What Happens After You Apply for a Philly Building Permit?
To apply for a Philly building permit, you must create a package of material – usually plans and a set of forms – to submit to the Department of Licenses and Inspections (check out our building permit overview for more on that process). L&I may not accept the package – they may take a look and decide that your plans aren’t clear enough, or that you have included sheets which don’t apply to the project. But if all the materials are in order, they’ll accept the application.
So that means you’ll get your permit, right?
Not always. Just because L&I accepts your package to review doesn’t mean that you’ll get a favorable review. Here’s a quick summary of everything that can happen to a Philly building permit application once it enters the L&I conveyor belt.
Best-Case Scenario: The Application is Approved!
Sometimes it’s simple: Sometimes you’ve done all your homework, and the project is approved.
For projects that don’t require plans, this can happen instantly: there’s a type of Philly building permit called an EZ permit which doesn’t require architectural drawings and can be approved the same day. An EZ permit is granted mostly for renovation work on homes zoned for one or two families, and when the work is done by the homeowner, if – take note, investors! – the homeowner lives at the address where the work will be done.
For virtually any construction project, however, architectural or engineering plans are required. Plans must be no smaller than 18 by 24 inches, and they must show an overhead (site) view and – in the case of most construction – a profile (elevation) view. If any weight at all will be held by the construction (so, basically any house or even a deck), structural information and calculations must be included; as well as a structural criteria design form. Any plans for weight-bearing construction must be signed and sealed by a licensed Pennsylvania architect and/or engineer. If the construction affects any other department in the City – if it changes a sidewalk (under control of the Streets Department) or installs a new sewer (under control of the Water Department) – then the plans need to be reviewed by those departments before L&I takes a look at this whole package.
If the plans and application package meet L&I’s standards, the package will be accepted for review by a plans examiner. This takes about 15 business days for smaller projects (though it might only take a week), or 20 business days for larger projects. If the package passes review, you’ll get a notice that more or less says, “Hey, come get your stuff!” and also tells you how much the permit will cost. You’ll be able to go back to Licenses and Inspections and pick up the permit, as well as your plans. Remember to pay by check or money order – the City is still adjusting to the existence of credit cards.
Common Scenario: A Request for Additional Information
If the plans examiner on your case doesn’t think she has enough information to understand what you’re trying to build (or why), she’ll ask for more information.
There are many different sorts of information she might ask for. She might spot a missing sheet in your plans – for example, the City might ask for a picture of the building, and the plans don’t provide any. She might ask for more specific labeling on a survey – for example, an application for a parking lot might not label all the curb cuts with dimensions. She might also find that you didn’t get the proper reviews: maybe the City Planning Commission needs a look at your planned development, but you didn’t give the package to CPC to review before handing it to L&I.
Whatever is missing, if the plans examiner wants it, you have to provide it: usually within 60 days, though sometimes within 30 – the deadline varies depending on the examiner and the nature of the information the examiner wants to see. The examiner will send you a letter explaining what they think is missing from your application and how long you have to fix the problem. You must collect the missing information, sign a copy of the examiner’s letter, and submit all of that back to L&I before the deadline.
This often happens in a complicated building permit application. Sometimes it might happen twice. But you shouldn’t let it happen too many times – you should read the letter, get the plans examiner the stuff she wants, and move on. If you can’t get the missing information to L&I after trying for a while, you may be flirting with the…
Worst-Case Scenario: The Building Permit Application is Abandoned
Let’s say up front: There are only two ways a Philly building permit application would be abandoned. First, the developer might ignore all deadlines or give up on the project. If a developer applies for a building permit, gets a request for additional information, and ignores that request, then eventually the application will be abandoned – again, usually after 60 days. If you just quit on the project or are so busy you forget about the building permit application, the City of Philly will dump it.
The other way an application gets abandoned is if something goes really badly. L&I moves slowly, but it gives investors and developers a lot of chances to craft a successful application. If you have a calendar and an interest in the project, only catastrophe or a very thin wallet can ultimately prevent you from getting your permit.
Here’s a story of catastrophe: The grapevine passed us word of a contractor who started work on a building that was not up to code before applying for a building permit. The City didn’t catch the contractor doing this, so the contractor tried to get a building permit while finishing the house. (This is bonkers illegal; don’t ever do this.) And the contractor, the rumor goes, might have gotten away with it if the plans were up to code. But because the halfway-finished house wasn’t up to building or zoning codes, the engineers hired to create the plans had to report – over and over again – that the house wasn’t quite right. And every time L&I refused to give out a building permit, until finally the permit application was abandoned.
You can get a Philly building permit – just plan ahead
If you do something wildly illegal and ridiculous, then yes: your application will be rejected. But if you do your homework, follow the rules, have a little patience, there’s no reason you can’t get a Philly building permit in a reasonable amount of time.
And if you need any other help with it, just contact Permit Philly.