percentage of the fees.

Other cities that have their own planning and zoning departments, may want to fund those departments out of their permit fees, so as not to use up general funds or create an additional tax burden.

Whatever the reason, the differences in fee prices are many. However, they do not mean a home builder is getting ripped off.

Waldron said that while people may complain about the fees, no one has ever decided not to build because of a fee.

After all, he said, the expense is a drop in the bucket compared to what a home builder is already paying in construction charges.

Waldron estimates that any new home construction is probably going to cost $100,000, and a $1,000 fee is not going to stop someone from building.

The process. . .

The paper chase on just a simple project is fairly sizable.

In the back room of Waldron's suite in downtown Waconia, are about four cubicles where inspectors pour over plans they receive from cities and prospective builders.

These plans aren't always required to be architectural blueprints, and Waldron didn't even laugh when asked whether he ever received a plan on a cocktail napkin.

The inspectors pour over the plans, trying to find as many violations on paper as possible, rather than when the house is halfway done. On hooks in the office, hang rows and rows of red stamps, indicating corrections that need to be made.

These are sent back to the builder, who keeps a copy for his or her own reference on site, and another copy is sent to the city.

Periodically, an inspector will come by and make an inspection during building, and make notes on things that still need to be fixed or have been taken care of.

If everything is completed satisfactorily, the owner will receive a certificate of occupancy, a valuable document if one is trying to get a mortgage on their house.

So, what are some of the more common errors on plans that Waldron sees?

One is the height and width of a hand rail. The building code mandates these to be about one and a half to one and a quarter inch wide since this is the optimum width for people to grasp. The height should be 36 inches high.

Also, a small section of rail must go from the ends and curve into the wall.

Why? It was found that people often snag sleeves or purses on an open end of rail and fall. A small piece on each end keeps that from happening.

The code is authored by a national organization of architects, engineers, insurance agents, and building inspectors about every three years.

That's why, when a city has a code, it might be from 1988's, 1991's, '94's, or '97's.

A city can use the 1991 code with 10 percent extra, or 10 percent more in charges, adjusting the total cost.

With all this in mind, Waldron has got a lot to worry about when he looks at plans. Not only are there general building codes, but plumbing codes, heating codes, sewer and sanitation codes, fire codes, accessibility codes, and more.

It is Waldron who makes sure all new buildings are up to the fire code, while the fire chief ensures that existing buildings are meeting the existing requirments.

What about those plans? If people are handing in cocktail napkins, one can imagine some strange errors in them.

Waldron said he's seen some interesting plans. One plan for a house that defied physics, included a beam that supported the second floor with no supports for the beam.

Another, which had a wood foundation, didn't take into account that wood rots and the wood had to be treated.

Many of these errors will be caught in a thorough plan review. Again, not all cities require a plan review, so the outcomes are different.

Waldron also keeps hand-outs available for prospective home owners on everything from simple window replacement, to decks, to detached garages, to how the building codes help the consumer.

Another effort to distribute this information out to the public is through a building safety week, from April 4-10. This is a chance to explain the code, fees, and give consumers the information they need.

Incidentally, Paul Waldron and Associaties was appointed to the State of Minnesota's Governor's Advisory Council. This will provide Waldron's firm to suppy tecnical assitance regarding the state-wide building code issues.

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