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Permits show trends, prevent accidents

Most people don't think much about building permits. Maybe someone who's building a new house or doing a major renovation does.

River Falls' two building inspectors, Joe Lenzen and Dave Hovel, think about permits every day.

They're the guys who issue them on the city's behalf. They're also the ones responsible for making sure everything gets built right in order to prevent shoddy construction and accidents.

Lenzen and Hovel just finished giving a presentation all about 2005 permits to the Plan Commission. The statistics tell much about what's happening in River Falls:

  • Inspectors issued 59 fewer permits in 2005 than 2004.

  • Builders constructed 44 fewer living units last year than in 2004, a 20% decrease.

  • Average cost of home construction went down from $181,671 in 2004 to $179,752 in 2005 (costs don't include lot and vary according to subdivision and home size).

  • Number of townhomes increased more than any kind of residence, 170% more than last year.

  • Number of single-family homes built in 2005 increased 2.6% from 2004.

  • Rental vacancy went up by 20%-30%, partially due to more opportunity to buy twin homes and town homes for less than a single-family home.

    Inspector Dave Hovel said the number of new-home permits issued in each of the last five years averages about 80. The average was around 50 when he started nine years ago.

    "It's kind of leveled off," Hovel said.

    He said exclusive builders may be one reason why the city issued fewer permits in 2005 than in 2004. Many of the first developments allowed people to bring their own builder. Some of the newer ones require homeowners to exclusively use one or two builders.

    City records show about 5,066 total living units in River Falls. About half (43%) of those are single-family homes.

    The rest of the mix breaks down like this: Apartments - 27%; duplexes - 8%; twin homes - 6%; boarding units - 5%; housing authority units - 4%; town homes - 3%; mobile homes - 3%; and condos - 2% (all percentages rounded to nearest whole number).

    Lenzen said there are distinct differences among duplexes, twin homes, town homes and condos. A very general summary of each:

    A duplex is two rental units sharing one roof, lot and tax parcel that can't be sold separately.

    A twin home is two units with a property line and separate tax parcels. They can be sold individually.

    A townhome can be built into a multi-unit building but usually have a front and back entrance plus a separate yard. They can be rented or sold individually.

    Condos are like town homes but buyers only own the space inside. Owners pay association fees for building and yard upkeep plus get taxes assessed individually.

    It's advisable that anyone thinking of buying one of these types of homes learn about each one's characteristics.

    Who needs permits?

    Lenzen said, "Permits prevent shoddy work and accidents."

    Nearly all cities require a permit for putting up a new building, like a home. The estimated structure value determines permit cost.

    Not all cities require permits for construction of things other than new buildings, but River Falls does. It adopted the state's code for building permits long ago. Simply put, this means the city requires a permit for any kind of alteration, addition or repair.

    For example, if someone's installing a driveway, an air conditioning or heating system, ventilation, siding, roofing or windows - they need a permit.

    People also need a permit for demolishing a building or moving a house.

    Permit costs for work like this vary from $39 to $435. New-building permit prices depend on the structure's estimated value.

    Some folks may not realize they need a permit for many plumbing or electrical jobs.

    Nearly everything to do with piping, fixtures, appliances, equipment, water supply and water distribution require a permit. It's the same with nearly all electrical jobs except minor things.

    Lenzen said ugly accidents happen too easily when someone doesn't recognize dangers.

    A hot water heater may have a gas leak and can be under high pressure.

    People may patch a roof themselves but overlook proper ventilation. Who knew a basement shouldn't be finished unless its ceiling is at least seven feet high?

    Residents can legally do work themselves, but that opens the door to substandard repairs. Lenzen said often, nobody realizes what's wrong until the home gets inspected before sale.

    It's usually best to hire a licensed professional for plumbing, electrical and other major projects.

    Lenzen said potential buyers should always check with the city to see if a house has any open permits, which might indicate that necessary work was never completed. Normally when someone gets a permit, it's closed when they finish the work.

    Fences don't require a permit if they're less than six feet tall, but they do have restrictions. For example, the fence's good side must face away from the house, and it must not be in the city's right of way.

    Lenzen said crews will tear down a section of fence if it stands in the way of work they need to do to utilities or other city property. In those cases, the city doesn't pay to reconstruct the fence.

    Other small projects don't require a permit and are listed on the city's Web site: (click on municipal code tab).

    Inspectors usually just review plans when somebody applies for a permit but can come in person if necessary. They typically don't have much time between doing inspections and issuing permits.

    The city's two inspectors also keep busy checking each one of the city's 2,600 rental units.

    Lenzen encourages anybody who's unsure about whether or not they need a permit, to call the city inspectors at 425-0900, ext. 113.

    "If they have questions, call us," he said.

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