Not permitted in LA County: How do I make it right?
September 10, 2013 7:36 AM   Subscribe

We've done some remodeling without permits in Los Angeles County over the past two years. What should I know and how should I prepare before attempting to get after-the-fact permits?

We remodeled our bathroom, changing around the plumbing. We also replaced and added some windows, and insulated and drywalled our garage.

There is one non-permitted part of the house that we think might not up to code, but we really like this part of the house. That is why we didn't permit the more recent things. However, I want to do work on our second bathroom, and it's making me increasingly nervous to go without permits.

I was advised that the part of the house that is not up to code (over-large windows) could be assessed by an engineer and okayed somehow, so we wouldn't have to lose it. I am really worried that the whole thing will balloon out of control in both cost and time. How do I get a realistic idea of what I'd be getting into if I started this process? Who is the right professional to consult? Real estate agent? Real estate lawyer? Architect? Any information based on personal experience would also be useful. Anything I should definitely *not* do?
posted by anonymous to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I worked for a California county as a building plan reviewer on the land use planning side of things (compared to building code or public works - yes, all three entities are involved in building plan review). I dealt with a number of as-built cases in my five years with that municipality. I don't think a lawyer would be necessary, because from my experience, the building code is pretty black and white. Planning ordinances may provide some lee-way, but it sounds like your concerns are regarding window sizes, and that's a structural issue, possibly a fire safety issue. I've had people try to debate or argue their case, but the building codes do not provide room for negotiation. Planning issues, such as some setbacks, lot coverage, and height issues, can be discussed, but within limits.

Here is LA County page of building codes. As you see, there are quite a few, but if you're interested and you have time, you can start reading through to see what you think applies. Then there are also planning ordinances. Building codes can be a bit thick on the technical details, but planning ordinances should be fairly understandable to the public (though that isn't always the case).

If that is overwhelming, I would suggest you start with an architect. One thing to note: you could save some money by talking to an unlicensed professional, as they (if memory serves right) design houses up to a certain size. But if you want to be certain, chat with a few licensed architects and see if you can quickly summarize what you have done. If they don't ask, be sure to tell them your neighborhood, because some ordinances are specific to certain areas.

If an architect has sufficient experience in your area, he or she should be able to fairly quickly tell you what is up to code and ordinance, what isn't, and what can be done to bring things up to code. There are a number of reasons you want to bring your home up to code: 1) someone could notice something odd (or just try to hassle you) and call up code enforcement, who will look through the permit history of your home, as compared to what is built; 2) if you want to sell your home in the future, you will need to disclose the non-permitted additions (I am fairly certain); 3) you can get permits for future work without concern that the building inspector will notice something out of the ordinary and open a code enforcement case, and 4) general safety of your remodeling.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:01 AM on September 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Also, a good architect should be able to come up with a creative solution to replicate the elements of the addition you like so much, yet stay within code. There are some additional complications with fire ratings, but unless those large windows are close to another building, I don't think that's an issue.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:14 AM on September 10, 2013

Don't do another thing to your house until you settle the code and current building issues that you have.

Southern California is earthquake territory and building inspectors don't play around.

Do exactly what filthy light thief says, and triage your current situation. Then make a remediation plan from there.

Your house may be unsellable right now because of the unpermitted work. Your insurance may be void should one of your unpermitted changes cause or contribute to a loss (wiring causing a fire, incorrect window size causing a collapse, etc.)

Learn from this mistake, if there's a building code for it, and a permit process, it's not there to make your life miserable, it's there because homes need to be held to standards.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:23 AM on September 10, 2013

So, two things:

First, the building inspector is not going to have "as built" drawings for the house. He or she is going to come in, look at the ongoing work, and say "that's to the drawings and plans detailing the changes that the permit covers" (and do basic code checks, are your bathroom sockets GFCI, does the plumbing look right, etc), or not.

There are things in my house that are clearly not to code (previous owner made our bedroom windows too small, for instance), but in the last inspection I had on work we did here (re-plumbing all the feed lines, two new circuits for the bathroom) the only thing I had to do that I didn't expect was that he wouldn't sign off until I put in CO detectors.

Second, the concern with the overly large window is likely two-fold: Energy conservation, and structural integrity of the house. If the openings and remaining shear wall and supports are beyond prescriptive code, then the only person who can sign off on the structural integrity is a licensed professional engineer. All the architect is going to tell you is that you need an engineer's signature.

Find that engineer.

(And, yes, increasing the window size back to the original so that we've got a reasonable secondary egress from the bedroom is on my list, just the top of it yet.)

Seems like there are two reasons that a too large window could be a problem: Structural issues (ie: lack of shear wall stability), and Title 24 energy conservation compliance. The first should be addressed (may mean better anchors at the corners, yanking off the siding and making sure the wall sheathing is sufficient), the second can be addressed by other changes (more attic insulation? Different heating/cooling plan?).

For the most part, my town's building department is far happier to get their eyes on work than to not do so. If the work on your existing electrical and plumbing was done up-to-snuff then the inspector isn't going to notice. If it isn't, then you need to fix that because building codes aren't just legal documents, they're also (mostly) good ideas to follow. And if the window isn't up to code, find an engineer and figure out what you need to do to bring it up to code.

Then take your plans in for your new changes to the house, submit them, and move forward. It's extremely unlikely that anybody's going to be able to go back and find the "as-built"s for your house and compare them to your new plans and ding you for stuff that's long completed, but you should make sure that what you've done is safe and insurance-worthy.

But, yeah: Engineer, not architect.
posted by straw at 8:39 AM on September 10, 2013

But, yeah: Engineer, not architect.

While I agree with straw's note that an architect will likely not solve the window issue for you (either in terms of energy code or structural requirements), it's very likely that an architect will be far better at navigating the building department to resolve the situation smoothly. Also, an architect will be able to connect you pretty quickly to other guys who would be able to help out on the existing unpermitted windows for both structural and energy concerns. So, you'll almost certainly need an engineer of some sort, but contacting an architect would probably help.

To elaborate on the energy conservation issue: If your windows are too large for energy efficiency reasons and not structural ones, what that means is that there's a prescriptive version of Title 24 that allows for a certain size of window in a certain size room without having to do any radical things with efficiency (i.e. special glass in the window, extra efficient appliances, extra insulation, thermal mass, etc.). To make the windows meet energy code, you will most likely have to do one of those radical efficiency items. This could be as simple as changing out the glass in the windows, or it could mean getting a new water heater and furnace that are more efficient than the current ones. While a mechanical or electrical engineer will be very familiar with running Title 24 calculations and proposing solutions for issues that come up, there are guys out there that just do Title 24 calcs for $200 a project or so that can be pretty knowledgeable.
posted by LionIndex at 9:18 AM on September 10, 2013

I'll second LionIndex's comment on architect vs engineer. From my experience, architects also work as the intermediaries between many different groups, including engineers, the County building and planning departments. Experienced architects will be able to get the general idea of what is feasible and realistic (and what will look good) but will rely on engineers to ensure their design meets structural requirements.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:46 AM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Additionally, if the entire previous addition was unpermitted, you'll likely have a bunch of other issues to deal with at the building department if you want to get it approved beyond just the window. Some of those will have more to do with other structural concerns (foundations and reinforcing, framing and framing connections, shear resistance), but there will probably also be a lot of issues with meeting local zoning codes for setbacks, allowable area, building height, and potentially a bunch of other stuff. It could get messy, and I'm deeply suspicious of the reasoning that it wasn't permitted just because of the windows. Even if the windows are the only not-to-code items in the space, proving that everything else was actually done to code to the satisfaction of the building department could be pretty difficult.

As far as what you've done other than the existing unpermitted construction: insulating and drywalling the garage shouldn't be a big deal - there's no code requirement to insulate the garage if it's not a heated/air conditioned space, and as long as you have the right type of gypsum board anywhere the garage connects to the house (5/8" thick type 'X') you shouldn't have a problem. Changing the plumbing shouldn't be an issue, and may not even require a permit with plans, but you would need to have the correct low-flow fixtures in place. California has some pretty stringent requirements for that. The windows would bring up the same issues with energy calculations and structural stuff that the windows in the other room do - you may have installed new windows in wall that's meant to provide shear resistance or adding the windows may bump you over the prescriptive Title 24 requirements and you'll need to make up for them in efficiency somewhere else. Additionally, just doing remodel work triggers the CO and smoke detector requirements that straw mentions - you'd need to make sure every "sleeping room" (not necessarily a bedroom), any area accessing sleeping rooms, and every level has a smoke detector. If possible, the alarms will be required to be interconnected and hardwired, rather than just battery powered. You'll need to have a CO detector on every level of the house, which will also need to be interconnected if possible (interconnected in this context means that if one goes off, they all do).
posted by LionIndex at 12:26 PM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

In my town, the planning and building departments are different entities. The building department will need to see planning approval for new construction before they approve plans, but when the building inspector came around for my workshop foundation forms, I said "these are the setbacks called out on the plans to match the planning requirements, here's how I determined property lines", he whipped out his tape measure and said "okay".

And when I took my "this is what I have now, this is what I'd like to build" drawings down to planning, the planning department said "yeah, this unpermitted structure: any replacements have to actually conform." But they're not driving around looking for violations ('cause they've come through my neighborhood, and at least two neighbors would be totally screwed).

An option: Put on some dark sunglasses and a low brim hat, go down to building, say "Hi, I want to do some permitted inspected modifications to my home. I suspect that the home has some issues that are out of code. I really want to be legal, but I also don't want to open up a can of worms that's going to cost me a couple hundred grand to fix. How do I move forward?"

As a hard-core DIYer who's built a fully permitted "experimental" structure in my back yard that's classed as "habitable" and is Title 24 compliant (my living roof workshop), I have a pretty good relationship with my building department but as I said: They want to help you, and the people who buy the house from you, to have a safe habitable building. In my experience, they're way more interested in helping you do it right than finding ways to screw you over for past misdeeds that may have been the fault of your contractors or of previous homeowners.

You may not get planning approval with things like setback violations that LionIndex mentions until those issues are corrected, but the building department may very well only have jurisdiction on changes and new construction, or only care about those things.
posted by straw at 12:54 PM on September 10, 2013

Piggybacking on the main question here... When building inspectors check on this kind of work, do they need to rip out walls to check out that plumbing, electrical, etc. meets code?
posted by mr_roboto at 5:17 PM on September 10, 2013

Yes, they can. I haven't been on a project myself where we've remediated this kind of thing, but I've worked for an office that has done some retroactive permitting, and my impression is that the inspectors will generally get a feel for the quality of construction and use that to determine whether they need to verify things by ripping stuff out. I don't think they'll do it themselves; they'll just ask you to remove the drywall so they can see what's inside. I don't know how correct that impression is, and it probably varies widely depending on the jurisdiction and the inspector. This gets problematic when they need to see things like how deep your foundations are and whether you've put the correct amount of rebar into the concrete.
posted by LionIndex at 7:27 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yep. A developer/architect friend of mine described rushing to finish up an office, having the inspector in, the inspector said "I don't know what we're going to do here, 'cause I need to see the wiring." Friend grabbed hammer, pulled desk away from wall, knocked hole in the wall below the outlet behind the desk, said "where else do you want to see?"

Friend said that patching that hole (behind the desk) was so worth having the rest of the office done that day without having to wait for another inspection cycle. But, yes, it is totally within the inspector's right to ask you to remove drywall so they can inspect hidden things that you haven't shown them, and it is also totally their prerogative to make a judgement call based on the general level of craftsmanship and your willingness to help them do their job to say "yeah, I trust that you've done it right".

On our bathroom I had (another) friend help me put in the new sockets, and he fouled up a GFCI hookup. Inspector found it. When the inspector came back (this was also when he made me put in the CO detectors), I made sure that I had exactly the same socket tester he used, had tested with it, and laid mine out on the toilet tank. That "yes, I am trying my damnedest to do everything right even though I'm a duffer homeowner" attitude seems to go along way.
posted by straw at 8:53 AM on September 11, 2013

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