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.


Our Building Permit Fiasco with the City of Santa Monica

First of all, I want to say that the City of Santa Monica is a beautiful place with probably some of the best weather I have ever witnessed in my life, especially since I have been living in either the valley and/or the inland empire for over 10 years. So I have been fantasizing of the idea of some day living in this great beach town. You cannot beat the combination of the weather, the diverse stores and restaurants, quick access to the sandy beach, the night life, the architecture, and so forth.

However, attempting to develop in this town can be a nightmare to inexperienced builders. As first time condo developers, we decided to purchase this incredible parcel of land off of 11th St. & Broadway Ave. The actual site neighbors a two-story office building to the north and a 3 story condominium structure to the south. The existing structure on the site has a historic single family residence that is in very poor condition. Our original intent was to demolish the existing structure and to design/build 6-unit condominiums on the site.  However, this simple goal turned into a very long roller coaster ride with the building department at the City.

At the purchasing stages of this parcel of land, we had intelligently (so we thought) talked to Planner from the City, no names will be mentioned, and he informed us that the zone of our site had a 3 story height limitation similar to the adjacent building to our south. This was a major selling point because it would allow us to design larger units for a higher market price.  In addition, he also informed us that it would take usually a minimum of 15 months before we could obtain the building permits.  So going into this, we knew it would be a lengthy process, but for some reason we hoped that we could expedite it.

Shortly after the purchase of the house, our team went into design mode and we prepared initial plans for the non-mandatory Pre-Submittal Review, where both a plan checker from the Planning Department and the Building & Safety Department reviewed the schematic drawings to see if they posed any significant issues prior to the Plan Check Review.  This phase alone was an indication of how bumpy of a path we had in front of us.

During the Pre-Submittal Review, we were informed that for whatever reason, our R3 zoning had changed without us being informed.  In fact, we were no longer allowed to build a 3-story structure like had previously been informed by the City planner prior to the purchase of the property.  This was the very first blow to our young development experience.  There of course, were other issues that we had to address, but the height limitation was the other major concern as a result of this review process.  It is just odd, how a City can just change the zoning ordinance at will without proper notification to those property owners that may be affected.

After we had modified our drawings and plans per the Pre-Submittal Review board’s comments, we had to present our design and project to the Architectural Review Board, which meets only twice a month at the City Hall Council Chamber.  This is a public hearing in front of a panel that consists of architects, landscape architect and planners.  Prior to the hearing, proper written notification has to be made to all the neighbors and a sign needs to be placed on the project site with the pertinent hearing date and location information.

During the review, the applicant is required to present all the floor plans, site plan, landscape plan, elevations, neighborhood profile, perspectives, 3D renderings, material board and in some cases an actual physical model if the proposed building is over a certain square footage, however, this was not necessary for us.

We presented our project to the committee and they had a chance to discuss what they liked and disliked about the project.  As a result of our first review, they concluded that we needed to add more glass to the facades to make them look more appealing.  Our second review, pleased the panel but we once again needed to make minor changes by adding vegetation to the rear of the property that is adjacent to the alley.  However, they gave us a partial approval so that we did not have to present the project again at another public hearing, but instead only get a staff approval for the minor revision.  This process was stressful because the review is all subjective to what the panel thinks.  It does not really consider building code issues, only aesthetics.  The problem with this review board phase, is that the building will most likely change due to consultants recommendations (structural, MEP, etc.) and/or during the in depth Plan Check Review, which sees if the building proposal is in compliance with all zoning ordinances and building codes.

The Plan Check Review is by far the most grueling process of them all.  This is process consists of submitting full sets of drawings to all the departments (Planning, Building & Safety, MEP, Public Works, Transportation, Landscape, Fire, & Green Building) and paying the expensive plan check fees (about $16,000 for this project).  When so many different pairs of eyes review a set of plans, there is a good chance that there will be comments from some of the plan checkers.  And sometimes an area that needs to be changed for one department’s approval will have a direct affect on another departments requirement.  For example, we had to provide a bigger maintenance clearance area at there rear of the building where the electrical meters are located to meet MEP’s approval, but then that took away space from both the last unit’s patio space, which affected Planning’s minimum outdoor space requirement for that unit and there was very little wiggle room since the ramp to the subterranean garage was adjacent to it.

After months of revising and going back and forth with the plan checkers we finally got approvals from all the plan checkers.  However, there were still many outstanding fees, forms, and other documents that a few departments needed before they were allowed to sign off on the project.  The Public Works Department required additional forms and fees such as the urban runoff & water mitigation worksheets (about $10,000 water fees), construction waste & recycling forms with a $30,000 deposit, and the final tract map (discussed in the next section) for their approval. 

The Planning Department also had additional requirements such as the arts community development fee, condominium fees, and the deed restrictions.  In addition, our planner really gave us a scare because in the City of Santa Monica, there is a construction radius rule that they implement.  This rule basically prevents more than one construction project within a 500′ radius of occurring at the same time, so if one of our nearby neighbors has a current building permit at the same time we’d like to obtain one, we would have to wait at least till that project is finished or a minimum of 12 months before we’d be allowed to obtain the building permits.  The idea of the rule is to reduce the construction noise for neighbors, but it could financially ruin a small developer if caught in this predicament.  Unfortunately, there was a nearby neighbor that was also in the process of pulling permits so our planner notified us about their intentions and suggested we act fast before we lose a whole year on the construction start date.

Lastly, like most Plan Check’s, the City of Santa Monica’s plan check has a one year expiration.  If EVERYTHING, is not completed by this time, then you will be forced into a brand new plan check application.  We know this first hand, because while we did have all the drawings and most of the forms complete and approved, we had failed to get all the signatures and wet stamps on the final tract map before the expiration date.  The City refused to grant us an extension.  This, as you can imagine, led to more costs and further rounds of plan checks based off the new 2010 California Building Code.  Our 1st plan check review was based off the previous 2007 code since our drawings and application were submitted before the release of the newer building codes.  This was yet another hurdle we were forced to jump over.

Before the final tract map can be produced to the City of Santa Monica, a tentative map has to be approved, which was submitted before the Plan Check Review process.  The tentative map basically shows the building footprint on the parcel with some key elevation points and dimensions.  However, the final map is much more detailed and needs to be prepared by a surveyor.  Additionally, it also has the signature page, where many different people are required to sign and wet stamp the document.

First, the Los Angeles County Public Works needs to approve the final tract map.  If no revisions need to be made to the documents, they will ask for a final copy to printed on mylar paper.  They take the mylar copies to sign and wet stamp and send it off to the City of Santa Monica for their signatures and wet stamps.  When the City receives the mylars, they need to pass it at their City Council meeting, which again is only held twice a month.  After the Council has approved the final tract map, it gets signed by the respective City members and sent back to the County for filing with of course another filing fee.  The County finally confirms with the City’s Public Works division that it has been filed and they are then ready to sign off on the final tract map.

The City of Santa Monica, unlike other jurisdictions, does not allow an owner or contractor to pull a demo permit without having a building permit concurrently.  They do not want a building to be demolished without an approved proposed new building on the site.  While this may be good in theory, it can delay the construction start time.  And like the building permit, the demolition permit also has a one year expiration, so there is no time to waste.

For this project, we were required to have the existing 1914 single family home to be reviewed for it’s approved demolition since it was considered a historic building.  Since we were uncertain if the City would allow us to tear down the house, we applied for the demolition permit in the early phases so that we would know whether or not we’d be able to move forward with the our original plans.  The demolition permit fee was $1,000 and similar to the plan check review, expired in one-year.  Like the plan check review, we ended up reapplying since we had not completed everything within that year time frame.  For the review process, we were required to submit photos and a site plan of the existing structure.  After 2-3 weeks, they informed us that the building would be allowed to be demolished and we proceeded forward with our construction drawings for the plan check review.

After the plan check and the final tract map were approved, we were required to fill out a few more forms and pay our outstanding fees.  The forms we needed to complete were the SCAQMD (South Coast Air Quality Management District), asbestos removal form, rodent inspection/removal form, utility sign offs and the public works sign offs.   Once these were completed we had to pay our building permit fees (over $35,000) and we finally were issued both our demolition and building permits for our condominium project.

In short, the City of Santa Monica is not a builder friendly place.  There are many hoops to go through, very expensive fees to pay and many unsympathetic employees that work at the building/planning department.  The last part is the part that really upsets me because after paying all their expensive fees and being very patient during their plan check process at least you’d expect some more respect and willingness to help you meet your project goals.  Instead you are greeted with a machine, you take a number and the people at the counter only see you as a number on their queue list.  I’ve been there many times and I’ve had very poor experiences majority of the time, but at least we finally obtained our building permits.


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.