Who to Hire for a Construction Project?

There is a common general public misconception on the costs that are related to a construction project and all the services that actually go into it.  In this article, we will break the different services of a project into pre-construction and construction costs to better educate a building owner on all the incurred costs of doing construction.  As a home or building owner, one must understand all the professionals which are necessary to hire, to better budget for the entirety of the proposed project.  Most people do not realize the amount of work and different services that go into simply designing a building, let alone building it.  The rule of thumb here is the smaller the project, the fewer number of professionals are needed on your project.

For most projects, pre-construction expenses at a minimum, consist of an architect/designer fee, title 24 consultant expenses, plan check fees and building permit fees.  However, this is usually the best case scenario, depending on your scope of work and the municipality where the project site is located.  For example, if the proposed scope includes removing of any walls, then the project will immediately need a structural engineer/consultant to determine if the wall is load bearing and how to redistribute those gravity loads down to the foundation.  Additionally, some cities are more lenient during their plan check phase opposed to other jurisdictions.  Other pre-construction expenses that one may experience consist of: land surveyor, geotechnical engineer (soils), mechanical engineer, electrical engineer, plumbing engineer, acoustics consultant, landscape designer, plan check fees, building permit fees and other City fees.

The first major thing a home owner will need to identify is how big of a budget they are willing to work with.  Realistically, you will want to take that number and increase it by like 40%.  What I have encountered with many construction virgin clients is that they grossly underestimate the expenses of a construction project.  They typically prepare a tiny budget and think just because they heard that so and so got their new house addition for cheap that is how much they should pay.  There is a lot of cheap labor and construction rates primarily due to the economy creating a more competitive playing field, but more often than not it is because they are unlicensed individuals, uninsured, inexperienced, and/or illegal citizens.  These practices are considered “Illegal Contractor Activity” by the Contractors State License Board (CSLB):

“It is illegal for an unlicensed person to perform contracting work on any project valued at $500 or more in labor and materials. Besides being illegal, unlicensed contractors lack accountability and have a high rate of involvement in construction scams. They also are unfair competition for licensed contractors who operate with bonds, insurance and other responsible business practices.”

Additionally, these projects are typically unpermitted, so if an appraiser or a City Inspector discovers this, the home owner will be required to either get the work permitted, (Legalizing Unpermitted Construction) or they will need to significantly reduce the asking price of the home when it is put on the market so that the new owners can deal with the unpermitted work.  Both of which can be very costly to the building owner and should be avoided.

Once the realistic budget is finalized, the home owner should look into hiring an architect or a design-build company to act as an agent for project and guide to obtaining their building permits.  If the project is a renovation project within the existing footprint or a small addition, then the client most likely will not be required to hire a surveyor or a geotechnical engineer.  These services could save the owner up to $5000 or more.  However, if the project is a brand new building on an empty lot, then these services will be required.  Furthermore, an architect will most likely need to hire consultants to complete all the drawings necessary for the plan check review.  At a minimum, they will need an electrical engineer and most likely a structural engineer.  If the project is something other than a single family residence, it will usually require mechanical and plumbing drawings & calculations too.

Lastly, the client should budget for the City fees for their project.  These typically consist of at least the plan check review fee and the building permit fee.  Some cities will require other fees, which they will either include with the building permit fee or have as a separate fee.  These may include but are not limited to: school district, county sanitation, road, development impact, demolition & waste, and public arts fees.  Once these fees are paid off, the owner will have their building permit issued and receive an inspection card.

An owner will need to hire a licensed general contractor with an active license to carry out their construction needs once the building permits have been issued.  It is probably a good idea to ask the contractors that you are pursuing proof of insurance and an active license to ensure that you are working with a legitimate professional.  Additionally, it may be wise to ask about if they provide any warranties for their work and if they have any pictures of work they have worked on recently.  Selecting a contractor is probably the biggest and most important decision that will be made by the client because the actual construction is the most expensive part about any project.  If you select a an inexperienced contractor that gives you the best bid, you may end up regretting it in the end.  Keep in mind, you pay for what you get and this is especially true in the construction industry.  If you want to be cheap, you’ll most likely have a flawed project, in which case you’ll have to spend additional money to repair or redo the work, opposed to paying a bit more upfront for work that is done right the first time through.

Once the right GC is selected, then project will suddenly start to take form.  Many general contractors will subcontract trades of the construction to other specialized companies or individuals.  These include electricians, plumbers, cabinetry installers, framers, drywallers, painters, glass installers, stucco workers, roofers, etc.  However, these subcontractors are all hired under the GC, so a client does not have to find and hire anyone else besides the general contractor for the construction services.

Another option for a client to take is to hire a design-build company.  A design-build company, such as L.A. Design Group performs both the pre-construction and construction services with one firm.  For example, the need for hiring a separate architect, engineers, and the general contractor is eliminated with working with a design-build company.  At L.A. Design Group we have prepare all the necessary drawings, perform all the engineering requirements and we provide the general contracting of an entire project.  The only services that we do not perform in-house are the geotechnical reports and the land survey.  This is a great alternate for a client because it takes away the worry of hiring individual entities and the confusion that typically comes up with working with multiple companies.  Please contact us today, if you are looking for help on your next construction project.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

How to Obtain Building Permits

The building permit process can be a very tedious process for developers, home owners, and the like.  Many new clients that we encounter have a misconception on the time and money it takes to carry out their construction project.  The first question that needs to be answered, is does your project need a building permit?  Depending on the scope of the project and the jurisdiction that your site is in, will determine the answer to this question.

If for example, you are a homeowner and you want to do a simple kitchen upgrade of replacing the existing cabinetry and countertops, then you probably can avoid getting building permits.  But lets say the same homeowner wants to completely renovate the kitchen and perhaps remove some walls to expand the kitchen, add more counter space and even relocate the location of the new appliances.  In this scenario, the owner will most likely be required to obtain building permits.

A simple way to distinguish the difference, is to ask yourself, does this project affect the existing structure (removal of load bearing walls), changes in the electrical (new lighting, outlets, switches, etc), changes in the plumbing (relocating the sink, dishwasher, or refrigerator), and changes in the HVAC system (new duct work).  The last important thing to mention here is that, the building permit process is much more expensive since there will be all the pre-construction costs such as architect/engineer expenses, the City plan check fees, and the building permit fees.  So before you even start construction an owner may accrue thousands of dollars of expenses on the plans and all the City fees just to pull a building permit.  Lastly, the time required to get the permits could be anywhere from a few days (the smallest of projects) to over a year (on bigger projects in strict jurisdictions).

Below are the steps to successfully obtain building permits:
1)  Speak to a planner and see what you’re allowed to build and see if your project goal is within the zoning limitations.  All you need to do is simply go to the building/planning department which is nearby City Hall or maybe the County if your project site is in an unincorporated territory.  Ask to speak to a planner and they should be able to assist you from there.

2)  Hire an architect, an engineer or a design-build company to design your project and to prepare all the construction drawings/documents that the City or County will require in order to obtain your permits.  Keep in mind, that an architect or engineer may require that a soils report and survey may be done prior to them working on the project if you plan on expanding the building footprint or if the project is a brand new building on an empty lot.  The first step will be an initial site visit to survey the existing building and/or site to take dimensions, pictures, etc., to document the existing conditions of the site and develop base drawings where they can then propose new design options to the client.

3)  Work side by side with the designer on the project from the very beginning.  Each company bills differently, but the more information that you provide to the designer, the quicker the result and the less money you’ll be charged.  If you are a very indecisive person, you will probably be spending more money than necessary in the design phase of the project, but it is much worse if you change your mind during the construction process because the change orders are much more costly.

4)  Plan for the unexpected consultant fees.  In most cases, especially when you a hire an architect, they will need to hire outside consultants to submit a final set of drawings.  These consultants consist of structural engineers, MEP (Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing) engineers, and any other special consultants that may be needed per project.  The architect may charge the client additional for these consultants or the owner has the option of going under contract with those consultants separate from the architect.  In either case, it is important that the client understand the design process and be aware of the additional consultant expenses when they are budgeting for their project.

5)  Submit drawings, plan check application and pay plan check fee.  Once all the drawings and documents are complete and ready to be submitted, the owner will need to fill out the Plan Check application and pay the pertinent fees.  Typically, the Planning Department and Building & Safety Departments at a minimum need to review the drawings to see if they meet the zoning ordinances and building codes, respectively.  Other jurisdictions have more departments that may review the plans so the owner may need to submit more drawing sets.  In some cases, especially on smaller projects, they will actually be able to do an over-the -counter review, which will expedite the process.

6) Revise the drawings (if necessary) and resubmit.  In most cases, the designer will have some comments from the City that will need to be addressed.  They will simply need to make the changes and resubmit.

7) Pay the building permit fees.  Once the City or County approves the drawings and other submitted documents, then the owner is ready to obtain the building permit.  Simply pay the outstanding fees, which can vary from a few hundred to thousands of dollars.  A rule of thumb to consider, the nicer the city and bigger the project, the more expensive the building permit will usually be.  Sometimes, there are many hidden fees that are included here.  Such as an Art Program fee, Waste & Recycle deposit, Low-Income Fee, Educational Fee, etc.  Some cities like to impose additional fees in order for an owner to get their building permit.  However, most of these fees are for brand new developments.

These steps do not apply to all projects, but it is a good account of what typically happens on most of the projects that we have encountered in the greater Los Angeles area.  Good luck on your next construction project and please do not hesitate to call us for our services.  We are always looking to attract new projects and build on our clientele.