NetClerk Offers Contractors Do-it-Yourself Permits

Every time someone sells a water heater, another person has to get a city permit to install it. A typical store might move 1,000 of those water heaters a month. That's 1,000 permits; 1,000 forms to be filled out; 1,000 potential headaches.

And that's just water heaters. Permits are needed for roofs, air conditioners — you name it.

A California company called NetClerk Inc. is offering contractors a way to spare themselves permit hassles by enabling them to apply for permits online — even if a city doesn't offer an online service.

"We knew if we could provide this solution, the customers would be there," said Jon Fisher, the company's chief executive officer. Typically, contractors deal with many cities, most with very different ways of handling permits. Some allow them to be faxed in. Others require contractors to file them in person. Some offer online applications. Regardless, the contractors bear the burden of keeping it all straight.

The Internet-based NetClerk steps in by giving the contractors one place online to fill out any permit application they need. Plus, once they've used the service, it stores some of their basic information so they don't have to type it all out every time.

NetClerk then takes that electronic information and delivers it to cities in their preferred form — online, mail, fax or in person.

It costs contractors $100 to $2,500 a month, depending on the volume of transactions they're funneling and the type of permits. For cities, it's free.

"We're allowing cities to completely outsource this problem for free," Fisher said.

More than 400 cities accept NetClerk permits, although the company expects that number to jump to more than 2,500 by year's end. That's because the company does business only in the San Francisco and Phoenix areas.

But in coming months, the company plans to cast wider and wider circles, moving into Houston, San Diego, Los Angeles, Chicago and Tampa, Fla. The goal is to have contractors in 20 U.S. urban areas using their system by the end of the year. "Now, we're off to the races," Fisher said.

Although NetClerk is geared to make the lives of contractors easier, Fisher said governments should notice some advantages, too.

It might keep some foot traffic out of congested permit offices. Permits might be neater and more accurate. And Fisher thinks that down the road, permit offices might find that compliance is up if more contractors are willing to deal with a less-taxing permit process.

Scott Troyer, director of permit services for San Jose, Calif., hasn't noticed dramatic effects since his office began accepting NetClerk permits months ago — one of the first cities to do so. However, he said the contractors in his area have been enjoying a faster turnaround to receive permits.

In San Jose, the applications are sent by mail, and the city will fax back the permit.

"They get faster service than they would have otherwise," Troyer said. "It saves about two days."

Incorporated in January 1999, NetClerk officially launched in February. It now has 60 employees.

Fisher said he plans to keep the company's involvement centered around permits, although it may branch out to business licenses.

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