From Permits to the Certificate of Occupancy – What You Should Know Before You Build

Whether you’re remodeling a powder room or building an acute care facility, your project, however big or small it may be, will have to go through cycles of approvals, permits, and inspections. The bureaucratic grind will start months before construction and finish only when you’re ready to occupy your new building. Understanding this process will help you sail through the ensuing red tape and make your project more efficient. The guide below takes you through these different cycles which are essential to achieve a successful build, one which is also acceptable to the pertinent approval authorities. 


Most construction projects are assessed by the local planning department for their conformity to the local bylaws concerning zoning, setbacks, and land usage. Public works and fire officials typically also have a say in the approval process. Major developments may come under additional scrutiny from various other departments and committees from different levels of government. You must enquire with your local planning or building department to find out which approvals your project needs. If you’re unsure, an experienced contractor or engineer should be able to guide you through these approvals.


Permits are authorization to perform a specific type of work, obtained from your building officials. Your building department’s website will outline al local permit requirements and help you determine which permits you need, depending on the type of construction.

Typically, the general contractor obtains permits for a project. That said, as the project owner, you can apply for the permits yourself, or appoint a representative, such as a member of the design team. Such nuances are normally discussed with the contractor and other relevant parties and spelled out in the terms of the construction contract.

Most jurisdictions require separate permits for demolition, electrical, mechanical, and plumbing activities as well as a general building permit. Minor projects may qualify for an online or same-day permit; new construction, however, requires a plan review and may take several weeks or even months. It is advisable to get a grip on all the relevant permit requirements well in advance, to avoid delays in completion of the project.

Permits have an expiry date. When you get one, it’s your responsibility to start work within the specified timelines. Once construction begins, you or your contractor should schedule all necessary inspections on time.

The California Building Code requires inspections for certain phases of construction. On most projects, they coincide with major milestones, although some complex activities may entail special inspections. Most common types of inspections required for any construction project are listed below. Kindly note that this summary is based on the requirements of the City of Palm Desert, and your local inspection requirements may differ.

1. Site Clearing, Grading, Footings 

Construction begins with the removal of trees, shrubs, roots, and other undesirable items.

Next, your site gets graded to ensure that your home’s foundation is level and placed at the required depth. This process also ensures adequate drainage mechanisms and creates desired landscaping features, if any.

Once the excavation is complete, your contractor installs underground plumbing systems and the grounding electrode, then sets up rebar that will reinforce your home’s footings. When these tasks are complete, your contractor can arrange a foundation inspection. After passing the inspection, footings may be formed and concrete may be poured.

2. Foundation

Next, your builder sets up the rebar and formwork for foundation walls and slabs. A slab inspection typically takes place after all vapor barriers and necessary reinforcement are in place, and all pipes and conduits are protected against contact with concrete. It is only after this inspection that concrete for the slab may be poured.

3. Framing and MEP rough-in

After the home’s concrete foundation has cured, it’s time to erect the structure. Most single-family homes are held up by a light wood frame, while larger buildings may use reinforced concrete, steel, or a combination of the two.

The exterior walls go up first, then the floor assemblies, the roof structure, and finally the interior walls. Sheathing is then fastened to the exterior walls and the roof. Your contractor will schedule a roof sheathing inspection after the sheathing is installed and before any roofing materials are applied. A wall sheathing inspection may follow as soon as all exterior shear panels are nailed in place.

Once the frame is constructed, your contractor installs and tests rough plumbing, fire sprinkler piping, mechanical, and electrical services. Exterior doors and windows may be installed now. Upon completion of these tasks, the contractor will request a general framing inspection to assess the frame’s code compliance.

Exterior lath nailing may be inspected at this time, or separately before finishes are applied.

4. Insulation and Drywall

Insulation is the next stage of the project. The building’s exterior walls and roof are insulated, and openings in the envelope get caulked. When this is complete, your contractor may ask for an insulation inspection to assess the envelope’s code compliance and ability to keep out the weather.

Meanwhile, your builder may start nailing drywall sheets to the home’s interior studs. Building officials will perform a drywall nailing inspection on completion before the drywall finishes can be applied.

5. Interior Finishes

While finishing drywall, the contractor may start to install the flooring of your choice, as well as baseboards, door and window casings, crown moldings and other trim. These activities typically do not require an inspection.

6. Exterior Finishes

Having passed the framing and exterior lath nailing inspections, your builder may install the exterior finishes on your building’s facade. Most jurisdictions do not require an inspection for this scope of work.

7. Fixtures, Furniture, and Equipment

With interior finishes nearing completion, it’s time to install certain furniture, fixtures, and appliances. These include but are not limited to cabinets, counters, vanities, sinks, bathtubs and shelves, stoves, fume hoods, dishwashers, and water heaters. If your water heater and stove are gas-fired, your contractor must schedule and pass a gas piping test before connecting these devices.

8. Landscaping

With heavy furniture and appliances hauled inside, it’s safe to pave the driveway and put in walkways. At this stage, a water and sewer service connection inspection must take place before landscapers cover the piping.

Next, grass, shrubs, and trees are planted in areas not taken up by the hard landscaping. When this work is complete, your contractor can arrange with local authorities to have any protective tree fencing removed from your property. Your project is now ready for its last hurdle – the final inspection.

9. Final Inspection and Certificate of Occupancy

When the building is ready for occupancy, you must request the final inspection from your building department. This inspection is the most comprehensive of all, encompassing all elements of construction. Passing it, or finishing all ordered rework is a requisite for getting your Certificate of Occupancy. Make sure that the following items are available on inspection day:

  • Sign-offs from Planning, Public Works, and Fire Departments
  • Permits, approved plans and documents, along with approved revisions and plan check fee receipts
  • Special inspection reports, if any
  • Reports from all progress inspections
  • Power must be available for circuit testing
  • Equipment for inspection of attics, circuit panels, HVAC systems (ladders, wrenches, etc)

Any public infrastructure which is damaged during construction must be repaired before the final inspection; all debris must be removed from the site. Once the inspector is satisfied that the building is free from code violations or deviations from approved plans, the Certificate of Occupancy will be mailed to the applicant specified on the permit application.

10. Final Walk-Through and Closing

Now that you’ve passed the inspection and the building department requires no further corrections, your contractor will take you on a final walk-through of the building.

This is your chance to get acquainted with the building’s features. Title 24, Volume I of the California Code of Regulations requires the contractor to furnish you with copies of compliance reports as well as operating and maintenance manuals for the building’s systems; be sure to ask for these.

The final walk-through is also your last opportunity to report flaws. Pay close attention and alert your contractor if you think something is amiss.

Once you’ve determined that the project is completed per your plans and specifications and the work is free from errors, you can make your final progress payment and get the keys to your new house.

We’re Here to Help 

Our licensed engineers have dealt with California’s building departments for over 14 years, and we know what they expect from builders like you. We are here to take care of all your needs,  from your permits to the Certificate of Occupancy. Call us (877) 704-5687 for a FREE consultation and quote.

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