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Residential Building Tips

Do Your Research

Before you plunge into a home building project, do your research. Read a few books and/or magazine articles on the topic. Ask friends about their experiences. And spend some time getting to know the local restrictions and requirements for home building and renovations.

Remember, the DIY videos and reality shows only tell half (or less) of the story. Though they typically include a project pitfall for dramatic effect, they leave a lot out.

Hire the Right Professionals

Many different trades are involved in building a new house, adding on, or doing renovations. You need people who not only have technical skills, but also project management know-how and the ability to navigate through the permitting process.

There are two parts of finding the "right" person or firm.

First, determine the type of professional you need. Architects focus on design elements and flow. Engineers make the building and foundations are structurally sound. You'll probably need both. Depending on your project, you also might need a plumber, an electrician, and a fire prevention systems engineer. You might even need someone who specializes in transporting a house from one location to another.

Once you've identified the type of professional, you'll need to find the actual person to do the job. Some things to look for:

  • Experience working in/with the City of Petaluma
  • Experience with your type of project
  • Good references -- call at least three
  • Someone with availability to help you

Get Real: Budget & Timeline

Conventional wisdom says to add 15% to any project bid and timeline you receive. Be sure to confirm whether the bids include permit fees.

There are a few reasons projects end up costing more money and taking more time than expected. The bid might have been too low and the timeline too ambitious to begin with; that's why you should be wary when bids come in that are significantly less costly than the others. There might have been too many changes along the way; that's where research and advanced planning on the front end can help you manage costs. Another reason: unexpected spikes in labor and/or materials costs, such as what we saw after the 2017 wildfires.

Times to Check with City

The City does not offer design or engineering services and we do not make referrals. However, we are an important resource that you should check with on a regular basis throughout your project -- and especially in the following circumstances.

  • Before you make an offer on a property
  • Before you have an initial meeting with an architect or engineer
  • Before you sign a contract with a design or construction professional, so that you can confirm permit fees and requirements.
  • When a project is delayed and you're hearing it's the City's fault (it might be that your contractor isn't managing the project well, or that incomplete plans were submitted).
  • As the project gets close to completion, to make sure inspections are on track

All of the divisions/departments involved in issuing permits are available to answer questions. Short consultations (15 minutes or less) typically do not involve a fee. If a longer meeting, plan review, or inspection is needed, you probably will be charged. But if the consultation helps you avoid costly pitfalls and project delays, then the fee will be well worth it.

Being an Owner / Builder

The State of California allows residential property owners to act as the builder on their projects. You still need to submit plans to the City, pay permit fees, and pass inspections. But you do not need to hire a design or construction professional to develop the plans or do the work.

If you're thinking this is a great way to save money and time, think again. You might spend much more because of your "learning curve," your inability to take advantage of materials discounts, and your need for extra insurance to protect yourself. Under state rules, an owner/builder assumes all risk and liability for the project: if there is an injury related to your project, structural issues that require additional inspections, or any other problem, the buck stops with you.

Get more info here.

photo of site plan


Our role is not to design your project, but rather to inform and ensure that the design and construction follow the code.

by Doug Hughes, Building Official

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