What Will the City Do if You Build a Nice Shed and Move Somebody In?

What if you go full cowboy and don’t pull permits at all—what’s the worst that can happen?

We’re considering building an ADU, doing most of the work ourselves. A realtor friend says city permits and fees—independent of construction costs—could total $100,000. Is he right? And what will they do if, instead of an ADU, I build a “shed” that just happens to be pretty nice inside and move somebody in? —Booty and the Ho-Fish

I wouldn’t dream of casting aspersions on your friend, Booty. Still, I must remind you that, as a Portland realtor, he would be in a financial position to do top-quality drugs every day. I’m not saying you can get your permits for green stamps and a handful of pocket lint, but it’s not as bad as your buddy thinks.

The Bureau of Development Services says most permitting fees are scaled to the dollar value of the completed structure. The total permitting bill typically comes to 8% to 9% of the total valuation, so unless you’re building an accessory dwelling unit out of solid gold and catalytic converters for $1.5 million, you’re not coming anywhere near a hundred grand.

One important caveat: If your plan requires changes to city-owned infrastructure, get ready to cough up an arm and a leg (to mix a metaphor) in systems development charges, or SDCs. Giving your ADU its own connection to the city water main, for example, can set you back around $8,000 (sewer not included).

Still, if you’re careful (and a little lucky), you may be able to avoid SDCs—two of the three sample projects BDS provided to me did, and both got through the whole permitting process for less than $6,000.

But what if you go full cowboy and don’t pull permits at all—what’s the worst that can happen? If you build to code—and don’t plan on selling your house—it might be as little as paying for an after-the-fact permit and submitting to a building inspection. If you do sell, you’re required to disclose any unpermitted work, which could affect the buyer’s ability to secure financing.

If you ignore the code? The worst would probably be a fire, caused by your shoddy wiring, that destroys both the ADU and your actual house on a night when you were hosting the Most Ruthless Personal Injury Lawyer Awards in your living room. Will your homeowner’s insurance have your back if your unpermitted structure is to blame? Fuck around and find out, I guess.

Questions? Send them to dr.know@wweek.com.