Permits for Building a Deck: Why You Need One and How to Get It

Many homeowners are surprised when they are told they need to get a permit in order to build a deck. It may seem like a hassle, but it is well worth the small investment of time and money to ensure your deck is built to code standards and is in compliance with local 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 someone get hurt because of faulty construction. Building a deck without a permit can also come back to haunt you when it is time to sell your house. Contractors can lose their licenses if they build without permits. 

The best option is to work within the rules and get a permit. In most cases, the inspectors are very helpful and willing to work with you to make sure you end up with a great deck that meets all the code requirements. 

Decks that are constructed 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 are below the aforementioned height, not exceeding 200 square feet in area, not attached to the home and not serving the required exit door of the home. Considering those criteria…most decks will require permits.

How to Draw & Submit Deck Plans for Permits



To apply for a deck permit you will usually need to supply (2) copies of scale drawings of the framing plan view (overhead) of your proposed deck. In some cases, you may be asked to also provide an elevation drawing (front or side view) to communicate even more information about the deck.  Most deck builders use computer drafting software to create the plans, however a hand drawing using ¼” graph paper is also acceptable. Our detailed deck plans that cover all the bases are available for free download in our plans section.

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 details showing how you are going to install the footings, guard rails, stairs and the ledger board. You will be expected to specify what types and grades of materials you are using for the framing, decking and rails and what kind of hardware and fasteners you plan to use. If you are using composite materials, you will need to verify it is approved to be used in your area. 

How to Apply for a Deck Permit



The process of applying for a deck permit is relatively painless although it does require a little planning. First, you will need to find out who issues building permits in your area and where you need to go to apply for one. Most cities have their own Building Inspections Departments located within the City Hall building - this is a good place to start. If you live in a rural area, there may be an independent inspector that covers a wide area. A couple of calls to local government offices should point you in the right direction. Many inspection departments have handouts available detailing the requirements for building a deck. These will provide you with a list of what kind of documents are necessary to obtain a building permit. You will usually need to submit a completed application, two sets of construction plans, and a site plan showing the location of the deck in relation to the house and property lines. If you are 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.

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