In 2013, when I secured the building permits required to renovate my Athena condo, I was on the permitting office’s doorstep New Year’s morning and within a couple of hours, I left, permits in hand. When I returned a year later to get new permits to renovate the master bathroom, a similar timeline played out.
In the ensuing years since that simple, efficient timeline for simple renovation projects, the permitting office has vanished into bureaucracy, poor staffing and civil servitude. Instead of hours or even days, my permit took a full two-months to be issued – and it wasn’t because of me.
For those just joining the Penthouse Plunge series, on September 3, I purchased a 5,311-square-foot double penthouse at The Claridge on Turtle Creek. It had been on the market for four years with over $1 million in price reductions – and hadn’t been touched in 25 years. The combined floor plan didn’t work and so the only solution is to separate the units back into their original, as-built sizes and original-ish configurations. And that’s just what I’m doing, with an endgame of selling the 2,770-square-foot corner A-unit (two bedrooms with study) and living in the B-unit forevermore. Penthouse Plunge follows the ups and downs of the renovation process and eventual sale.
Back to permitting (and its interminable waiting) which is part of the city department of Sustainable Development and Construction.
Let’s establish the timeline. On September 3, I closed on the property. On September 6, I applied for a building permit and was told approval would take 2-3 weeks. On November 1, exactly eight weeks after the application, I walked out with a building permit.
Throughout that time there were three phone calls (all initiated by me – seemed quicker) and four emails. No request was terribly difficult, and with one exception, were answered within a half hour of the email. That exception was a requirement for additional wall construction detail for the new wall section separating the units. I received the request on Thursday and it was in the examiner’s email box Monday (I needed the architect to prepare a drawing).
Lessons Learned: File for permits sooner than soon
You know how some tony schools have waiting lists so long that would-be parents apply when the stick turns blue? Do that for permitting – apply with the first wisp of an idea you might renovate. Otherwise you wait. And if your project means your property is uninhabitable (as mine is), there are carrying costs. You’re paying a mortgage, taxes, utilities and any fees … and expenses while you live elsewhere.
I spent nearly $1,000 on the permit application and for that, I got a two-month process to approve a renovation – a renovation that required no foundation or structural work, no plumbing changes (can’t in a high-rise), and no roofing. And even though there is demolition and wall construction, nothing is load-bearing (it can’t be in a steel-reinforced concrete high-rise outside the structural columns). I simply asked to separate a combined unit back into the as-built boundaries and renovate it for sale.
With all the carrying costs and living expenses, those two months waiting for a building permit have cost me roughly $27,000 – quite a chunk of budget spent waiting.
But I didn’t wait, nor do a lot of people
There were things I could do without a permit. The floors could be removed. The kitchens, bathrooms, and built-ins could be de-installed and shipped off to Habitat for Humanity (more later). Wallpaper and mirrors could be removed (there were a lot of mirrors). The fountain – yes, fountain – could go, as could the dozen tube TVs left behind.
I am in full support of a permitting system to ensure construction is done safely and to code. I have always filed for permits and always will. But there’s another side to that compact between the city and its citizens – namely, time = money.
It is simply unconscionable that a costly, previously real-time process has devolved into one that takes months. During this wait, I asked a few of Dallas’ largest architecture firms how long it takes to get permits for a 20-story building. The answer was perhaps 20-weeks. Let me remind you that 26-weeks is half a year! They said in recent years the timetable has effectively doubled for them.
For my project it increased 40x from a single day to 40 business days (or thought of another way, slightly less than the time it took to approve a 20-story high-rise just a few years ago). And the most galling part is that the total time spent actually reviewing the project was well under a single working day. The rest of my project’s two-month odyssey was spent in a pile with other anxious projects similarly costing their owners’ careless money too.
I was told that a string of events has led to the permitting department being short-staffed. A large part was attributed to retirements. Well, guess what? Old people retiring is hardly unforeseeable. The department failed to ensure a smooth succession plan so that residents (their customers) weren’t spending untold thousands while waiting on the slow drip of permit approvals.
And here’s the thing, this is one of those city departments that should be immune to city budget cuts because their budget, and accompanying service level, should be supported by its fees. If the fees aren’t high enough, raise them.
Instead, they’ve created Q-TEAM. Essentially an applicant pays multiple times the standard permit fee to cut in line. In my case, let’s say I paid $1,000 for the permit application. I’d then pay $500 “pre-qualification” fee (fee based on project size) and within two-to-three weeks, I’d sit down with the Q-TEAM to expedite my permit. Ohhh, wait, that sit-down is charged at $1,000 per hour. Let’s say my review took an hour, that’s $2,500 – for two hours, $3,500 – to get a permit. That’s 2.5x or 3.5x the cost to cut 60 percent off the permitting time which is itself two-to-three weeks longer than it took a few years ago. WTF?
I never had sympathy for those who got caught without permits (when getting them was quick). But seeing how little time is valued by the department, I have a lot more now.
Honestly, the city doesn’t have a leg to stand on with scofflaws when the process is so drawn out. And let’s be clear, there are no winners here. Unpermitted construction makes the city more dangerous for residents – for as long as the structure stands. This plays out with avoidable fires, floods, property damage and personal injury resulting from shoddy work. Patient homeowners and builders waste money waiting for permits. And if the permitting department is doing less overall work, it’s only because more people are rolling the dice to see if they get caught.
Oh, and all those Preston Hollow residents filing permits for storm damage? Were the system still functioning properly, words like “expedite” wouldn’t even be needed. As it is, I assume “expedite” really means “cuts” in front of pre-storm projects dawdling through the office who didn’t pay for Q-TEAM?
Remember: High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the National Association of Real Estate Editors recognized my writing with three Bronze (2016, 2017, 2018) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards. Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make? Shoot me an email email@example.com. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.