A Sad Story of What Can Happen Without a Permit — 60 Comments

  1. I own a vacant lot in Crestline, San Bernardino county. In 2019 there website states only residential structures over 120sf need a permit. Does this mean I may build a small vacation cabin on my lot if it’s smaller than 120sf? Does anyone know?

    • Now the county of San Bernardino has the minimum requirement for a residents @ 750 sqft. Cabins are no longer allowed existing are grandfather in… look into it. Also you have to be on a well or utility. No hauled water…

  2. owen: thank you for being the point of the spear. i’ve followed your work for some time and am happy and a bit freaked out to say i have a new 2 acres in apple valley that i intend to build primarily with earth bags and shipping containers. i have a vision of an over-built and highly customized and unique architecture, and 2 acres is tight for my purposes but i know can be achieved.

    i have minimal funds to work with, but again i know i can make it work (at least structurally). i’m painfully aware the county is going to be oppressive and resistant and more costly than the build. i would like to approach this with the absolute best possible strategy, for example, creatively minimizing calculated area and fixture-based permits without impacting the practical useable space and functionality of the structure, and phasing construction so that i can obtain occupancy initially, then add as it becomes feasible… citting up my steak.

    any thoughts you might bless me (us) with would be greatly appreciated. i’m with you… as ridiculous and frustrating as the laws are, we can still do things.


    • The first thing is to learn as much as you can about your local codes. For instance, you need to find out minimum room sizes and minimum house size. Learn the entire permitting process: when you need inspections, exactly what is required, etc. Mistakes can be very costly and time consuming. Take a weekend workshop if they offer it. At a minimum they should have a homeowner’s packet of info and website that you can study.

      • If there’s an Adobe building somewhere in the area where you live I would think it would be easier for the permitting process. The courthouse where I live is Adobe

    • Hello Aaron…I am in Joshua tree and trying to do the same thing with my acres. I was just told it will take over $165,000. dollars to bring city water to my property. So planning to go offgrid now with water towers. I have been told about issues with shipping container home plans in the CALIFORNIA area. If you could please email me at I would love to see what we could come up with. Thank you… Catherine

      • Hi Catherine, I am in Joshua tree have 2 acres about 6 miles from downtown(62). I have a shipping container on my property and had gravel put down for circular driveway where I parked my 1966 greyhound bus conversion. my plans were to move out there and build a house in my own time. when i got the property it was unincorporated and found it off craigslist from woman in NY. since then I have applied and received an address, paid my taxes and then started reading the san bernardino land management website. I found out I am already out of compliance as I am supposed to have permit to live in RV on my own property and cannot apply for permit until I submit plans for minimum size house 800 sq ft that actually has to be approved and permitted. Basically I cant use my own property unless I spend a bunch of money for various permits. I plan to move out in a couple months and just hope nobody comes snooping around my property. What would be your opinion?

      • CALIFORNIA is the worst State to get permit. And unless City gets a big chunk of money you are not allowed to use YOUR property.

  3. If you can stand Texas maybe you idea will work ‘here. My daughter is in the Army stationed at Ft. Hood at Killeen, TX. About four years ago she decided to buy a house here. The House she ended up buy was brand new but the people that built were Mexicans from Mexico, The owner of the company was the only one that spoke English and did they take a lot of short cut. The first good wind storm blew about half the singles off the house because they didn’t remove the cellophane strip out the new singles and no matter how hot it got the singles wouldn’t stick together. They didn’t put a footing around the house, they just poured the slab right on the loose dirt. Less than 2 years later they were transfer to Hawaii, where they will be for the next 4 years at least, the house has been up for sale for 2 years now but no buyers yet. What I’m getting at is outside the city limits you don’t need to get any permits or inspections. Really a stupid thing if you ask me but like your husband, I was a general contractor too. I’m retired now but buying a new home was the only way the VA would give her the loan and also she wanted it right now.

    • Sorry to hear about your daughter. Shoddy construction is so common it would pay to hire a reliable home inspector to inspect the home. They may not catch every problem but they should be able to spot enough things to save you from making a disastrous decision.

    • “they didn’t remove the cellphane strip”
      You aren’t supposed to remove the cellophane strips.
      They are there to prevent the shingles from sticking together while they are bundled together.
      Nailing too high on the shingles is more than likely why the wind blew them off.
      Also, there is a glue line that when nailed properly the shingles will bond together from the heat of the sun.
      If that process has not happened yet an unexpected wind storm may more easily lift the shingles.

  4. [shorted for easier reading]
    If public service truly is a sacrifice, then join me in shedding a tear for the 20,900 public workers in California who pulled down more than $100,000 in retirement benefits during 2015.

    Thanks to Transparent California, a project of the Nevada Policy Research Group, you can now check out the retirement benefits for the more than 625,000 people who drew a pension last year from the California Public Employees Retirement System, or CalPERS.

    now…NOW it becomes obvious as to why permits and fees are expensive, and paying MILEAGE for inspectors that have to travel to rural locations, etc. etc. is necessary.

    BTW don’t get a ticket in California,
    For a state with 24,200,997 licensed drivers, California has suspended 4.8 million licenses of drivers who didn’t pay traffic fines or failed to appear in court in the last decade.

    Most of these suspensions are not due to drivers being unable to pay for the ticket, but rather their inability to pay the additional 300 percent in “penalty assessment fees” that are tacked onto violations, leaving $10.2 billion in traffic debt outstanding. Many people are driving with suspended licenses, and no insurance.

    California government has an insatiable thirst for cash. local, regional, and state. They SCREAM if you try to take jelly out of their donut.

    It doesn’t matter if you don’t have money, but you have the ability to make your own shelter, if the state doesn’t get… neither do you. If you have land, government wants money. want to construct? MORE money. Maybe a business on that property? Just give the government access to your account, and PRAY they leave you enough to get some ramen noodles and coffee.

    Sorry… I do tend to rant. I simply don’t understand how large populations ALLOW the governments to continue year after year, to jack and fleece us at every turn.
    It does stand to reason in one respect with inexpensive alternative home building, the more expensive the base cost of building, the more value the home is assessed,(because, you DID add those costs to your forms when you sought a tax break…right? don’t worry THEY will remember.) and viola’ TAXES! when you increase the value of property… you are telling the government they need to change your bracket.
    the original Prop 13 is a fond memory, and soon to be shredded altogether. GOD how politicians HATED Howard Jarvis!

    HELL YES! the powers that be WANT YOU TO BUILD! Alternative, tiny house, tree house, frisbee and rawhide earthship! but you will need to provide engineer approval, (by approved engineer) special permit, constantly added fees, possibly have to have a lic. contractor pour the foundation and/or construct the roof. all of it needs inspecting, and wow, how easy to just un-earthbag when an embedded structural doesn’t fly with the inspector?
    Once upon a time my little builders, you could purchase a lot or acreage, and build awesome. But nowadays your government is very adept at finding ways to get money from every aspect of your life. That is what is replacing the ideals and notions this country was founded on. AND WE ARE LETTING IT HAPPEN.

    That is why the couple had to tear down their labor of love, and why you and I have to pay over 80,000 to build a small cottage that requires a few grand in materials and alot of sweat.

  5. The county codes throughout the western united states ought to be amended to make building codes necessary and mandatory only if the homes being constructed are for sale and not for personal habitation. Landowners/homeowners who build on their own land ought to have the right to do so without a permit from the county. The only restrictions to this ought to be if the construction methods and materials employed are grotesquely unsafe and pose imminent threat to the safety and welfare of the immediate neighbors and or impede upon the property of neighbors. This has got to change in the western United States because the economy in this nation has never seen such a divide between the rich and the poor. And permits cost tens of thousands of dollars regularly…this is a recipe for social housing disaster. Just like there is an equal opportunity law; there should be a revision of the permit rules in the state of California to make permits unnecessary if the builder is a owner-builder. We should get involved with local legislators to bring this amendment to the laws in our states.

  6. “And, I want to add, my husband is a licensed general contractor, ”

    He knew he was breaking the law and got what he deserved. What if everyone did what you two did? There would be many unsafe structures.

    • Many landowners believe in the right to build as they choose. Future buyers can hire a private home inspector to make sure the structure is safe. Some counties are giving owner builders the choice of opting out of codes and inspections as long as the structures don’t pollute or create fire hazards. This is for residential use only. Future buyers would see this house was not granted a certificate of occupancy and so they would buy at their risk (and likely get the input of a home inspector). This is much like buying a used car. Buyer beware. Use due diligence.

      Also note, many contractor built homes are poorly constructed. The code does not address workmanship. I’ve seen houses so poorly built that no one will live in them, not even for free. The homes are abandoned. Another example, my friend’s house was falling apart in 1-2 years. The cabinets, doors, etc. just fell apart. Faucets quit working in a year, etc. I believe basic building guidelines (or codes) can help improve safety. But the situation nowadays is getting crazy. Instead of a 50 page code book, there’s an encyclopedia of codes that keep changing. This complexity adds cost that means tens of millions of people are driven out of the housing market. So naturally people are starting to push back out of necessity. People need an affordable place to live. That’s why you see the explosive growth in tiny houses, small houses and alternative/natural building. Recent tiny house fairs in Colorado Springs attracted 40,000 people last year and 50,000 people this year. Even housing officials are waking up to the current reality. See the recent story we posted about living legally in tiny houses:

        • Very few counties (maybe just one in AZ?) do it like that. Instead, some rural counties choose not to accept or fully follow the codes like most counties. These counties are identified on various blog posts here at Natural Building Blog. Search for terms such as minimal codes or no codes.

    • Homes built decades before codes still stand. The folks with common sense are penalized by the actions of the ignorant.

  7. I had herd that there was a state law enacted in 2002 that allows people to place a modular home on almost any lot with an existing home this was to promote the growth of affordable housing for the aged and students. from what I understand there are only a few things they can comment on because the modulars are built to as I understand more stringent codes I say something on Ma Williams site yes I know who wants a modular….. Who says you cant buy a stripped down model then cover it with straw bails and earthen plaster……or 5 units placed in your own pentagon shape… you get the picture

    • I would like to know more about that law. It’s probably true. Many areas will allow a modular home or trailer home. I’ve been suggesting for years to look for properties that already have an old trailer home that has a septic, well, etc. That serves as your legal residence. Then you can build ‘accessory’ structures later. The code calls these ‘out buildings’.

  8. All state statutes, and municipal ordinances are not law. They are color of law and unenforceable without your agreement. You can file a Title 42 and seek a permanent injunction against that municipal corporation.

    If you are not involved in the business of building houses the person is allowed to build his or her’s own single family dwelling or addition WITHOUT A “PERMIT”.

    • I want to know more information about hot to “file a Title 42 and seek a permanent injunction against that municipal corporation.” Or better yet where can I find the laws that apply to this so I can better understand them and build the home i want for myself.

      • Good question. You’ll have to consult someone who knows law and/or spend a lot of time in the library. Note how the legal system was intentionally made very complex so only those in the legal profession understand it. Unless you have a strong interest in learning about the law, it might be more productive to find an area that’s open to alternative building and spend your time working on your home and garden rather than fighting the system.

  9. My husband and I are living in an rv and finally found some land we can afford and make payments on. The owner warned us we cave even live on our own land that we would buy and be owners of without permission and permits.un real. This is so wrong to me.

    • I know. It’s unreal. Our basic rights are being taken away bit by bit to where you can’t even live on your own land without meeting countless rules that cost many thousands of dollars. They don’t want people living cheaply and self reliantly. They want people in debt so the banks can make interest, corporations can sell more crap and the gov can charge higher taxes. That’s why a lot of people are leaving the country.

  10. America isn’t free. The government will do anything to put money in their rich pockets. No free land any more, (although states like Nevada are 85% Government owned. You buy land so the government can tell you what to do with it, and make you pay to live or build on it. You buy a car so you can pay them to drive it. No freedom, no future, and no privacy. Thats the America we live in. What next? Cameras in every room, chips in our heads
    Happy 4th of July everyone.

    • Freedom is slipping away fast, but there are still lots of things we can do. You can move to rural areas with fewer regulations and countries that are freer. You can seek out careers that allow more freedom. Do more bartering, buying direct from neighbors and so on.

  11. Even in rural areas in small counties, Laurens county for one, in South Carolina is no guarantee you can build withoug a permit. A few decades ago we enlarged our house by adding an existing 20×30 building and improving it with no permit required. More recently we built a 24×32 2 car garage and were required to get a permit to dig the footer and pour the foundation/floor. The footer required inspection before we poured the concrete. Then we needed an inspection of the garage after it was built, including the electrical. Seems they adhere to international codes. Then also there are neighbors who can’t mind their own business and are all too willing to contact building/zoning or environmental officials for supposed infractions. We didn’t do anything wrong but it is a nuisance to have busybody people who can’t leave others alone.

    • Yes, that’s a big part of the problem. People go along with this crazy system and turn in their neighbors for supposed code violations. People are turning against each other, which allows the system to continue.

  12. Hate to say it, but having had an aunt who was a contractor and having known several people who have gone through permit hell…. Odds are, had some palms been greased, the permit problem would have been quickly solved. The hard part is discovering which palms.

  13. Hello — we built a “double ecodome” here in Lucerne Valley, Ca., a rural area in the high mojave desert. Though it took some time to get the plans approved, they were indeed approved. This was with the help of the architect, Cal Earth Institute of Hesperia, CA. We are in rural San Bernardino county. In general, the county was very supportive of our efforts and we got final over a year ago. My feeling is, it depends where you go, on what the code folks will approve. Ultimately, it is the county’s best interest to promote safe “green” construction methods. There are, as I speak, at least two other ecodome projects going up in our general area, both coded by the county. — bob

    • I’m in Southern California. Did you have to do anything special for earthquakes to get the permit? I’d been warned that permits for any sort of non-traditional designs were very hard to get in California due to earthquake safety… at the time I was investigating earthship design.

      • California has some of the strictest building codes in the world partly due to seismic risk and environmental concerns. This pretty much rules out affordable housing in California.

        Maybe you could look into the cost of getting a permit and environmental assessment and report your findings. I’ve heard they can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Maybe that’s only in some areas, I don’t know. That’s why hearing the details direct from one of our readers would be so helpful.

        [Side note: Excessive regulation is literally killing the construction industry, as well as the economy as a whole. How many people can afford $50,000 in fees before even beginning construction? The inspectors I’ve observed spend about 3-5 minutes on site (doing paperwork and almost no looking around) and zoom off to the next job. Why are permits so expensive?]

  14. It’s unfortunate when something created with bare hands is torn down. Especially if it is created with prayers.

    Most people who purchase and own their land outright and have no plans whatsoever to ever consider selling it, create an irrevocable trust. Just as Native American land is an Irrevocable Trust. They place everything they own in that trust. Nobody ever will be able to “take away” from the trust.

    That means that you, as a Living Soul only have Control over your Private Property, but you do not Own it. The Trust does. Even after you pass to a next Journey or not, the Trust will still exist. This is a short “journey” – this life. In this life we came with nothing and we leave everything behind when we back.

    The secret to success is to own nothing, but control everything. – Nelson Rockefeller

    • Good point. It seems the county building authorities violated some ethical laws. Over a billion people lack decent housing, and the building officials have their house torn down over a technicality. That sounds like a moral/ethical crime. What a shame.

  15. I am so HAPPY to be living in Mexico where (rural) I can build whatever I want. If it falls on my head, well, it’s my damn head. One of the reasons I left the States was to have the simple freedom to live in a way that I felt was more self-actualized and honest. In Mexico the rural poor understand the need for self-sufficiency but the imported gringos are bringing their codified lives with them–all in the name of protecting their new Mexican investments and the plague slowly spreads and will eventually change life here as well.

    • so true. It is not easy to be self-sufficient in the USA. Most people in Sri Lanka also like that. nobody has to fear that losing a job will losing house- there is no such thing- if you want to sell, that is when you sell- you don’t need money to keep the house- ( unless it is not in the big city)- houses pass from generation to generation, some times 500 years- houses build to last 100s of years- there are trees for food-everyone has their own well for water for the last 30 years- My parents never send garbage to a landfill. we just cant- No trucks coming!! we lived in a suburban area- everyone manages their own garbage. people live in big lands so it is possible to manage- It is a strange idea to me when I came to the USA- even suburban houses with reasonable lands have bins- I thought only urban areas have bins to collect garbage- for people living in apartments, townhouses as such. I thought I will find freedom here. Now I question myself. I have seen things wrong.

    • You know Doug, it would be great if building departments would accept plans that were approved for more stringent areas Unfortunately every jurisdiction has their own sets of rules (many making no sense at all). Take for instance the building codes of California. It is reputed that California has the strictest building codes of anywhere in the US. One then would think that having a set of Ca approved prints would be universally acceptable in every other state. I inquired about this to a building department in another state. They wouldn’t hear of doing such a thing. They wanted the plans to have a state licensed engineer stamp.
      Some of this is just pride and control and sometimes it is about money.
      Either way it ends up costing the owner not only in money, but time as well.

      • It would indeed be great, but I’m not gonna hold my breath. In any event, we’re not speaking in this particular example of attempting to use, in state X, plans wet stamped by an engineer licensed to practice in state Y or approved by state Y’s authorities.

        We’re talking about the possibility that the authorities in locality Z might be willing to utilize a set of building code rules from locality W. That may still require an engineer licensed in locality W to sign off on the plans, stating that they do, in fact, meet locality Z’s code.

        Not an ideal solution, by any means, but it’s certainly worth a try.


      • Doug, that actually has happened, but today there are only a few areas of the country that don’t have any building codes. I would guess that most are pretty rural and have not yet found the need to adopt some. Occasionally you will have towns who will incorporate and become separate entities. Most often initially they will adopt county codes. Even then as time goes some will change and usually make their codes stricter. I have no idea of the reasoning other then just to separate themselves from the county or other jurisdictions. Some times it appears that city or county building departments use fees and stringent codes as a tools to limit growth.

  16. The codes seem to do more to support corporations that play in the traditional building game than anything else. People have been building their own homes for millennia without the approval of bureaucrats. A large portion of the world still does.
    Sure there can be problems with any type of construction, but with sites like this a person can get a lot of knowledge from other’s experiences.
    It really irks me that you have to pay good money just to beg for permission to create a shelter for yourself. I can just imagine the confused look on my grandparents’ faces if they would have been told they needed government approval for their dwelling when they homesteaded.

    • Codes are actually a slick little game. A good example is metal hardware. The big fastener companies design and engineer all sorts of stamped and often thicker metal fasteners. They range from hurricane ties to hold downs, straps, hangers, nails and even epoxy systems to retrofit foundations. They in order to sell their products have to create a market. How do they do it? They hold seminars and conventions. They basically lobby counties and cities to re-write their codes to require the use of their metal fasteners. Thus the government requires you to purchase a private party’s product in order to get a permit and build.

      For years houses in this country were built with just nails and wood. There were no metal ties, hangers or other assorted mechanical fasteners. Most of those houses are still standing including some that have no nails at all. Yet today building even the simplest of patios requires boxes of hardware and footings that you could land an airplane on. The nanny state is well and alive. It is always looking out for your welfare, so long as either it or it’s special interests can profit from it.

      • I definitely agree about the influence of special interests who skew things to their advantage. The steel, timber, concrete and insurance industries wrote most of the building codes! Obviously they worded things to discourage competition.

        But from what I understand, any brand of anchor is acceptable as long as it’s been tested and approved by their regulatory arm, which of course costs tens or hundreds of thousands to get accepted.

      • Man can I resemble that remark or what?

        I have two U.S. Patents on a bracket system that is eight times stronger laterally for security fence than what is currently approved by ASTM’s.

        But the ASTM’s are written by the industry leaders with a vested interest in maintaining their position in the market place. No one in that group wants to change the rules of course.

        It would be nice if I could go to an educational facility and have them test my stuff against the status quo and publish a paper. But that would be horribly expensive and not likely because the educational facilities make tons off of stamping industry’s offerings and wouldn’t want to risk offending them.

        Besides that, governmental agencies can’t recommend something based upon anything but ASTM’s, ASTM’s written by the people with a vested interest.

      • Re: Owen
        Yes any brand of anchor, but currently there are really only 2 companies that share 90% of the market. I won’t mention names, but most people have seen their products.

  17. I’m sure I read on this blog that Colorado had some counties without a building code, and thus, without a code to enforce a lateral move could have been possible for these people, albeit with a lot of hassle and pain. I feel for them, I’ve thought about building without a permit, but resisted so far.

    If I might suggest, New Mexico has a building code, but their earthen structures code is simple to understand and sensible. I know people that ignore building codes in NM, but they live off the beaten path.

  18. You know building inspections used to be about public safety. Now it is about control and money. What is amazing is that you have large ranches spread out across the western US. In a lot of instances they build what ever they want, regulations, codes and permits be damned. Yet people in these same areas with small parcels of land, often get targeted for not complying. Perhaps mostly because they don’t have the vast amount of resources or political capital to fight it.

    You can have building regulations up the kazoo, but there is never any guarantee that the building will not fail. A case in point was the Alaskan earthquake of 1964. Alaska had adopted California’s building codes which were the strictest at the time. What happened was the 64 quake shook longer then any of the California quakes and there was massive building failures. What was even more astonishing was that most of the government service buildings ( fire, police and hospital ) were destroyed or suffered major damage. These were the buildings that had been looked at more closely and brought up to code.

    All across the state of California are 100 plus year old wood framed buildings that have withstood numerous quakes and after shocks. They have not been retrofitted or updated to code, yet there they stand. Codes for wiring, sanitation and basic structural soundness are good, but some cities and counties take them to the extreme. They seem to adopt new regulations to justify their own existence and to generate revenues. They never let common sense enter into the equation.

  19. Wow. I really do feel sorry for these people and understand what they are going through. I would have called every lawyer in town and seen if they would work pro-bono after hearing your story. I for one am not a big fan of big government controlling the public (this is obviously a whole other tangent I won’t go into here ;) )… I often deal with inspectors that don’t let little things slide because they are trying to make a name for themselves…. Though this is a whole house that didn’t have several inspections throughout the construction of this home, you should have left it alone and not lived in it until you could find a solution to your problem. I can see how the county could legally condemn the building, but I don’t see how they could make you tear anything down on your own property…. That’s just me, though I don’t know the whole story…Anyways, that’s my two cents….

    • They have the authority to make you tear it down or pay someone else to tear it down (which would probably cost even more). Trying to fight back with lawyers is a no-win proposition because the laws are stacked in their favor.

      In addition, they put a lien against your property so you can’t sell until the issue is resolved.

      Multiply this times thousands of families every year and your blood starts to almost boil.

  20. Think about what communities lose in situations like this. They lose good people. The word spreads and other people avoid moving to the community. These families take their money, jobs (he was a contractor and probably had workers), skills, etc. elsewhere. The process fractures society and alienates people. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg because there’s a ripple through society that keeps on going when you treat people like this. What a waste.

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