Legalizing Unpermitted Construction

It is not uncommon to come across a building in Los Angeles that has unpermitted work done to it.  We are seeing this more and more, where home owners and/or contractors are dodging the building department’s thorough and sometimes stringent and lengthy plan check review/building permit process.  Additionally, they are avoiding expensive fees from the city and paying extra on their property taxes.  Cities are cracking down on unpermitted additions, renovations, and the like, because it is of course illegal, could potentially be unsafe to the occupants, and the City is losing out on more property tax revenue for any unrealized square footage additions that add to the value of the overall building and property.

When dealing with unpermitted construction, there are simply three options that an owner has: 1) they can choose to restore the building to it’s previous condition, 2) do nothing (does not apply to new building purchases with restoration stipulations), but could result in a large price reduction whenever the owner were to sell it, or 3) to go through the process of legalizing the unpermitted work.  This article is to help guide one through the legalization of illegal construction work.

Legalizing unpermitted additions can be very tricky and expensive.  The major problem is that the city did not approve the project plans and they did not inspect the actual construction to make sure that it was done correctly and per the drawing specifications.  This can be particularly disturbing because no one inspected the structure to make sure it is safe and can withstand gravity and lateral loads (earthquakes and wind).  This is arguably the most important part of a building because people’s life are at stake if the structure was not properly installed.  To meet the City’s standards the following steps will need to be taken for the City to approve unpermitted construction.

MEET WITH A PLANNER
Similar to a regular building permit process, one should first meet with a planner at Planning Department to see if the illegal addition is withing the zoning ordinances.  This could be a simple conversation over the phone or an over the counter meeting at the planning department.  The planner will usually like to see the area that was unpermitted on a drawing with dimensions and the square footage to see if the addition or conversion meets their zoning ordinances.  If the addition is not allowed by Planning, then legalizing the work might not be a viable option, but at least you would avoid the time and expenses in this step.  If however, you plan to proceed and apply for a variance you could take your chances by rolling the dice.  A variance is basically an exception to the rules, if approved by the planning committee.  This can take months and it comes with a hefty nonrefundable price tag.  Lastly, there is that chance they may not approve it, in which case you wasted your time and money.

HIRE AN ARCHITECT OR A DESIGN-BUILD COMPANY
This step can technically be done prior to the meeting with the planner, however, if one is on a tight budget, they may consider meeting with a planner on their own.  If the meeting with planner went well and they approved the unpermitted addition or renovation per their zoning ordinances, then construction documents will need to be provided for the Plan Check Review.  Typically, the review will require a site plan, floor plans, elevations, sections, structural drawings (if required), electrical plan, and the Title 24 report.  Other drawings and documents may be required depending on the scope of the work and the what the Plan Checkers of the building department require.  The trick here is to make sure that the architect draws the as-builts (the drawings of the exact construction after the building has been built) as accurate as possible, including the specs for the insulation in the walls, the size of the footings, the location of the joists, etc. so if the plan check is approved the exact way it was built, then the inspector will have fewer comments during the inspection process.

An architect or a design-build company should be hired to put together the construction drawings and documents.  Both types of companies can produce the drawings, but if the building owner plans to hire an architect, they will most likely need to hire a general contractor, and depending on the contract with the architect, may be responsible for separate engineer consulting contracts as well.  The major benefit with a design-build company, like L.A. Design Group, is that we can do everything in-house as well as carry on the extra construction responsibilities, if required.  This allows the client to deal with one company at all times, instead of dealing with a few companies and the problems that evolve while coordinating with multiple companies.

PLAN CHECK REVIEW/ISSUANCE OF BUILDING PERMIT
Once all the drawings and pertinent documents are completed, then the owner will need to submit for Plan Check.  Plan check is the process where one plan checker from all the departments of a city will review the drawings to see if they meet their minimum respective codes or standards.  Along with a few sets of full size drawing sets and other related documents, the owner or agent will need to fill out an application and pay the plan check fees.

For smaller projects, the plan check can usually be done over the counter, but if not, an applicant may have to wait a few weeks to receive any comments that need to be addressed or an approval.  After the approvals are granted from each of the plan checkers, the building permit is issued after the building permit fees are paid.

INSPECTIONS & REMEDIAL WORK
Once the building permit is issued, an owner can call for an inspection.  Upon the initial inspection, an inspector will most likely be looking structural, electrical, plumbing, HVAC, insulation and other specifications that were approved on the plans.  Typical inspections include, but are not limited to: foundations, framing, rough electrical/plumbing/HVAC, insulation, building paper & lath, and the final inspection.  During an inspection on unpermitted construction, the inspector will most likely want to see a section of the footing jackhammered out to verify if the steel reinforcements (rebars) were placed correctly, holes in the drywall to see if the insulation, electrical, plumbing, and the joists were properly installed, and to verify any other items that are shown on the plans to the actual construction.

If the inspections are not approved, then the owner will be forced to do major remedial work.  For example, if the foundation is not up to code, it may be forced to be completely demolished and redone entirely.  In which case, a general contractor will definitely need to be hired for any new remedial construction work.  This part of the process will arguably the most difficult and most expensive, unless the unpermitted construction was done correctly, in which case, there will be very little remedial work.

CERTIFICATE OF OCCUPANCY & FINAL NOTES
Once the final inspection has been approved and signed off, the certificate of occupancy will be issued.  This document officially completes the process of legalizing unpermitted construction.  It may have been a strenuous process, but at the end of the day you’ll most likely add value to your home or building with the new legalized improvements.

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About cloghmani3182
An aspiring architect that currently works for L.A. Design Group.

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