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How to Secure a Building Permit for Your Deck

If you’re considering adding any kind of new structure to your home, the idea of dealing with local authorities (aka bureaucracies) can be intimidating. The good news: once you know the secrets, it’s not nearly as intimidating as you might think. In this series, I’ll show you how to secure a building permit for your deck, porch or patio in Northern Virginia.

I’m called the Permit Queen around here because I spend a lot of my time mastering the art of the deal, and believe me, there’s an art (and science) to it. There will always be gray areas, largely because every county, processor, and project is unique and ever-changing. However, experience has taught me how to reduce the amount of time, frustration, and risk associated with achieving the ultimate prize: an approved building permit.

There is too much information to share in one blog, so today I’ll focus on the first step: understanding why permits are necessary.

The overarching purpose is safety. According to one Fairfax County inspector, for example, poorly-constructed outdoor living structures are the number two cause of injuries to adults in the state of Virginia (automobile accidents are number one). As a result, the counties want to ensure that decks, screen porches, pavilions, pergolas, etc., are built to exacting standards that will endure for 20 years or more. As you might imagine, last year’s earthquake that was felt in Northern Virginia only heightened this sense of urgency for the counties.

The second reason that building permits are necessary is to ensure that you adhere to the zoning requirements for your property. Every outdoor living structure has rules about how far back it must be from your property lines (i.e., setbacks). Roofed structures like a porch, screen porch, pavilion, pergola, garage, etc., have more stringent setback requirements than non-roofed structures like decks, patios, fireplaces, built-in grills, and so forth. If you build one of these structures without the proper setback, it could lead to expensive remedies (a modification at best, and a tear-down and rebuild at worst).

The third reason for a permit is to ensure that you aren’t violating any easements associated with your property. You would be surprised to know how many homes in Northern Virginia have been designated as flood zones, have county sewage systems running through them, or have nature-preserve building restrictions (not to mention the importance of building too closely to privately-owned septic systems). Another important zoning consideration, especially in Alexandria and Arlington, is the presence of the lot-coverage rules that dictate how much of your property you can cover with certain types of materials.b

When homeowners and contractors fail to secure building permits, they are taking significant risks with regard to safety, zoning, and easements. The building permits themselves are not very expensive, but the process of securing them can be somewhat time-consuming. However, this short-term investment will pay huge dividends by enabling you to relax and fully enjoy your properly-constructed outdoor living space for many years!

Now that you have a good idea of why building permits are necessary, I’ll discuss the next step in Part 2: being prepared with the correct paperwork. That may make your heart race a little bit with anxiety, but it’s actually a snap once you know the secrets. Stay tuned…