City of San Carlos - Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)


Building Division

Home > ... > Building > Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Do I need a permit to add or replace a fence?
If the side or rear yard fence is 6 feet high or less, you do not need a building permit.  No front yard fence, wall, hedge or screen planting of any kind located between the front property line and the front-most wall of the residence is permitted to exceed 4 feet in height.  For corner lots, no fence, wall, or hedge may exceed 3 feet in height when it is located within the site distance triangle area; the remainder of the front yard area outside of the site distance triangle area may have a fence, hedge or screen maximum of 4-feet.   The site distance triangle on corner lots is the area formed by the intersecting curb lines (or edge of pavement when no curb exists) and a line joining these points at a distance of 40-feet along each line from their point of intersection. Please also note that you may not build your fence too close to the street in the city's right-of-way without an encroachment permit (see Encroachments).  Should you have any questions regarding fence regulations, please contact the Planning Department at (650) 802-4263.

Do I need a permit to build a greenhouse or a tool shed?
Single-story buildings that are NOT attached to other buildings may not exceed 120 square feet without a permit. However, there are Planning Department regulations that govern the location and height of these non-permitted buildings. For any structure above 120 square feet, contact the Building Division at (650) 802-4261.

Do I need a permit to build a retaining wall?
If the retaining wall is wood, no permit is required if it is 3 feet or shorter. A permit is not required for a masonry or concrete retaining wall less than 4 feet, measured from the bottom of the footing to the top of the wall.  See the permit information above.  However, as with fences, you may not build a retaining wall in the city's right-of-way without an encroachment permit.  Contact Public Works, at (650) 802-4195 for information on encroachment permits.

Do I need a permit to connect to the city storm drain system?
Yes, you will need an encroachment permit. See the Encroachments section, and call the San Carlos Public Works Department at (650) 802-4195.

Do I need a permit to install a pool, a spa, or a hot tub?
Hot tubs, spas, and swimming pools do require building permits and security fencing. Call the San Carlos Building Division, at (650) 802-4261, for more information.

Do I need a permit to install or reface my kitchen cabinets?
You do not need a permit to reface your cabinets.  However, a typical kitchen remodel does require a permit.  Please contact the Building Division, at (650) 802-4261 for more information.

Do I need a permit to replace a furnace?
Yes, most furnaces are replaced by mechanical contractors, and they will obtain the permit for you.

Do I need a permit to replace a sink or a toilet?
If you are simply replacing a toilet like for like, a permit is not required.  We will issue a simple plumbing permit involving sink replacement or similar work.  Please call the Building Division, at (650) 802-4261, for more information. 

Do I need a permit to replace my roof?
Yes, most roofs are replaced by roofing contractors who obtain the permit. In fact, roofing contractors apply for more permits any other group of contractor. Residential re-roofs are at least "B" rated. No unrated roofing is allowed in California.  Please contact the Building Division, at (650) 802-4261, for more information.

Do I need a permit to replace my water heater?
Yes, whether you pay a plumber to do the job or replace it yourself, a permit is required.  Codes have changed dramatically since most old water heaters were installed.  Please call the Building Division, at (650) 802-4261, for more information on recent code changes as they pertain to water heater installations in California.

Does the San Carlos Building Division have the building plans for my house? May I get a copy?
The Building Division has records for almost all properties, but they are primarily short records of the permits taken out since the property was developed. Sometimes, especially for older houses, there may be no plans, they may be outdated or incomplete, or the work may have been done without the proper permits. In such cases, the plans would not appear in the file.  We typically have more complete files for homes built in 1980 to present.

State law prohibits the city from releasing copies of any plans it has on file without the written permission of the current owner of the property and any architect or engineer who may have stamped or signed the plans. For more details, call the Building Division, at (650) 802-4261, or stop by during normal business hours.

How do I know which materials are approved for construction?
Some products commonly used in home remodeling projects must have prior approval by the Building Division, or be listed by a nationally recognized independent agency. Some of the listing agencies are Underwriters Laboratories (UL), American Gas Association (AGA), and the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO Evaluation Reports).

When you have identified a specific brand and model you want to install, check with the Building Division to see if it has been approved for use in the City of San Carlos.

How does the Building Division define whether or not a room meets the definition of a bedroom?
We are asked this question quite often.  The following is the Building Official's definition of what constitutes a bedroom within a single family residence:

Bedroom: any space in the conditioned area of a dwelling unit or accessory structure which is 70 square feet and greater in size and which is located along an exterior wall, but not including the following: hall, bathroom, kitchen, living room (maximum of one per dwelling unit), dining room (in proximity to kitchen, maximum of one per dwelling unit), family room (maximum of one per dwelling unit), laundry room, closet/dressing room opening off of a bedroom.  Sewing rooms, dens, studios, lofts, game rooms, and any other conditioned room along an exterior wall which is 70 square feet or greater in size will be considered to be bedrooms unless the room is specifically exempted. If a home office, library or similar room is proposed, it may be exempted from being considered a bedroom if there is no closet and at least one of the following is present: a) permanently built-in bookcases, desks and other features that encumber the room in such a way that it cannot be used as a bedroom; b) a minimum 4 foot opening, without doors, into another room; or c) a half wall (4 foot maximum height) between the room and another room.

Please contact the Building Official, at 650-802-4262, if you have further questions.

I need to hire a contractor for a building project. Where should I start?
Ask your friends and neighbors about positive experiences they have had with various contractors.

Contact the Peninsula Builders Exchange, a non-profit, member-run organization, for a referral. Call them at (650) 591-4486, or find them on the web at

Licensed contractors offer the best protection and tend to do the best work. Ask to see the Contractor’s License Card that they carry with them. Make sure the license is active and issued to the person with whom you are dealing.  Call the Contractors State License Board at 800-321-2752 to verify all information provided by the contractor. Have the contractor's name, license number, and business address handy when you call.

Try to get bids on a job from at least three different contractors. Ask for references of work the contractor has completed locally. Make sure you get a written contract, and don't sign it until you fully understand all the terms. It is a good idea to arrange your contract to hold the last substantial payment until the Building Division signs off the final inspection.

I want to build a new commercial building or house or add onto an existing house or do a commercial tenant improvement in San Carlos. What do I have to do?
The San Carlos Planning Commission reviews new commercial buildings or significant changes to existing commercial buildings. The Exception Design Control Committee (EDCC) reviews new residences or residences requesting to exceed the city's floor area limitations. Planning Department staff reviews residential additions that are less than the City's floor area limitations. All reviewing bodies have design guidelines, which they utilize in the consideration of projects.

1. Pre-Application Meeting. Prior to the submission of a development application, staff in the Planning, Community Development, Public Works, and Fire departments are available to meet developers/owners to discuss project plans in conceptual form and to provide general information and direction regarding application submittal requirements. This gives potential customers the opportunity to obtain information about the review process, realistic estimates of the time and approval fees involved, and tips for minimizing delays.

2. Development Application. An application, which includes the building design, floor plans and a site plan, is submitted to the Planning Department. A city planner is then assigned to the project, and the application is sent to various departments for review and comment.

3. Referral Review. After staff has had an opportunity to review the development application, the project planner meets with department representatives for their comments, issues, and recommended conditions of approval for the project. More information and plans may be requested from the applicant based on the results of the various departments' and divisions' review.

4. Staff Report and Public Hearing. For projects requiring public hearings or meetings, the project planner writes a staff report about the project, including the planning concerns and conditions of approval. In the report, staff recommends whether the application should be approved, denied, or discusses project modifications based on whether the proposed project meets the city's requirements and policies. The application request is then scheduled for a public hearing before the San Carlos Planning Commission or the San Carlos City Council. At a public hearing, the applicant has an opportunity to address the commission or council. The planning director may approve certain applications without a public hearing. Generally, planning commission decisions can be appealed to the city council.

5. Construction Plans Submittal. Once the project has been tentatively approved, you may submit a building permit application and construction plans to the Building Division for review. The South County Fire Authority, Public Works, and the San Mateo County Health Department may also require permits.

6. Project Plan Check. City plan checkers in the Building Division review the construction plans for compliance with building codes. Plans may also be routed to Public Works, South County Fire Authority, the Police Department, and the City Geologist for their review and comment. The construction plans will then likely be routed back to the Planning Department for comparison to the initial development drawings. Your plans will be checked against applicable codes and ordinances and any project conditions of approval established by the planning commission or the city council in a public hearing. The plan check process may take from one day to several weeks, depending on the complexity of the project. Bath and kitchen remodels, and other smaller projects are handled through our 24-hour Quick Check Program. If you bring complete, scaled plans for your project, the Building Division will have the permit ready on the next business day. The city will notify you within 30 days of the status of your permit request.

7. Permit Issuance and Construction Inspections. No construction is permitted without the required permits. During construction, periodic field inspections are made to ensure that the project is being constructed in compliance with the approved plans and the applicable codes. Construction is permitted only between the hours of 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Saturday, Sunday and holidays. Some projects have fewer hours permitted for construction due to their location in the community. Check your Use Permit or Conditions of Approval.

May I do the work myself?
Yes, work on an owner-occupied home may be performed by the owner. You may also hire another person or a contractor to perform the work on your own home, as well. The contractor must be licensed and maintain the proper insurance and business license.

State law requires worker's compensation insurance be provided for all workers, so be sure your contractor has worker's compensation insurance for his/her employees.

You may check your contractor's license status on the California State License Board website, at


May I use a credit card to pay for building fees and permits?
Yes, we accept Master Card & Visa for permits and fax permits.

What are the construction noise hours in San Carlos?
As of January 1, 2012, the new construction noise hours in San Carlos are as follows:  8:00am to 6:00pm Monday through Friday; 9:00am to 5:00pm Saturdays and Sundays. No construction noise-related activities on the following holidays: New Year's Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day, Veteran's Day, Thanksgiving Day & Christmas Day.

What are the requirements for installing a residential AC condenser unit?

Air conditioning equipment must be located to comply with the City’s Noise Control Performance Standards (SCMC TABLE 18.21.050-A: Noise Limits). A minimum setback of 25 feet from any property line while located in the rear yard area will generally comply with the noise standard (55 dBA daytime and 45 dBA nighttime measured at the property line). Air conditioners located in side yard areas generally do not comply with the City’s noise regulations. 

 When the AC condenser is replaced or installed in a side yard location, it must allow for a clear 3-foot path of travel and the installer must provide documentation to the satisfaction of the Building Official the unit will comply with the Table 18.21.050-A noise limits referenced above.

 If the air conditioning unit is later determined by the City to exceed the limits of the noise ordinance, it must be relocated, replaced, or otherwise modified to achieve compliance with the noise ordinance.

What types of construction in San Carlos require a building permit?
Most anything that you can possibly think of requires a building permit from the city. It is much easier to list things that Do Not require a permit.

  • Fences 6 feet tall or shorter; however, our Fence Ordinance governs where tall fences are allowed. Check with the Building Division to discuss location of fencing before you start construction.
  • Wood retaining walls 3 feet tall or shorter measured from grade and concrete or masonry walls less than 4 feet tall measured from the bottom of the footing.
  • Painting and wallpapering.
  • Freestanding sheds less than 120 square feet, but check with the Planning Department for setbacks to property lines, height, etc.
  • In general, any mechanical or structural work (e.g., cabinets, doors, windows, roofs), plumbing work (e.g., sinks, irrigation, water heaters), or electrical work (e.g., appliances, furnaces, garage door openers, pool pumps) require a building permit. If you have any questions about a specific project, call the San Carlos Building Division, at (650) 802-4261.

Remember: Building permits help ensure that any work done in your home is done safely and correctly. Although safety is our main concern for you and your family, a project built without permits and inspections will often cause problems and delay a sale when it is time for you to sell your home.

Why do I need a permit?
The purpose of a building permit is to control the type of construction and use of property in the City of San Carlos. The building permit is based upon the California Building Codes, which were adopted (in addition to local ordinances) to protect health, general welfare, and the investment of your property. The evidence of a building permit is often time necessary to obtain financing from lending agencies.

Many permits also require review by the Planning Department. The Planning Department is a separate city department located in San Carlos City Hall. The Planning Department reviews height, size, and occupancy type of your project, as well as neighborhood impact.

The Planning Department can be reached at (650) 802-4263.