Deck Building Permits

    Photo: William Warby/Flickr

    The great thing about building a deck is that you can create an inviting outdoor spot in a relatively short time. Before you can break ground, however, you might have to pull a permit. Local building authorities enforce design and structure conformity to varying degrees. Every community is a little different. If you live in a rural area, you might not even need a permit, but if you live in a city where construction is strictly regulated, you might have to jump through some hoops to get your permit.

    First Things First

    Save yourself a lot of heartache and call your local building authority to find out if you need a deck permit. If you do, go down to their offices and pick up a regulation sheet before you settle on a plan for your deck. If you live in a newer subdivision, covenants or a Homeowners Association (HOA) might further regulate your deck. If that’s the case, your local building authority won’t issue your permit until the subdivision committee or the HOA approves the deck plans.

    Location

    In many communities, the biggest factor in getting your deck plan approved is its proposed location. It might not seem like it should be that big of a deal, but your community has rules concerning whether you can construct a deck over underground utility lines or in easements, and how close the deck can be to your property line. Most communities have fire codes that prohibit building anything within a specified distance from the side property lines to reduce the risk of fire spreading from one residence to the next. You can get a print of your house and lot from the building authority. Use that to sketch out where you want to build your new deck.

    Structural Aspects

    If you live way out in the boonies where there are no codes regulating decks, and you build a substandard deck that falls over next year – that’s your privilege -- and your problem. City administrators and neighbors, however, tend to look down their noses at wobbly eyesores that present safety issues. If your community regulates the structural aspects of your deck, you will probably have to set the deck posts in concrete for stability.

    The stairs leading to the deck should have a handrail. Balusters on the deck railing should be no farther apart than 4 inches. Your city inspector will probably carry a small, 4-inch ball in his pocket to test the spacing of the balusters. If the ball slips though easily, you’ll have to take the railing off and reposition the balusters. Baluster spacing reflects a national code that many communities adopt because small children have slipped through spaces wider than 4 inches. If your deck floor will be higher than 2.5 feet above the ground, the railing should be at least 36 inches high.

    Steep stairs leading to the deck could throw a monkey wrench in the permit process. To be on the safe side, use the 7-11 Stair Rule. The stair rise, which is the height from one step to the next, should be a maximum of 7 inches high. The stair tread, which is the flat board you step on, should be at least 11 inches deep. Not all communities regulate deck stairs, but if yours does, employing the 7-11 Stair Rule will help you get your plan approved. The risk of falling increases with steeper stairs.

    Other structural factors that might figure into the permit process include using adequate dimensional lumber in the construction of the deck. This will vary by the configuration of your deck, but in general, your building authority will want to make sure you’re using joists that can structurally accommodate the distance they span. If you’re building a large deck, you might have to use laminated or engineered joists that can span greater distances than wood joists can without sagging.

    If you’re connecting the new deck to your house or garage, the way you connect it might be an issue because you’ll probably have to remove some siding and attach a ledger board to your home’s rim joist for support. One of the conditions of your permit will probably be to attach the ledger board with a specific diameter of screw or bolt, and a specific bolt pattern. Local codes often require attaching the ledger board in a manner that allows it to support the weight of the deck on that side.

    Getting Your Plan Approved

    Unless you’re a structural designer, you’ll be money ahead by having someone with design and construction experience draw your deck plans. Many plans you can purchase commercially already comply with national regulations. The American Wood Council publishes the Prescriptive Residential Wood Deck Construction Guide based on International Residential Code (IRC).

    In some communities, part of the permit-approval process includes listing the contractor that will build the deck. You can usually minimize permit-related confusion by consulting with a reputable local contractor early in the design phase. Unless you plan to build the deck yourself, a local contractor should already know what codes will apply to your deck and should be able to successfully present the plans to an HOA committee and to your building authority.

    While all this might seem overwhelming if you’re not familiar with construction practices, keep in mind that unless there is an outright ban on decks in your neighborhood, there’s a very good chance that you will be able to have your plan approved, even if you have to tweak it a bit along the way.

    Glenda Taylor writes for Networx.com.

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