Navigating the (Seemingly) Impossible Permit Process
Washington DC Permit Expeditors cuts costly bureaucratic burdens for contractors and homeowners
As Alex Matthews chatted recently about the bureaucratic one-two, Mike Tyson-esque punch of the cost and inefficiency of the construction permitting process in Washington, D.C., he paused for a moment to collect his thoughts.
“I know this sounds crazy,” he begins, “I call it D.C. trying to cash in on its own bureaucratic ineptitude, but if you write them a $50,000 check, they will expedite your permit for you, which, in my view, is insane.” Matthews is referencing a fast-track program offered in 2018 by the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) to speed up the permit process.
Something Will Rogers, a brilliant actor, columnist and social commentator, said comes to mind. He doesn’t make jokes, the witty humorist once said. He just watches “the government and reports the facts.”
That kind of cost, though, was indicative of the kind of Grand Canyon void in the marketplace that perhaps not even Matthews, a general contractor for more than 30 years, could find enough concrete to fill.
However, with that need and opportunity identified, Matthews the businessman jumped in feet first, forming his Washington DC Permit Expeditors. Established in 2019, Matthews’ company has fulfilled what Matthews calls “a desperately needed service” for commercial contractors and homeowners alike in the D.C. Metro area.
“When I saw this going on, I decided I was simply going to try to help homeowners and contractors to get their permits easier and not charge them anything like what D.C. was charging them to expedite permits on their own,” Matthews says. “I did this because, as a contractor myself, I realized how frustrating it is to deal with the bureaucracy.
“I just wanted to try to find a way to make it easier on everyone. That’s what I did. We’re in the business of making life easier for people who are just trying to do construction projects.”
With that understanding, it’s difficult to put a value on the service of Washington DC Permit Expeditors because the staff saves untold amounts of time with the know-how to cut through the red tape of paperwork—not to mention the team’s skill in navigating an online project documents portal that can seem to be a tangled web for the average homeowner.
Peace of Mind
Washington DC Permit Expeditors takes care of the hundreds of details involved with local permitting protocol and law as well as keeps projects safe and up to code. And on time.
“I’ve seen people languish,” Matthews says. “Trying to get through the permit project doc system…six months, eight months, a year. It gets very long.” And expensive.
Matthews the Multitasker
Late on a Friday afternoon, Matthews received the type of phone call that is now typical. A real estate investor new to the D.C. metro area had just bought her first property.
Immediately, she tells him, she got lost in the intricate tunnels of the civil permitting system. She was seeking to remodel a kitchen and bathroom and, with permit offices shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic—and no true road map to follow online—she needed help. The investor was delighted to find out that Matthews could not only expedite the permitting, but that he also has another company that could actually do the remodel.
His new client had unknowingly killed two birds with one stone.
That, in part, is what makes Washington DC Permit Expeditors special: It works hand-in-hand with Matthews’ longtime business, Demo King, a demolition services company that removes unwanted structures and also has a remodeling division that serves as a general contractor for home renovations.
Demo King’s remodeling team will take on virtually any home improvement project, including bathrooms, bedrooms, basements and kitchens. Matthews says that his team has handled entire home-gut renovations, additions, basement excavations to raise ceiling heights, concrete foundations and slabs, blowouts, second- and third level home additions, underpinning and multi-unit condo conversion projects.
Part of the process—an essential part—is completing an engineering survey. Even with a surveyor’s plat, accurate measurements are essential to permitting. The engineers can also streamline the process. On staff are three architects and three engineers with others available to contract if needed.
“I try to keep my fees reasonable,” Matthews says. “It’s based on the difficulty of the actual job and how complex the drawings are. Do the drawings involve the historical preservation board? That’s an example. That’s often a complicating factor. I don’t actually have a set price. I just try to gauge the price based on each client and their situation.”
Complicated Times for Construction Industry
The permitting process and D.C. building and renovation boom have been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The city’s DCRA, which oversees permitting, has not been open to the public since the spring of 2020. The days of simply bringing your drawings by the office and dropping them off are over for the time being. That means every permit, whether for construction, occupancy or a sign has to be submitted electronically, and building plans have to be uploaded to a project documents portal.
There is a lot of room for errors. In other words, project delays.
“It’s pretty complicated to your average person—a non-builder, not familiar with the building industry and permitting,” Matthews says. “Normally, even in this [pandemic] environment, for a full-scale renovation project, it takes us three to four months to complete the permitting process,” Matthews says. “From the time we meet the customer, draw the plans, submit everything and produce the permit. That’s for a full-scale project from A to Z. If a person calls and needs an electrical permit or plumbing permit or something like that, I get those in two days.”
“Alex did an incredible job expediting permits for me,” says Ken Johnson, a resident of Washington, D.C., who needed help obtaining permits for general renovations at his house. “Getting an initial construction permit in D.C. can be a very lengthy process, sometimes taking months to get approved, but Alex was able to push through the initial permit in a week.”
Johnson found Matthews through an online solicitation he made on HomeAdvisor. Matthews responded to the inquiry.
“And when it came to extensions,” Johnson continues, “he got those done in a day.”
In short, says Matthews, “Our process is a proactive one. The sooner I get the permit, the sooner I get paid and the happier my client is.”
‘All of a Sudden, There was This Boom’
A study published by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that D.C. ranked 13th on its list of “most intensely gentrified” American cities from 2013-17, behind, among others, Boston, Denver, Miami, New Orleans and San Francisco. The year before, in a study that examined American gentrification from 2000-2012, D.C. ranked first.
D.C. might have dropped a bit, but the work involved in gentrification was still surging. Urban living is a trend a number of U.S. cities have experienced since the latter part of the last century. The city of Washington, D.C., was unprepared for a rush on permits when developers and would-be homeowners rediscovered the value of city living.
“For some reason, even though it’s the nation’s capital, there were still many parts of D.C. that had houses undeveloped and even in a state of blight,” Matthews says. “Then all of a sudden, there was this…boom. What used to be a slow market, all of a sudden became one of the hottest real estate markets in the United States.
“D.C. was not ready, I guess, bureaucratically and technologically for the onslaught. So, the system they had in place couldn’t handle all the requests.”
An example is the work homeowner Fayezul Choudhury has had done in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of D.C. One recent project was a gut demo—down to the joist and studs—of a large Victorian terrace. Matthews’ company is slated to also renovate and add an attic extension for Choudhury’s residence.
“Alex is courteous, professional and responds promptly,” Choudhury says. “His prices are reasonable—not rock bottom or a bargain necessarily, but he is reliable and trustworthy and has done similar work before with good reference.”
DC Permit Expeditors flourished in 2020, tripling in revenue over the previous year from $150,000 in permit expediting work to over $450,000.
He acknowledges five or six other permit expediting firms in the D.C. metro area.
“I’ve got some pretty good competitors out there,” he says. “We’re building slowly, but I want to be the No. 1 company. Service-wise, I feel I am. When anybody thinks of permit expediting and architectural services in the D.C. metro area, I want to be the company they call.”