How To Build A Deck: Getting A Permit

Permission accomplished!

Wait, before we get to the deck/permit stuff that this post is really about, we wanted to mention that we keep hearing from folks who had no idea that we have a family/personal/behind the scenes blog called Young House Life (which we started nearly a year ago – my how time flies). So if you’re looking for photos of our messy house, pictures of us being weird, life-stuff beyond the home improvement happenings at our house, and Burger/Clara galore, that’s the place. We usually post 3-4 times a week (very randomly) and you can get there by clicking the word “Life” under our header or by clicking the button that says “Our Family Blog” on the sidebar. We can be found chatting about everything from the Kool-Aid man and traveling with a toddler, to left-handedness, kid-babble, The Hunger Games and Clara’s moves like jagger.

For example, today we’re posting about what we did over Memorial Day weekend, complete with a photo of Sherry being overly enthusiastic on a carousel and me trying to have swagg (that’s right, with a double g) along with a video of Clara riding a few boardwalk rides.

Just wanted to share that since the only time we really formally mentioned Young House Life was in a post last summer when we redesigned our entire site, and apparently there was a lot going on, so it might not have been the most clear introduction. Sorry about that!

But now back to our slow and steady deck progress. I must admit, this whole project makes me a bit nervous. Something about attaching a structure to our house that has to support human weight gives me shivers if I think about it too much. But at least it’s only a few feet off the ground and not a second level deck or anything. Having to get a permit wracked my nerves a little more since we hear the county can be pretty particular about decks since they can definitely be dangerous if they’re not built correctly – so there is a bit more going on with the county (like two different inspections throughout the process, etc). But, as this post title reveals, I did get our permit and work is officially, well, permitted to begin. Woot! So allow me to back up and tell you how we got here.

It started out with figuring out what we wanted, which is where this Photoshop sketch I did and the decision to go with wood decking came in handy.

My little doodle hardly sufficed as a plan for building a deck, especially compared to what I saw reading through my county’s how-to guide for obtaining a deck permit (which took me about five reads and lots of Googling before it stopped making me go cross-eyed). After a couple of false starts trying to draw up plans on my own, I threw up my hands (quite literally, actually) and told Sherry I needed help. She suggested I call two sources we’ve trusted in the past to help us plan projects: Home Depot and Southside Builder Supply (which is the place we bought materials for our last big outdoor project – the patio). SBS only does stone, so they referred me 84 Lumber (a lumber-specializing warehouse located about 30 minutes from our house) while Home Depot directed me to, well, Home Depot. So I decided to take both deck planning services for a spin to see which gave me the best plans and the best estimate.

Let’s start with Home Depot, where I was invited to bring my measurements to their Pro Desk to have a plan and estimate drawn up.

It was a fairly painless process. The Home Depot associate clicked through their planning software, asking me questions along the way like what kind of footings and attachments I wanted (which made me glad I had done that upfront research so I knew what I was being asked). After 20 minutes or so, they had printed up a pretty comprehensive deck design which they assured me was something I could bring right to the county for a permit. It was so thorough it literally outlined every wood cut I’d have to make.

The shot below is actually the first plan I worked up with them (for a freestanding deck). I later went back and they happily revised it to be attached to the house, sparing me lots of post hole digging. They were also able to give me a version comparing the cost of composite to pressure-treated wood (which helped us make the wood decision here). I appreciated them not eye-rolling every time I asked for a change.

Overall I was pleased with the Home Depot process, especially since I always find it helpful to talk to someone face-to-face. That was actually one aspect I missed when going through the 84 Lumber design process. I spoke to someone in my local store by phone, but they said all the deck designs were done at their central office so it was best to just submit things using their online form.

I put in all of my information and uploaded the schematics I had sketched along with a few photos of the space. Two days later I got an email saying my plan was attached. The plan wasn’t as detailed as the Home Depot version, but seemed to be a better approach (from what little I know of these things).

My contact there was very responsive to my questions by email and also made some revisions I requested within a day-ish. But I did kinda missed the human interaction element of it all.

Ultimately 84 won out for us because their plan felt more straightforward and was about $400 less expensive to execute. Plus it felt good to go with a company that specializes in lumber for such a lumber-heavy project. They also happen to be right here in Richmond and they supply wood from our region (our deck’s wood will come from somewhere right here in the south and will meet all of the requirements for human safety – like no arsenic, etc). We also plan to use an eco-sealer to keep it even safer for Clara and Burger- but more on that when we get there (we haven’t even started that research yet).

So with two copies of my plan from 84 printed out, I gathered all of the paperwork that my county’s website required (as well as some extras just in case). I’ll admit I wasn’t certain that I had the right stuff, but I told myself that the worst that could happen is that they’d send me away and say “come back with X, Y & Z.”

After speaking with someone at our county’s Office of Building Inspection we decided to try the walk-through process where you can obtain a permit in one day, in person. For some reason I pictured this like a job interview or pleading my case to a judge and jury, so I dressed up a bit for the occasion. This is dressed up for me these days (shirt tucked in and not wearing tennis shoes or a hat). I figured it made me look professional, but still like I could construct a deck. Seriously, I put thought into this permit-getting outfit.

The actual process was very tame compared to what I had imagined. I spoke to a couple of receptionists, filled out a form, and was told to wait for my permit (and that they’d “let me know if they had any questions”). This sparked me running through all of the things I could be quizzed on – what size my joists were, what depth was I digging my holes, etc. I did my best to get lost in the episode of House Hunters that was playing in the waiting room.

Just before the cross examination scenario could fully play out in my head, a nice woman walked out and handed me my permit: “you’re free to begin work.” Sweet!

I’m still kind of surprised it was that easy. Admittedly I’m still a bit nervous about the notoriously thorough inspection process, but at least this has given me a good boost of confidence to move forward. And Sherry, Clara, and Burger all did the happy dance in the living room when I returned home with that important piece of paper. So I’ve officially ordered the materials from 84 Lumber and am currently waiting for them to arrive. In the meantime, we’re gonna get started by taking down the old balcony. Demolition here we come! I actually planned to start on that today- and wop wop. Rain! Here’s hoping tomorrow is nice and sunny.

Who else has gone through the permit process and lived to tell the tale? Any interesting stories, tips, or disasters you’d like to share? Did you like my permit-getting outfit, or did I overdress? A few dusty contractors walked in and out with their steel toed boots and certainly made me feel a little less rugged by comparison.


  1. Miranda says

    HAHA! John, you crack me up dude! Your outfit was awesome. Glad you guys had an easy process… Can’t wait to see the deck!

    • says

      Nope. Both included it as a free service – even when I told them I was getting multiple estimates and it wasn’t guaranteed that I’d chose their materials.


  2. Karen Lee says

    Congrats on your permit!
    Your dressing for the permit obtaining made me spray coffee on my computer.
    Seriously funny!

    • says

      We actually don’t know if you have to do that in our area! It doesn’t say it anywhere on the permit that we have to post it, but it does have to be available for anyone who might drop by and demand to see it!


    • says

      In NY you have to have the permit displayed at the project site. When the electricians replaced our circuit box they had to have the permit posted for inspection.

    • Stacy Moore says

      In Henrico County, a neighbor of Chesterfield, you have to display the permit in the window. I actually work for the County. DPW represent! (I actually draw civil plans in ACAD & maps GIS) LOL. I know a few people in Permits & Building Insp. All really nice people, but you don’t get that everywhere. Glad it went well. I will say that by the looks of the folks that come in here, you were very over dressed. Some look like that just came off of the job site. Good luck with the deck! I’ll be in this boat soon when I want to redo my front porch. It’s just a stoop w/o a roof. I want something w/ a roof that you can actually sit on comfortably. :)

  3. Jodi says

    I am living the tale of a permit process and it was HELL just getting the approval. The inspection was easy in comparison.

    We had all the storm drain running through the entire length of our backyard and we wanted to bury 15 inch pipe and connect to the county pipe. They told us for 2 years, we could do whatever and just to “scribble on a piece of paper what you plan to do”. With pipe laying in the yard, 60 feet of rocks dug up and the existing headwall painstakingly removed by hand, we went to the county building to give them our sketch when the head engineer put a halt on the project and made us hire a civil engineer and pull a permit. Needless to say, 5 weeks later our plan was approved (after we sat in a meeting with the county and begged and pleaded. It went from just laying 60 feet of pipe to a 4 foot manhole install (which we planned to build ourselves, but gave up after reading the plans from the county), 2 contractors and 100 yards of dirt later and we finally reached our goal. We just spent 3, 12 hour days laying sod and sadly, have more to go.

  4. says

    I have always tried to build so I would not need a permit. Keeping retaining walls just under three feet and that sort of thing. I am glad you are attaching the deck to the house. My brother in law a deck that was freestanding, but right up to the house and the between the deck.and the siding always looks a little off. Good luck with your inspections! I can’t wait to see that process.

  5. says

    Yay on the permit! I always feel like when you’re 200% prepared they go smoothly but if you’re less than 100% prepared then there’s a million little issues.

    PS: I am so jealous that that’s your dressing up. I have to wear business – buisness casual every day!

    • says

      I used to be so jealous of Sherry’s wardrobe in NY. Being a copywriter, Sherry could wear jeans and a t-shirt, even flip flops unless she had a presentation with a client. Meanwhile I was the account guy, so I needed to wear khakis and button downs or even suits on occasion.


    • says

      Oops, John was relaying his comment for me to type it (he was cleaning up in the kitchen but wanted to share that story) and my hands slipped and I signed it as me instead of him. Haha. Auto-pilot comment problems!


    • says

      Haha I work from home at the moment, so I’m here in my nice jeans, nice top… and Monty Python killer rabbit slippers from Think Geek! Professionalism at its best.

    • says

      I convinced the folks at the school I work for that running around taking photos of children all day was not terribly easy to do in a pencil skirt and blouse, so it’s jeans and a blouse/shirt/sweater and comfortable shoes for me!

  6. says

    Wow good work! We are currently going through the permit process for a fun eating nook project we hope to start tackling this summer. They don’t do inspections during it but their process to obtain the permit is pretty extensive. Fingers crossed for both of us!

  7. says

    I went through the permitting process to tear down an old house. (Did you know that you need to get a certificate from the tax office proving that the taxes are paid? That way, if they aren’t, there will still be a house there for them to sell off when they foreclose. The joke was on them, though, because in our case the house had had a pretty severe fire, so the property was probably worth more without the house on it.) Then I went through the process again to get the permit to rebuild, but by then I was, like, totally experienced (with one permit already under my belt), and it went a lot more smoothly.

  8. ErinY says

    I approve of the outfit and totally would have done the same thing! Can’t wait to see how the deck-building plays out!

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