Ugly House, Chapter 3: Being My Own Client Isn't Easy 

What is a new homeowner to do when they inherit existing conditions that are “illegal”? In some cases, Design Teams can help homeowners convince the Building Department to “grandfather” or accept weird situations. These are usually minor infractions and/or not connected with a remodel directly. One case of “grandfathering” Design Set Match assisted was in regard to rebuilding a carriage house on the back of a lot in Alameda. The agreement with the Building Department was that the building could only be rebuilt to this size and distance from the property line once.  

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In most cases, such as with my new home, the nonconforming alterations are documented by the building officials and must be corrected. According to Section 28 of the Disclosures and Disclaimers Advisory (Contra Costa County, also other counties), “Nonconforming improvements may be subject to removal by local building inspection and code enforcement agencies… rental units may be required to be vacated and possibly torn down”. All potential home buyers should be aware of this before considering to make an offer on a home. “Real estate brokers and agents are not required by law to inspect public records and cannot determine the legal status of improvements based solely on their required visual inspection of the property. While it’s likely that the nonconforming 1st floor rental unit was built prior to the 1960s, the Building Department still has the right to require that we change its conditions and build an entirely new space for safety reasons alone.  

As the homeowner and as a Design Professional, I couldn’t feel comfortable with renting out the lower unit because of the following safety reasons:  

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  1. Upon walking into the lower unit there’s an obvious dampness that could grow mold which is hazardous to breathe.  
  2. The window in the smallest bedroom is too high and too small to meet egress and allow a child or adult to escape during the event of a fire.  
  3. The restroom toilet is too close to the walls on either side and the vanity sink is under the stairs to the 2nd floor space and most people will hit their head when trying to wash their hands.  
  4. We’ve started to pre-plan by considering this space and our options for keeping rental income. At a recent San Francisco Bay Area National Association of the Remodeling Industry meeting, I learned about the possibilities of ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units). When planning for an ADU, it is important to remember that one of the two units must be inhabited by the building’s owner and is not to be rented out. This is a benefit for the neighborhood property values. California has made them easier to be approved and local jurisdictions can’t add more restrictions to these regulations. 

At this point, our plans for the lower level ADU are: 

  1. Increase floor to ceiling height from 6’-6” to 7’-6” by removing the raised floor. This raised floor isn’t off the grade by the required minimum standards of 18”. As a result, it's causing dampness to be absorbed into the floor framing which is causing dry-rot and possibly mold. 
  2. Rework entire floor plan layout to allow for egress windows at all bedrooms. 
  3. Create a space that is good for aging-in-place by creating wider doorways and bathroom facilities that are universally accessible.  

When remodeling I always ask my Clients about the longevity of the goals. For some it is for resale in five years or less, but for most of us in the Bay Area it is our forever home. My husband and I will invest in this home, arranging the bones of the structure to be easier for all of our life-stages so that when we need to remodel in the future, most of the work will have been done and what remains is simply a face-lift of materials and finishes.

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