Many house owners are surprised when they’re informed they need to get a permit in order to construct a deck. It may seem like a hassle, however it is well worth the small investment of money and time to make sure your deck is constructed to code requirements and is in compliance with neighborhood regulations. Building a deck without a permit can get you into some serious trouble. Some people find out the hard way by having to pay a hefty fine, tearing down their brand new deck or having a person get hurt due to faulty construction. Building a deck without a permit also can come back to haunt you when it’s time to sell your house. Contractors can lose their licenses if they construct without permits. The best alternative is to work inside the rules and get a permit. In most cases, the inspectors are very helpful and willing to work with you to ensure you end up with a excellent deck that meets all of the code requirements. Decks that are built more than 30-inches above adjacent grade would likely always require a permit. When decks are below 30-inches above grade, the answer is hardly consistent. The most recent edition of the International Residential Code exempts decks from permit when they’re below the aforementioned height, not exceeding 2 hundred square feet in area, not attached to the house and not serving the required exit door of the house. Considering those criteria…most decks will require permits.

How to Draw & Submit Deck Plans for Permits

To apply for a deck permit you will normally need to supply (2) copies of scale drawings of the framing plan view (overhead) of your proposed deck. In some cases, you may be requested to additionally provide an elevation drawing (the front or side view) to communicate even extra information about the deck.  Most deck builders use computer drafting software programs to create the plans, but a hand drawing using ¼” graph paper is also acceptable. Your plan will need to indicate the locations, spacing and sizes of your frost footings, beams and joists for the inspectors to be able to make sure it meets structural code requirements. Your plan will also have to include notes or visual information displaying how you will install the footings, guard rails, stairs and the ledger board. You will be expected to specify what types and grades of materials you’re using for the framing, decking and rails and what type of hardware and fasteners you plan to use. If you’re using composite materials, you will need to confirm it is approved for use in your area. 

How to Apply for a Deck Permit

The procedure of applying for a deck permit is pretty painless even though it does require a little planning. First, you’ll need to find out who issues building permits in your area and where you need to go to apply for one. Most towns have their own Building Inspections Departments placed within the City Hall building – this is a good place to start. If you live in a rural region, there may be an independent inspector that covers an extensive area. A couple of calls to nearby authorities’ workplaces should point you in the right direction. Many inspection departments have handouts available detailing the requirements for constructing a deck. These will provide you with a list of what kind of documents are vital to obtain a building permit. You will normally need to submit a completed application, sets of construction plans, and a site plan displaying the area of the deck in relation to the house and property lines. If you’re a contractor, the Building Inspections Department will probably ask for a copy of your contractor’s license for their records.

How to Draw Site Plans

The Zoning Department will need to review a site plan to make sure that the location you are planning on installing the deck doesn’t encroach with any setbacks or easements. Most houses built since the 1980s will have a professional property survey document included with the closing papers. If you live in an older house or can’t find the survey, you may want to check with the Building Department to see if they have a copy they can supply you with. With this document, you can simply draw your deck to scale and list the distances to each property line. You will need to maintain a certain distance from side, rear and front setbacks. 

If there is a conflict, you may be able to apply for a variance, but this will often take some time and money and there are no guarantees that you will get what you want. You will usually have to provide a valid reason like some kind of hardship. If your property is located on a street corner, you may have to adhere to more stringent setback requirements to maintain a certain distance away from the street. If you can’t come up with an official survey, the Building Inspections Department may accept a hand sketch based on measurements you take. To do this you will probably have to locate and verify the iron spikes that mark the corners of your property. These rules are laid out by the local Zoning Department and are enforced to different levels. In some cases you may be forced to hire a professional surveyor to draft an official survey.

Building codes are concerned with fire spread, ensuring that one home will not catch another on fire. Maintaining sufficient distance between building structures will both satisfy this concern. Decks are not clearly described in building codes regarding the safe distance, referred to as “fire separation distance”. However, the home itself can be as close as 5 feet, so that’s a conservative distance to go with.

Planning and zoning departments in urban areas are concerned with the quality, value, aesthetics and the overall comfort of a neighborhood for the occupants. “Setbacks” is the general term used for the distances from property lines necessary to provide those characteristics, and they are not always consistent from neighborhood to neighborhood. Dense developments, with many dwellings per unit area, may have setbacks as small as 5 feet. Other more sprawling developments have setbacks upwards of 35 feet or more.