Too much time in permitting is too little money for Miami
Written by Michael Lewis on March 21, 2017
We used to learn by the grapevine that getting a building permit was slower in one city than another. For example, we always heard that Coral Gables could take seemingly forever to get a small project permitted.
But thanks to the Internet, we can now read officially what virtually every community tells us about how long a building permit for a single-family home or a small renovation is going to take and plan accordingly.
One of the longest waits nationally is San Diego, where such a permit typically takes six months to a year, the city says candidly on its website.
Massachusetts says “building permits that do require plan review will typically be issued in two to three weeks but could take longer during peak times of the year depending on the workload.”
In Washington State, Seattle takes 120 days, longer if corrections are needed, while rural areas cite three to four weeks to issue a permit. In Stevens County, “we can normally complete plan review and issue a permit within 7-10 days.”
Almost every jurisdiction, no matter how small, is clearer about how long it takes than the City of Miami, which nonetheless sounds fastest. Miami’s total timing explanation is: “The time to get a permit issued varies. Some permits can be issued the same day, over-the-counter and others require that the plans be left for review.”
It turned out that when Commissioner Francis Suarez asked for a study last year, he learned that “left for review” meant close to a full year – an average of 310 days to get a permit for a single-family home or a $100,000 or less remodeling or project.
If you wonder why so many unpermitted – meaning illegal – remodeling jobs are being done all over Miami to the detriment of the city as a whole, look no farther than the wait.
Are you going to wait a year to get a permit to build a fence or a shed? Nobody does.
Yes, some folks are happy to avoid Miami’s permit fee, which starts at $32 for the first $1,000 of value and grows by $16 for every $1,000 thereafter. A permit for a $50,000 job, for example, would cost $816.
But it’s not the red ink in a fee so much as the red tape in getting a permit that leaves the city with a red face for so much unpermitted work.
As we reported last week, after last summer’s study the city was able to trim time from the average wait from application to the day a homeowner can work on the deck or driveway legally. The more light on the problem, the shorter the wait is likely to become.
Not all the delay is due to city bureaucracy. Virtually every jurisdiction in the nation says the better the plans that are submitted, the faster a permit will be issued. Quality of plans is the single biggest factor in permitting time.
But the Miami study found that plans often had to be reworked 10 times or more. Nobody else in the nation that we could find cites a two-digit number for required reworking of plans.
That leads to the question of whether, in Miami’s zeal to get it absolutely right, the city is asking more than is needed for small jobs.
There might be some value in issuing permits for projects that are slightly less than perfect in order to avoid homeowners and small contractors taking the illegal but frequent step of simply working without a permit and therefore without any oversight or building inspection at all.
Is some oversight, in other words, better than none? It’s a question city officials might carefully ponder. If they demand something that’s too hard to get, illegal work will make the city the worse rather than the better for its perfectionism.
The city might also be more candid about how long it really takes to get a permit and be legal in small projects. If the average is 310 days, as it was last year, or 250 or whatever as it might be now, shouldn’t the city’s website say that rather than saying, as it does now, one day or maybe longer? How about truth in advertising?
Meanwhile, we commend city commissioners for looking carefully into the time lag and trying to do something about it.
The faster they push the process, the more improvements are going to get done, the better the city’s homes are going to be, and the more jobs will be done legally – paying the city for a permit – and the fewer illegally, paying the city nothing.
Time, it turns out, is money for both the homeowner and the city.