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The last few years of record-low mortgage interest rates have resulted in record numbers of remodeling jobs as well as homeowners dipping into their equity to remodel or expand their abodes. However, before you start designing that media room addition and breaking up concrete -- do the homework on what it really takes to make an addition onto your house.

No matter what you want to do to your house, most local jurisdictions want to know what you're doing, for several reasons. First of all -- they want to know what to charge you in taxes in the next year. Most additions and remodel jobs will increase the value of a property and your county or city wants to get their fair share of tax dollars with that appreciation. Secondly, but probably most importantly, they want to ensure you put together an addition that is safe for your household and for those that will live in the dwelling in later years.

Meanwhile, the local jurisdiction isn't the only group that's going to have a say in what you do to your property. Most states in the U.S. have state-level codes that must be followed. Researching on my county government's website revealed that even a project as simple as placing a shed on my lot carries several code requirements. Homeowners desiring a larger dwelling have several steps to follow before turning the first shovel-full of dirt.

  1. Check covenants and deed restrictions. Your actual first restriction may not even be the county, but rather the community covenants in which you live or the deed on your property. If you have a one-car garage the covenants may not allow pushing it up to a two-car garage.
  2. Make sure your building plans meet local and state building codes. You can't even budget out your addition until you know what the building codes require. Did you know, for instance, that you may have to use a certain thickness of drywall for a garage addition? Price out the incorrect thickness and you could be hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars over budget.
  3. Review your plat. This is the survey of your property. Do you have enough room for the addition? You can't build too close to someone's property and your local codes may have the measurement written out -- 5 feet to the line, 15 feet, etc. Build it too close and you could face demolition of the whole project.
  4. Soil review. Will your lot perc for the bedroom addition? Does your community have unique soil concerns that would limit your project? In addition to the soils, how will your plan affect storm drainage?
  5. Get a plan. Once all the above (and more items, according to your jurisdiction) are taken care of, then plan out your addition -- how big, what materials, electrical, plumbing, heating/air, foundation, etc., etc.
  6. Finally, apply for the permits. A building permit isn't the only permit you'll need to check into. Every aspect of the building may require a permit. In Fairfax County, Virginia, for instance, additions and remodel jobs may require the following permits:
    • Building permit for architectural and structural elements.
    • Electrical permit for all electrical installations.
    • Mechanical permit for installations of heating and air conditioning systems.
    • Plumbing permit for installations of plumbing and gas piping systems.
    • Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) permit (and bond) when a grading plan is required and your property is located on a state road.
    • Well/septic permit for altering or relocating private water or sewage systems.

Okay -- now you're ready, right? Well -- not so fast. First all these permits have to win approval by the appropriate agencies, i.e., zoning, site permits, health department, building plan review, sanitation -- and maybe even your homeowners association's architectural review board.

As with any project -- begin with the end in mind. In addition, the devil's in the details and be sure to dig through those details with a microscopic, fine-toothed comb.

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