How to Navigate the Confusing World of Renovation Permits Like a Pro

If you’re a homeowner in Greater Vancouver looking to renovate, you may soon realize that getting through the renovation permit process isn’t as easy as you think. We’ve written this article to help you navigate, and succeed at, residential permitting.

Todd’s Terrible Residential Renovation Permit Tale

Todd Talbot lives and breathes real estate. He’s the host of Love It or List It Vancouver, often relied upon for advice on renovations, builds, or the market. Todd’s the kind of guy that seems like he wouldn’t need much help completing a project.

So why did Todd call Kennedy Construction during his most recent renovation? Three painful words – municipal renovation permitting.

Metro Vancouver is known for its high standards in building and renovating. Those high standards make the permit process that much more of an obstacle for would-be home improvers. You might not understand if you even need a permit. You might not understand the technical language. You might not know who to ask for help, or how to get from start to finish. No matter where you live in the Greater Vancouver Area, renovation permitting can become a big pain point, fast.

“You see this grey here?
That’s from going through
the permitting process.”

Todd Talbot

In this article, we’re going to talk about what makes the process so tricky, and what residential permit process experts do to make it go as smooth as possible. That way, you’ll have a better idea of what to expect and a better idea how to handle your own permit issues when they arise. But first, let’s hear Todd’s story.


Todd’s Story
Todd Talbot talks with Kennedy Construction President, Andrew Kennedy.


So what makes the process so tricky?

While Todd was able to get through the early stages of the process on his own, many homeowners will struggle to even get started due to how daunting a task the initial stages can be. There are three ‘first step’ aspects of municipal renovating permitting that create the most headaches, and we’re going to go through them:

  1. Not knowing if you even need a permit
  2. Confusing language, and
  3. A process that’s hard to understand unless you’re an expert

If you’re still feeling up to the challenge, let’s get on the same page about those three things before we move into how to tackle the process. 



Deciding If You Need A Permit

Todd’s project seemed small enough to not need permitting but grew to the point where he needed to bring in pros. You might feel the same way – “does my simple renovation project need all those drawings, approvals, and visits to the City?” That question is actually harder to answer in an article than you might think, but each municipal website does give us a bit of a list to start with. Here are three examples:


Municipality permit renovation table. 

Now, you might have picked up on something there – these lists aren’t especially detailed. What if you want to build a few retaining walls several feet from each other – is that a series? Vancouver lists ‘all temporary buildings’ as needing permits, but does that include a shed with a homemade concrete slab floor?


When do you need a permit?
President Andrew Kennedy, alongside Project Manager Jess Hanley, discussing permits.


Permitting language is tough, and if you want to be 100% confident that you’re going the proper route you’ll likely either need to talk to a professional builder/renovator, or even someone at your municipal permitting department, to help confirm your translation of the language.



Understanding the Language

Builders like us are bilingual in a sense – but our second language is ‘Planner’ – not Francais or Espanol. And not only do we have to know the language of Planners, but we also have to know if there are any regional ‘dialect’ differences between municipalities. That may sound silly, but remember: as professionals, it’s our job to minimize the amount of back-and-forth between the project and the municipality. Double-checking little things like the understanding of a phrase could knock literally months off the time it takes to complete a renovation.


“…is there Google Translate for permitting?”

Todd Talbot


The language
Todd and Andrew discuss permit language.


If you get stuck on the process, can’t tell if you need a permit, or want some language clarified, reach out to your appropriate municipal contact (or reach out to us – we’re experts). To help, we compiled a handy list of metro Vancouver permitting contacts:


Municipal renovation permitting contact information in Metro Vancouver



Mastering the Process

Which came first, the Photography or the Architectural Building Envelope Details? If you’d like to do some homework, here’s a clue:


Permitting Overview
Building Permit Application Requirements Document. Source: City of Vancouver website.


Understanding and executing the steps from ‘concept’ to ‘completion’ in renovation permitting takes incredible organizational skill, a good chunk of time, and sometimes a few helpful industry connections. Unless managing the permit process is your day-to-day job, knowing each requirement and its associated documents or signoffs is going to be tough. Above is a screenshot of the document that tells you what documents and information you need. If you see that and feel a little overwhelmed, you’re not alone.

“…I mean you dive into this thing, and by the time you’re down the rabbit hole you have 12 tabs open in your browser”

Todd Talbot

The more steps there are in a process, the more room there is for that process to go off the rails. Knowledge and perfection are required at each step to reduce the amount of back-and-forth needed between yourself and your municipality. Remember: one slip-up, one misunderstanding, or one error could set you back literally months.


The Risk vs. Reward of Good Permitting

So you’ve read the rules and decided to roll the dice — you’re going to either try to keep your project secret or do it with the incorrect permits. What happens if you’re caught?


The Risk of not Obtaining a Permit
Jess and Andrew discuss the consequences for those who risk it.


Answer: it’s not pretty. In the video above, Jess and Andrew weigh in. For extra measure, here’s what the City of Vancouver website says are the potential outcomes of improper permitting (or skipping it altogether):

  • A “work without permit” penalty. This is typically double the original permit fee.
  • A delay while your permit application is processed. All work must stop during this time and the original timeline and fees to process an application still apply.
  • A potential to remove work that was already commenced prior to obtaining a permit.
  • A potential to do more work than you had originally planned and budgeted for, such as adding fire sprinklers or making seismic upgrades.
  • Potential for future legal and /or financial issues when selling your property or filing an insurance claim.

Something to remember: the COST of permitting is nominal. Doing it right may save you in the long run, especially where those fines are concerned – PLUS, doing it right will increase the sale price of your home down the line. Andrew and Todd discuss below:


The Value of Permitting
Todd and Andrew discuss the unseen value of getting a proper permit.


Make it a Smooth Process

Our owner, Andrew Kennedy, estimates that between himself the rest of the team, he oversees 15-20 permit application processes per year. If you’re looking to go it alone on a project that requires a permit, here are some of his tips:


Make sure you have the time. Both in terms of months for a project, and hours in a day.

In terms of months: the time delays between submissions + next actions can be in the weeks and months and could require many rounds of back-and-forth, especially if you’re doing it on your own.

It’s not uncommon for permitting a larger project to take the better part of a year.

In terms of hours: It’s also important to carve out enough time in a day when you want to take on permit-related tasks. Getting to a permitting office, parking, waiting in line, then getting your meeting can take hours. It’s better to make sure you have more than you need – it would be a huge pain almost getting to the front of the queue and then having to head off to another appointment.


Reach out if you’re stuck.

Remember: the various permitting boards want to see you succeed. They exist to make our communities safer, and to protect homeowners – so, reach out! Ask questions. If you find dead ends, remember that there are professionals who may be able to assist with parts of the process that you’re finding difficult. Kennedy Construction is commonly brought on to help with just permitting, or project management.

Applying for a permit can be an overwhelming and daunting task. The building permit application checklist is very long-format and requires professionals involved from Architects, designers, engineers, energy consultants, and so on.

Getting a proper permit and sign-off ensures you won’t get a “Stop Work Order” notice from your municipality when a nosy neighbor complains about your project.

The reality is that you should absolutely consult a professional with process oversight experience before starting any project that your municipality could consider permit-worthy. But, should you choose to go it alone, here are our tips:


Renovation Tips
Jess and Andrew’s expert tips for getting your permits done right.


The City’s Permitting Advice For Renovation Projects:

On top of our notes, the City of Vancouver was kind enough to give us their top tips for permitting efficiently – thanks, City of Vancouver! They say:

  • Review the City’s requirements online to see what types of permits you might need
  • Engage a professional to review your budget and proposal before you apply to the City
  • Work with the City to submit your application and obtain your permits
  • Hire appropriately qualified contracts for the different trades work you need
  • Request inspections from the City at each stage of construction to ensure that bylaws are being met safely and appropriately


In Conclusion

Mastering residential renovation permits in Vancouver is going to be a make-or-break aspect of your project. It’s important to take the permitting process seriously, be thorough, and reach out when you need a hand.

If your project is in trouble, or you’re running out of hours in the day, give us a call at (604) 986-3244. We’re here to help with residential building permits, renovations, or new builds.

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