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D.C. Permitting Guide

Sam Lam

Sam Lam

Last updated:

May 30, 2024

Published:

May 16, 2024

Reading time:

minutes

Constructing, renovating, or demolishing a building in the DC area requires a permit. And obtaining a permit requires submitting a thorough application so that the city’s Department of Buildings can make sure your proposed plans are safe and adhere to local building codes.

Use this guide to learn the ins and outs DC permitting requirements, including costs, timelines, permit types, and more.

Who approves building permits in DC?

The DC Department of Buildings (DOB) oversees and approves building permits in the District of Columbia. This department regulates construction projects and is the go-to resource for businesses and residents navigating the Washington DC permitting process.

Fact: 96.7% of permit applications the DC DOB receives are assessed and assigned to a reviewer within 2 days. 

Other agencies involved in the DC permit review process

While the DOB oversees permitting in the DC area, there are some other government agencies that may review or weigh in on a permit application. 

Other agencies that may review a permit application include:

  • DC Water: For projects that involve new water connections.
  • District Department of Transportation: For projects that impact public alleys, sidewalks, or streets.
  • Historic Preservation Review Board and Commission of Fine Arts: For projects on properties located within a historically designated area.
  • Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA): The WMATA will review and approve any construction projects adjacent to WMATA-owned properties.
  • District Department of Health: For all new construction or major renovations to a food establishment or hygiene facility.
  • Department of Energy and the Environment: For projects involving soil disturbance, flood plains, and lead abatement.

What requires a permit in DC?

In DC, most construction or major renovation projects require a building permit. 

Building permits certify that a developer or contractor has permission to begin work on their project. The DOB will only issue a building permit once they review the construction plans and deem that it meets safety standards and various local codes. 

Examples of projects that require a permit in DC include:

  • New buildings 
  • Additions to existing structures
  • Interior alterations (including finished basements) 
  • Building porches and decks or altering existing ones
  • Changing how a building is used or occupied
  • Changing a building’s floor plan
  • Adding retaining walls, fences, sheds, or garages
  • Installing signs or awnings
  • Installing or replacing gas appliances, plumbing, electrical work, or HVAC equipment
  • Building in-ground swimming pools more than 2 feet deep and with more than 1,000 gallons capacity
  • Demolishing buildings
  • Installing electric car charging equipment

How much do DC permits cost?

DC permits cost anywhere from $25 to several thousands of dollars depending on the type of permit you need.

Many simple permits have a flat fee. For example, a Home Occupation permit only costs $33 plus a 10% enhanced fee, for a total of $36.30. 

Meanwhile, other permits are priced based on the square footage or the value of the construction. For example, a new construction permit costs $0.03 per cubic foot of construction, plus a 10% enhanced fee. As such, the cost of a permit for a new development depends on the size of the construction.

Tip: To better estimate the cost of your DC building permit, use the DOB’s building permit fee schedule.

How long does it take to get building permits in DC?

It can take 5 months or more to get a building permit in DC. 

Simpler projects — like minor renovations that require a permit — could take as little as 1 or 2 months. Bigger projects, like new developments, may take 6-12 months.

How long is a DC construction permit valid?

Construction permits in DC are valid for one year.

If work does not begin within one year, the permit will become invalid. A permit can also become invalid if work is suspended or abandoned for a full year after work begins.

How do I look up a building permit in DC?

You can look up a DC building permit online using the DOB's eRecords Management System. 

To use this DC building permit search system, you’ll need to sign up for a free Access DC account and log in.

Types of DC building permits

Most jurisdictions organize their building permits into different categories, and Washington DC is no different.

The 4 main types of permits in DC are:

  1. Construction permits: The most common permit for the vast majority of construction projects, including new developments, additions, major alterations, and demolitions.
  2. Occupancy permits: Permits that certify a building or structure is safe to inhabit. You need an occupancy permit to prove that your structure adheres to zoning regulations, DC construction codes, and the Green Building Act.
  3. Trade and specialty permits: Permits for electrical, mechanical, plumbing, and gas projects. Also for projects involving antennas, boilers, and elevators.
  4. Public space permits: Permits to use or install structures on public spaces (the space between a building and the curb). Examples include front patios, sidewalk cafes, flag poles, dumpsters, and sidewalk repairs.

Types of DC building permits

What is a DC occupancy permit?

An occupancy permit certifies that a building or structure is safe to live or work in. In DC, occupancy permits can be issued as a Certificate of Occupancy, a Certificate of Use, or a Home Occupation Permit.

There are 6 types of certificates of occupancy:

  1. Ownership change
  2. Use change
  3. Occupant load change
  4. Revision
  5. Temporary occupancy
  6. New building

Note: As of October 2023, applicants must use the DOB’s digital platform, Certifi, to apply for a Certificate of Occupancy.

What is a DC postcard permit?

A DC postcard permit is a permit for common, small-scale construction projects that are limited to certain scopes of work as defined by the DOB. You can apply for and obtain a postcard permit online.

Postcard permits are generally intended for minor home improvement and small construction projects. They’re designed to be quick to obtain so that straightforward projects can be reviewed and approved as fast as possible.

DC permitting process overview

Navigate the DC permitting process in 6 steps:

  1. Learn about your property restrictions and status
  2. Determine the scope of your project
  3. Prepare and submit your application
  4. Pre-screening
  5. Plan review
  6. Pay and receive your permit

1. Learn about your property restrictions and status

Before applying for a permit, determine if any development restrictions apply to your proposed project. 

First, determine if you’re located in a zoning overlay. Overlay districts have additional zoning regulations on top of the underlying district’s policies. Check with the DC Office of Zoning to determine your precise zoning district.

You should also learn more about the conditions of the area where you intend to build. For example, assess whether you’re in a historically designated area, a Flood Hazard Area, or another location with unique specifications.

2. Determine the scope of your project

By understanding the scope of your proposed work, you’ll be able to determine the type of permit you need, as well as the documentation you’ll need to provide when applying.

For example, exterior construction may require a surveyor’s plat, which is a scaled drawing of a lot. 

Familiarizing yourself with the unique requirements of the permit you need will help expedite the process and prevent mistakes along the way.

3. Prepare and submit your application

The DOB provides different online portals for different permit applications. 

For example, one- and two-family residential projects must apply using the DOB Permit Wizard. Meanwhile, commercial projects, solar, demolition, and after-hours permits must apply using the Citizen Access Portal

Make sure you complete your application with as much detail as possible to avoid rejection. 

4. Pre-screening

After submitting your application, the DOB will pre-screen it to assess completeness and ensure it meets the basic requirements for a full plan review. 

If the DOB finds errors during the pre-screening, you’ll have to revisit your application and resubmit.

5. Plan review

After a successful pre-screening, the DOB will fully review your application. Other agencies may get pulled in to review your plan as needed. 

During this full plan review process, DOB representatives will carefully assess the details of your proposed project to ensure it is up to code. This process could take a few days, several weeks, or a couple months depending on the scope of the project.

6. Pay and receive your permit

Once your plan is approved, all you have to do is pay necessary fees and receive your permit. Payments can be made online, by check, or in person at designated locations. 

Working with a DC permit expediter

Even though the DC DOB has simplified the permitting process by moving it online, applying for a permit is still a tedious and time-consuming hassle. To simplify the process, you may consider permitting services, such as hiring a DC permit expediter.

A permit expediter is a third-party you can hire to handle the permit application process on your behalf. By passing this work off to someone else, you’ll save time and get your permit application submitted faster. 

If you choose to hire permit expediting services, make sure they have adequate local knowledge about DC’s unique zoning districts and building codes.

Simplify the permitting process with PermitFlow

There’s an even better alternative to permit expediting services: work with PermitFlow.

PermitFlow is modern-day permitting software that handles the permit preparation, submission, and tracking process across all municipalities you’re building in — including Washington DC. Working with PermitFlow means you’ll automate away the tedious work involved in applying for a permit, and get your permit in your hands faster.

PermitFlow is:

  • Built by a team of permitting experts, so you can trust your application is in good hands.
  • Easy to use — without navigating the dozens of webpages on the DOB’s website.
  • Faster than any other solution, so you’ll receive your permit as quickly as possible.

Constructing, renovating, or demolishing a building in the DC area requires a permit. And obtaining a permit requires submitting a thorough application so that the city’s Department of Buildings can make sure your proposed plans are safe and adhere to local building codes.

Use this guide to learn the ins and outs DC permitting requirements, including costs, timelines, permit types, and more.

Who approves building permits in DC?

The DC Department of Buildings (DOB) oversees and approves building permits in the District of Columbia. This department regulates construction projects and is the go-to resource for businesses and residents navigating the Washington DC permitting process.

Fact: 96.7% of permit applications the DC DOB receives are assessed and assigned to a reviewer within 2 days. 

Other agencies involved in the DC permit review process

While the DOB oversees permitting in the DC area, there are some other government agencies that may review or weigh in on a permit application. 

Other agencies that may review a permit application include:

  • DC Water: For projects that involve new water connections.
  • District Department of Transportation: For projects that impact public alleys, sidewalks, or streets.
  • Historic Preservation Review Board and Commission of Fine Arts: For projects on properties located within a historically designated area.
  • Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA): The WMATA will review and approve any construction projects adjacent to WMATA-owned properties.
  • District Department of Health: For all new construction or major renovations to a food establishment or hygiene facility.
  • Department of Energy and the Environment: For projects involving soil disturbance, flood plains, and lead abatement.

What requires a permit in DC?

In DC, most construction or major renovation projects require a building permit. 

Building permits certify that a developer or contractor has permission to begin work on their project. The DOB will only issue a building permit once they review the construction plans and deem that it meets safety standards and various local codes. 

Examples of projects that require a permit in DC include:

  • New buildings 
  • Additions to existing structures
  • Interior alterations (including finished basements) 
  • Building porches and decks or altering existing ones
  • Changing how a building is used or occupied
  • Changing a building’s floor plan
  • Adding retaining walls, fences, sheds, or garages
  • Installing signs or awnings
  • Installing or replacing gas appliances, plumbing, electrical work, or HVAC equipment
  • Building in-ground swimming pools more than 2 feet deep and with more than 1,000 gallons capacity
  • Demolishing buildings
  • Installing electric car charging equipment

How much do DC permits cost?

DC permits cost anywhere from $25 to several thousands of dollars depending on the type of permit you need.

Many simple permits have a flat fee. For example, a Home Occupation permit only costs $33 plus a 10% enhanced fee, for a total of $36.30. 

Meanwhile, other permits are priced based on the square footage or the value of the construction. For example, a new construction permit costs $0.03 per cubic foot of construction, plus a 10% enhanced fee. As such, the cost of a permit for a new development depends on the size of the construction.

Tip: To better estimate the cost of your DC building permit, use the DOB’s building permit fee schedule.

How long does it take to get building permits in DC?

It can take 5 months or more to get a building permit in DC. 

Simpler projects — like minor renovations that require a permit — could take as little as 1 or 2 months. Bigger projects, like new developments, may take 6-12 months.

How long is a DC construction permit valid?

Construction permits in DC are valid for one year.

If work does not begin within one year, the permit will become invalid. A permit can also become invalid if work is suspended or abandoned for a full year after work begins.

How do I look up a building permit in DC?

You can look up a DC building permit online using the DOB's eRecords Management System. 

To use this DC building permit search system, you’ll need to sign up for a free Access DC account and log in.

Types of DC building permits

Most jurisdictions organize their building permits into different categories, and Washington DC is no different.

The 4 main types of permits in DC are:

  1. Construction permits: The most common permit for the vast majority of construction projects, including new developments, additions, major alterations, and demolitions.
  2. Occupancy permits: Permits that certify a building or structure is safe to inhabit. You need an occupancy permit to prove that your structure adheres to zoning regulations, DC construction codes, and the Green Building Act.
  3. Trade and specialty permits: Permits for electrical, mechanical, plumbing, and gas projects. Also for projects involving antennas, boilers, and elevators.
  4. Public space permits: Permits to use or install structures on public spaces (the space between a building and the curb). Examples include front patios, sidewalk cafes, flag poles, dumpsters, and sidewalk repairs.

Types of DC building permits

What is a DC occupancy permit?

An occupancy permit certifies that a building or structure is safe to live or work in. In DC, occupancy permits can be issued as a Certificate of Occupancy, a Certificate of Use, or a Home Occupation Permit.

There are 6 types of certificates of occupancy:

  1. Ownership change
  2. Use change
  3. Occupant load change
  4. Revision
  5. Temporary occupancy
  6. New building

Note: As of October 2023, applicants must use the DOB’s digital platform, Certifi, to apply for a Certificate of Occupancy.

What is a DC postcard permit?

A DC postcard permit is a permit for common, small-scale construction projects that are limited to certain scopes of work as defined by the DOB. You can apply for and obtain a postcard permit online.

Postcard permits are generally intended for minor home improvement and small construction projects. They’re designed to be quick to obtain so that straightforward projects can be reviewed and approved as fast as possible.

DC permitting process overview

Navigate the DC permitting process in 6 steps:

  1. Learn about your property restrictions and status
  2. Determine the scope of your project
  3. Prepare and submit your application
  4. Pre-screening
  5. Plan review
  6. Pay and receive your permit

1. Learn about your property restrictions and status

Before applying for a permit, determine if any development restrictions apply to your proposed project. 

First, determine if you’re located in a zoning overlay. Overlay districts have additional zoning regulations on top of the underlying district’s policies. Check with the DC Office of Zoning to determine your precise zoning district.

You should also learn more about the conditions of the area where you intend to build. For example, assess whether you’re in a historically designated area, a Flood Hazard Area, or another location with unique specifications.

2. Determine the scope of your project

By understanding the scope of your proposed work, you’ll be able to determine the type of permit you need, as well as the documentation you’ll need to provide when applying.

For example, exterior construction may require a surveyor’s plat, which is a scaled drawing of a lot. 

Familiarizing yourself with the unique requirements of the permit you need will help expedite the process and prevent mistakes along the way.

3. Prepare and submit your application

The DOB provides different online portals for different permit applications. 

For example, one- and two-family residential projects must apply using the DOB Permit Wizard. Meanwhile, commercial projects, solar, demolition, and after-hours permits must apply using the Citizen Access Portal

Make sure you complete your application with as much detail as possible to avoid rejection. 

4. Pre-screening

After submitting your application, the DOB will pre-screen it to assess completeness and ensure it meets the basic requirements for a full plan review. 

If the DOB finds errors during the pre-screening, you’ll have to revisit your application and resubmit.

5. Plan review

After a successful pre-screening, the DOB will fully review your application. Other agencies may get pulled in to review your plan as needed. 

During this full plan review process, DOB representatives will carefully assess the details of your proposed project to ensure it is up to code. This process could take a few days, several weeks, or a couple months depending on the scope of the project.

6. Pay and receive your permit

Once your plan is approved, all you have to do is pay necessary fees and receive your permit. Payments can be made online, by check, or in person at designated locations. 

Working with a DC permit expediter

Even though the DC DOB has simplified the permitting process by moving it online, applying for a permit is still a tedious and time-consuming hassle. To simplify the process, you may consider permitting services, such as hiring a DC permit expediter.

A permit expediter is a third-party you can hire to handle the permit application process on your behalf. By passing this work off to someone else, you’ll save time and get your permit application submitted faster. 

If you choose to hire permit expediting services, make sure they have adequate local knowledge about DC’s unique zoning districts and building codes.

Simplify the permitting process with PermitFlow

There’s an even better alternative to permit expediting services: work with PermitFlow.

PermitFlow is modern-day permitting software that handles the permit preparation, submission, and tracking process across all municipalities you’re building in — including Washington DC. Working with PermitFlow means you’ll automate away the tedious work involved in applying for a permit, and get your permit in your hands faster.

PermitFlow is:

  • Built by a team of permitting experts, so you can trust your application is in good hands.
  • Easy to use — without navigating the dozens of webpages on the DOB’s website.
  • Faster than any other solution, so you’ll receive your permit as quickly as possible.
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