How To Grow Your House
July 11, 2022 11:53 AM   Subscribe

I might want to expand my house - quite a lot. How do I do that? What are the steps before we get to the actual construction? This is in Oregon.

My daughter, her partner and their baby are considering moving in. This is great! But also there's not enough room! I am wondering if it would be possible to expand my 1300 square foot 2 bedroom 1.5 bath house by knocking down most of the garage and turning it into a 2 bedroom apartment. The half bath is already in there FWIW. This expansion would almost double the size of the house but would make it doable for, basically, two families: me and my adult son, who comes and goes (sometimes for months at a time) in one half and my daughter's family in the other half. There is a little used yard on the side of the garage so there is room for it to expand.

How do people make things like this happen? Do you start with an architect? Or with the city permit people? Or with the bank? Do you need an actual architect? I did some googling for local architects and their websites are all multi million dollar homes. This is, uh, not that. This is a 1950 bungalow built for poor people and still inhabited by them, namely, me. This project needs to be on a budget. I do have all the equity, so I feel like financing a major construction project might be financially possible but if I am wrong about that, please tell me.

What I need to know is what are the steps I need to take in what order to make this happen. It might not happen at all but in case it needs to, I'd like to have all my ducks in a row. It seems to me that I should start with plans and then go from there, but who do I get plans from?

The only other option I can think of is selling this house and buying a bigger one, but really I'd rather stay where I am. I love my house, I like my neighborhood - I don't want to move. The city is currently doing a big push where they are encouraging greater density, so I think my timing might be very good as far as permits, etc. are concerned. Thank you for your input!
posted by mygothlaundry to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
A contractor will know what you need to know, permits wise. Whether you need an architect seems a bit more tenuous. They are expensive.

If you are just changing a garage into living space, an architect seems a bit much.
posted by Windopaene at 12:06 PM on July 11, 2022

We’re working with a design-build firm on an exterior renovation. If you find someone like that, they’ll outline the scope, get a deposit and put you on a waitlist until their design team is free, then either hire architects based on your wants and budget (which they’ll work with you on) or they’ll have sufficient expertise in-house. (Depends on how extensive a reno it is, ours are flexible for either.) Once we got a ballpark of what we were looking at, we shopped around for financing, starting with our current lender and actually ending up at the local credit union we have a checking account with.

In my area (Bellingham), this would cost north of $400 per square foot and take over a year, maybe 1.5, after getting on a waiting list. Moving would probably be cheaper, definitely quicker.

Do you have sufficient yard space for a detached prefab ADU?
posted by supercres at 12:07 PM on July 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Go down to your planning department, and ask them in what directions you can expand on the lot you have. In my case, I never officially got a permit for the floating floor I put in my garage to be my office, because converting the garage would require adding another parking space on the property.

They'll have notes about maximum height (ask them where it's measured from, it can vary based on roof, if it's a peaked roof it may be mid-way up the peak, but a gambrel or flat roof that may be total height), maximum lot coverage, minimum setbacks from the lot lines, and with that information in hand you'll be able to start figuring out what portions of your lot you want to use, and start taking with someone who can draw up plans (probably an architect, but doesn't need to be, a lot of this stuff, especially with one to three story residential construction, comes from tables, and you don't actually need professional sign-off on the plans as long as your structure conforms to those).

And that's when you can start figuring out what it'll cost and how to finance it...
posted by straw at 12:08 PM on July 11, 2022 [9 favorites]

We made a substantial addition to our previous house hiring a general contractor with a very good local reputation. We did not use an architect.

If moving instead of rebuilding is at all an option, I would recommend that by a billion percent margin. Construction work always takes longer than expected and costs more than estimated (both by an order of magnitude in our case!) It is incredibly disruptive if you're still trying to reside in the house in the meantime, and the results may or may not be what you expect: it all comes down to the quality of the contractor and what other jobs they may be juggling at the same time.

You will have much more control over costs, timing, and results by finding and buying a property that suits your needs.
posted by ook at 12:13 PM on July 11, 2022 [7 favorites]

I think design-build firms generally have an architect on staff and can make the detailed design plans city permit departments require. The only thing with that is that it's much harder to take their plans and get bids, because the design will be company-specific, and the architecture cost is generally baked in to many different costs.

So the best thing would be to get a separate architect to draw up plans, and then get multiple bids for the work.

it also depends on the city - some will take rough hand-drawn plans, and some will require a cad-design package you really can't do yourself.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:17 PM on July 11, 2022

Best answer: What I'd do first is draw up a very rough plan and show it to somebody at your town hall to see they flag any issues right off the bat. You might find out, for example, that the land that looks ripe for expansion is actually not legal to build on because of zoning rules.

Assuming no nasty surprises there, you can find a local contractor to do an estimate of your project. This initial estimate will be very rough but will at least tell you how many zeroes you are looking at. Again you may find out some interesting things here: just on a quick walk-through the contractor may flag things you never thought about, like needing to redirect pipes or ducts / upgrade structural elements / upgrades needed for modern building codes. And you can get an idea of how long the project might take by simply asking the contractor how long the project might take and tripling that.

Both of these steps are free and from there you can decide if you really want to go for it.
posted by steveminutillo at 12:17 PM on July 11, 2022 [2 favorites]

And for a different perspective, I would MUCH prefer living in a home during remodeling than moving. I've done both. We had an extensive remodel of the first floor of our first house, including a period of time where there was no water access on the first floor so I was doing dishes in the bathtub upstairs and I would STILL do that over moving again. We moved into a new-to-us home about two years ago and there are still so many things I want to do to make it ours. The perfect home doesn't exist unless you build from scratch, but you can make the house you live in more fit for you and moving SUCKS. Plus if you love your neighborhood and community, I wouldn't recommend moving at all. (the reason we moved is because our community was getting more and more conservative and racist)

Living in a house that's being remodeled is difficult and exasperating and yes, the remodel will go over budget (unless you're VERY VERY VERY careful, and even then, it probably will anyway) but it sounds like most of the disruption won't be in your actual living areas so I think it sounds manageable. What you really need is to get an idea of how much this is going to cost. A good, reputable general contractor (or better yet, an all-in-one company that "owns" the project for you and manages the sub-contractors) can get you a general quote on how much you're looking at.

Good luck!
posted by cooker girl at 12:22 PM on July 11, 2022 [3 favorites]

Build schedules and crew availability are also extremely variable. I have done 2 projects this year in one city and one in another, and none had any issues with materials, waitlists, or inflated costs. My neighbor a few doors down moved out on a Thursday, scraped their home by Sunday, and had sand laid for a foundation two weeks later. I've been gone, so I have no idea how much they have built since.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:25 PM on July 11, 2022

I would ask on Nextdoor or Facebook for contractor recommendations (for example, if you're in Astoria, here's a thread from last December with some recommendations for people who can do garage conversions). I live somewhere else so the situation may be different there, but I hear from friends that it's very, very hard to find anyone available to do any kind of remodeling right now.

This is probably out of your price range, but these Oregon-made ADU units are also cool.
posted by pinochiette at 12:30 PM on July 11, 2022

Best answer: Somewhere along the line, be sure to talk to a tax professional. There are implications of when/where/and how you build in Portland. For example, I believe that if your new structure is connected to your old structure, the tax implications are different than if it's a free-standing new structure on your property. Changes you make can and will affect your property taxes as well as possible future capital gains on your home, if and when you ever sell. I don't begin to know all the possible complications, but I know someone who went into an ADU with one assumption, and ended up paying a lot more than they were expecting.
posted by hydra77 at 12:47 PM on July 11, 2022 [5 favorites]

I think straw and steveminutillo mostly have it. Your first step is visiting your local zoning/planning agency and seeing what they'll actually let you do, and what permits will be required to do it. Your zeroth step may be figuring out how big your lot is (assessor parcel maps are good, subdivision maps (possibly available at your city's records offfice) are better), how big your house is, where the house sits on the lot, and taking pictures of the house from all sides showing what it looks like and how it sits on the lot that you can show to zoning/planning staff when you talk to them. hydra77 has a good point about whether you're planning on creating (basically) a duplex, or a completely separate accessory dwelling unit, which may have zoning code implications as well as tax ones.

Most places, you won't need a licensed architect to do single-story, single-family (duplexes actually count as single-family in the building code) construction, and any contractor should be able to have plans drawn for permitting, either by someone on staff or someone they contract with. That gets dicey if you're in a place with weird zones where you need some kind of special discretionary permit, like environmentally sensitive lands, historic areas or some other conditions, but zoning/planning staff should be able to inform you of those situations. An architect familiar with local regulations would be able to help navigate that kind of thing, but if you're on a serious budget I think that kind of thing might kill your project.
posted by LionIndex at 1:24 PM on July 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: +1 to what hydra77 said. If you build this as actually a separate dwelling unit rather than just an additional bedroom or two, that has zoning/tax implications that may influence your decisions.

I'm working with a builder right now to do a remodel/addition on a similarly-sized house. I asked the realtor I used to buy my house if she had a suggestion of who to talk to about building an addition, and she referred me to a contractor. The contractor does both remodel projects and new homes.

I told the contractor what my budget is and what I wanted to do. She quoted me a price for a design contract, which involved coming up with a detailed plan and then a detailed estimate for costs, and then I could decide whether or not to move forward. I think that cost me about $2700, which is substantially less than what friends have paid to have an architect do the same-ish thing.

I signed the design contract. The contractor had a "house designer" (some skill overlap with an architect, I'm not sure what his actual background is) come out, take measurements, and then we as a group talked about what I wanted and where an addition would be easier/harder. He drew up new plans and worked with me on some revisions. Then the contractor sent the plans to a structural engineer, and he asked for a minor change and prepared an engineering document that the city would need for permits. Then my contractor had all her subcontractors -- framer, plumber, HVAC, electrician, drywall, siding -- come out to the house and make estimates. Then she gave me the overall estimate for the project.

Then, after waiting a couple of years to save and figure out financing, I signed a contract to actually go forward with the project. We still haven't started building anything, but I've made a couple of payments to my contractor, and she's filed the permits with my town. Once the permits are approved, she'll let me know when her team can actually start work (I assume I'll need to wait for them to finish some other projects first). We've ordered all the cabinets because apparently those take forever. I was able to shave off some cost by agreeing to do most of the demolition myself, and I can't wait to start on that.

If you just convert the garage to an indoor living space, that's a fairly routine project and should be easy for a contractor to complete. I have friends who did that in 2019 and I think it cost them about $40k in total. Yes, they were surprised at the cost, too. If you're adding on additional square footage, the numbers climb fast. I wasn't able to extend out my house where I wanted to, because it'd require substantial structural changes to my roof. Extending out the line of my roof in a different direction was easier, so we ended up adding fewer square feet and instead removing some walls and shifting things around in the existing space to get me what I wanted.

Like you, I love my location and want to stay where I am. I'm really happy that I was able to figure out a way to make this project happen and turn an okay house in a great neighborhood into my dream house.

In my opinion, I think you should find a contractor you trust, discuss your goals and budget with them, and they can tell you whether an architect is needed. Architects' time is expensive, and if that work can be done by people with lower hourly rates, that'll save you some cash. If you were building a whole house or building a more substantial addition, I think an architect would be more helpful.

You should also (and probably first) talk to a lender you trust (maybe at a bank you already use) about your financing options. Construction loans work a little bit differently than other loans during construction, and then are just regular mortgages after that. If the project is small enough, something like a home equity line of credit might also be an option.
posted by katieinshoes at 1:40 PM on July 11, 2022 [3 favorites]

You might also want to look into your city's regulations for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and/or tiny houses.

If legal where you are, it's possible that a "prefab" solution might be faster/ cheaper/ have a more predictable cost.
posted by oceano at 3:50 PM on July 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

One other thing to consider: in my area a "renovation" cannot be stopped by my neighbors, but "new construction" would have to undergo a design review, during which my neighbors could object and stop my project on the basis of not liking the appearance.

...consequently, everyone does a "renovation" -- even if that literally means flattening the entire house except for the wall where the utilities are located and building something 3x the size. Since that one wall remains, it's technically a renovation.

Obviously, your rules are different, but this is also the kind of thing to worry about (or to pay someone to worry about).
posted by aramaic at 5:31 PM on July 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you build/renovate, make sure you have all of the permits. This information is part of the sale of your property and will lead to complications if not correctly filed with the city.
Rules change. Don't get caught up in a handshake deal with an official and then have to tear out a build because you don't have the paperwork.
While you're at it, check for previous unauthorized builds and find out if you must tear out additions or open up walls for inspection.

Check rules about "new construction" versus working on existing construction.

Check rules about the utilities and whether you must upgrade some or all of the systems to meet national standards. Check if this applies only to the area where you are working, or the entire structure.
We checked out the current national standards books from the library for a long time.
In some cases, homeowners are allowed to do their own utilities. In others, the licensed professionals are required.

We were not legally allowed to live in one house renovation until we received "order of occupancy." At this point, we had the drywall up and were ready to paint.
This included waiting until the work was almost finished downstairs on the bedroom and laundry (formerly the one-car garage). In hindsight, we should have waited to remodel downstairs until after we could move in.

Finally, we are currently in a house build and are frustrated by the cost and availability of supplies and tools. This is not a good time for a major project.
Good luck.
posted by TrishaU at 8:43 PM on July 11, 2022

One more thing (and this is the thing that keeps tripping us up) --
We build what we want, the way we like it. This means we take our time, do the research, spend money, and aim for quality.
And this means we have the best house on the block, which brings the property values up for the neighbors.
Unfortunately, that means that the older, rundown structures surrounding us are bringing our property values down.
Something to consider.
posted by TrishaU at 8:53 PM on July 11, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You don't need an architect unless you're looking to significantly upgrade and want that extra imagination and flair that a good architect can bring. I would start by finding a builder/contractor you feel comfortable working with and they will be able to source a draftsperson to create whatever plans you need for any required permits. Work out roughly what you want and draw some sketches to show them at the start so they understand your goals, but don't get too hung up on detail to start with because a good builder can give you lots of great ideas on how to get the best outcome. They can also advise you on what permits you need and what may be out of the question because of local planning rules etc.

If money is tight, talk about what you may be able to do yourself (eg digging, demolition, painting, whatever your combined skill sets are). A good contractor won't mind you doing this as long as you don't hold things up.
posted by dg at 2:58 PM on July 12, 2022

One other thing I forgot to mention: listen to your laborers. I had all my plans in place, then on the very first fucking day of work the foreman (Daniel, whom I shall not forget) walked in, looked around, and said “wait, why not just do X and Y instead of Z?”

…and I (to my credit) went “oooohhhh, shiiit. Yeah, OK, that makes sense, let’s do your idea instead”.

Re-filed my structural plans, paid the extra fee, and four years later every time I use my main bathroom I think “shit, dude, Daniel was right”.

Thanks Daniel!
posted by aramaic at 6:29 PM on July 12, 2022 [3 favorites]

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