“Statute of limitations” on unpermitted construction and other bad advice

We keep hearing from our clients of the bad advice that they were told when buying property.  The top piece of bad advice, by far, is that if unpermitted construction occurred a long time ago, it no longer needs to be a concern.  This is just not true.  There is no statute of limitations on unpermitted construction!  If anything was added to your property illegally, at any time in the past, you should be aware of the risks.  As we’ve mentioned before, unsafe construction methods by unlicensed workers can be a safety risk and could lead to fire or structural failure.  It can also lead to future costs and problems if you want to do other improvement projects.

One of our clients purchased a home with an unpermitted addition that encroached into the setback.  The real estate agent had told him “It’s been there for a long time, so it’s OK.”  As soon as we started the remodeling project we notified him that he would probably be required to tear down that unpermitted area and he couldn’t believe it.  Sometimes unpermitted work can be legalized; if you have the patience, money and professional help.  Sometimes there is no remedy other than to remove it.  So, be aware that the advice you receive should be verified with the Building Department, or at least a licensed architect, before you purchase the property.

The second most common piece of bad advice we hear about is when people are told that they can “just take out a wall” to create an open floor plan.  I don’t know why anyone believes that they can pose as a Structural Engineer to make that statement, but it happens all the time.  Walls typically provide structural support for the roof, or second story, or building systems (HVAC, electrical, plumbing), and cannot be easily removed without reconsidering the entire structure.  Sometimes a wall can be replaced by installing a large beam or structural steel to span the gap.  Engineering calculations must be performed, the beam must be special-ordered, foundations added, temporary supports must be installed, and the new beam lifted in place with special equipment.  It can be a very expensive option.  It is possible that a wall is not load-bearing, but that is uncommon in homes.  Some commercial buildings have non-load-bearing walls, called demising walls, for separations between offices, or dressing rooms, for example.  But even then, a wall removal can be tricky.  Do not be fooled into thinking you can “just take out a wall”.  That’s bad advice unless it is coming from your licensed architect or structural engineer.

The third most common piece of bad advice given to property owners is “none of the neighbors had to do it”.  This is closely related to “If they got away with it, so can I.”  It includes everything from building decks, sheds, backyard cottages, and other residential additions to business owners who do tenant improvements without permits, to businesses that don’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act for accessibility improvements, and lots of other examples.  Sure, everyone has seen a home or building that doesn’t comply with local ordinances or the state Building Code.  But just because someone else is outside the law doesn’t mean you will get away with it.  It’s like that old game of musical chairs.  The last one standing when the music stops is “It”.  Your home or business gets red-tagged, and pointing at someone else’s property to say, “What about them?” isn’t going to solve your problem.

We hate hearing those stories when people have already gotten burned.  Don’t rely on bad advice.  Verify that you can do what you want to do with your property with a licensed professional.  It will be worth your time (and save you money and aggravation).  Thanks for reading and as always, we are Designing for Your Reality.

By Lorianna Kastrop, Vice President, The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects

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Residential Contractors for Commercial Projects: Proceed with care.

In the current Bay Area construction boom, some commercial clients have been hiring residential contractors to fill the need.  Sometimes this works out fine for both the General Contractor and the Client, but sometimes the project can go haywire if the contractor is unfamiliar with the differences in the building code between residential and commercial construction.  In this situation, it is important that the G.C. works closely with the Architect to understand the differences called out in the plans.  If they don’t ask, they might make incorrect assumptions.

Recently we received a call from a General Contractor on one of our commercial projects under construction.  He asked quietly, “Is there a reason that you made the cabinet height 34 inches?”  Our Project Manager answered, “Yes, that is an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirement on commercial projects.”  The G.C. answered, “I was afraid of that.”  Without double-checking the drawings, he had ordered residential cabinets for the project.  They are 36 inches, which is the standard height for residential.  He realized that he was going to have to tear out the brand-new cabinets already installed.

Another example that occurred recently is that we specified an ADA-compliant dishwasher and the contractor’s submittal for the dishwasher was a residential model that had to be rejected.  A different project had restroom grab bars installed in the wrong places.  This kind of situation occurs all the time.

The ADA requirements can affect a lot of specifications, and ADA trips up many inexperienced contractors on commercial projects.  In addition, in commercial construction, the structural requirements are typically more robust, leading some contractors to think they are “over-engineered”.  The electrical systems are much more complex.  In general, everything is on a more complicated (often larger) scale.  If you have higher occupancy in the building, it triggers all kinds of special requirements for life-safety issues.  The Architect can clarify anything in the plans that might seem strange to the G.C., but the G.C. must be willing to call and ask before proceeding.

If you are hiring someone with only residential experience for your commercial project, you should encourage your General Contractor to keep in close contact with the Architect.  This will avoid mistakes, delays and extra costs.  Even if the G.C. absorbs the costs and corrects the problem, it will cause delays that you wish to avoid.

In our office, we understand that General Contractors can be on a learning curve when working on projects that are different from what they have successfully completed before.  Whether the project is commercial, or multi-use, or just bigger, there could be things in the plans that are unfamiliar to even experienced builders.  Nobody in our office will be condescending or bothered when questions are asked.  We would much rather take the time to explain our design choices to the G.C. than to deal with an upset client.  As the old saying goes, “There’s no such thing as a dumb question.”

As always, we are “Designing for Your Reality”.  Thanks for reading.

By Lorianna Kastrop, Vice President, The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects

 

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Property Reassessment: How to plan for property taxes after additions or improvements

The building boom is still going strong in the Bay Area, and one question that comes up often is “What will this project cost me in increased property taxes?”  Here are some things to consider and how to get the information you will need for budgeting purposes.

  1. “New construction” is taxable under California’s Proposition 13.  The bad news is that CA property tax law defines “new construction” as not only additions.  Basically, any physical alteration, rehabilitation, renovation or modernization that converts a portion of the property to “like-new” condition is considered a taxable “improvement”.  The definition is so broad that most kinds of construction will trigger a property tax reassessment.  (There are a few exceptions that are described in detail at the hyperlink below.)

 

  1. Normal maintenance or repairs, like new roofs, or new kitchen cabinets, or simple replacement of an existing fixture like an air conditioner, will not cause a reassessment; unless the repair or replacement is considered an “improvement”.

 

  1. The good news is that an addition or other new construction does not cause your entire property to be reappraised. It only generates a supplemental assessment, based on the “incremental value added to the existing property”.  This supplemental assessment is based on the estimated market value of the new construction.  (Sorry do-it-yourselfers, the market value is not necessarily the same as the “cost” of the construction.)

 

  1. Note that “any substantial physical alteration of land which constitutes a major rehabilitation of the land or changes the manner in which it is used,” such as rezoning the property, could cause the whole property to be reassessed. Also, if you tear down an existing home and then build a new one (even if you left one wall standing), it will cause a reassessment of the entire home.

 

  1. There are some grey areas about what is considered an “improvement” by the County tax assessor. You have the right to appeal the assessment.

The California State Board of Equalization has prepared an excellent document that gives further information about this topic.  It includes frequently asked questions and answers.  As noted above, it includes details about what kinds of construction are exempt from property tax reassessment.  https://www.boe.ca.gov/proptaxes/faqs/newconstruction.html#1

It is important to know what your increased ongoing costs will be after completing your construction project, so we recommend reading the BOE document before you start.  If you really need to know what your reassessment would be, you can contact your local County Tax Assessor to review your plans and give his/her best estimate of your property tax increase.  As always, we hope that this additional information is helpful to you in decision-making for your architectural project.

Until next time, we are Designing For Your Reality. 

By Lorianna Kastrop, Vice President, The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects

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Accessory Dwelling Units:  The changes to California state law that you need to know

By Lorianna Kastrop, Vice President, The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects

 

The Bay Area is experiencing a housing availability crisis and demand for residential units near work centers has skyrocketed.  Everyone knows this, and finally there is an option available to relieve some of the pressure.  SB 1069 was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last year.  Introduced by State Senator Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont), the bill amends the CA state building code for accessory dwelling units (also known as in-law units, granny flats, or secondary dwelling units).  It eases the restrictions on building a second unit on residential properties, either attached or detached.  The legislation is supported by the Bay Area Council, the AARP, the California Teachers Association, and a variety of housing and environmental groups.

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A detached Accessory Dwelling Unit above a home’s garage that The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects recently completed in Redwood City.  Click here for more photos and a narrative available on our website.  Photo Credit: Roger Dettloff

Here is a summary of the SB 1069 code changes and some advice to alleviate possible negative impacts of the changes:

  • Provides exceptions to certain parking restrictions. Basically, if your home is located within a half-mile of public transit, you may be exempt from adding another parking space for the ADU.  This could be a train station, BART station, bus stop, park-and-ride location, etc.  There is also flexibility if you are in a designated historic district.  Advice: To be a good neighbor, if you build an ADU, please encourage the occupant(s) to make use of public transit/bike/ride sharing instead of squeezing another parked car onto the street in your neighborhood.

 

  • Eases sprinkler requirements that would be triggered by the addition of an attached ADU. Advice:  Be sure your home is equipped with up-to-date smoke/carbon monoxide alarms in as many rooms and living areas as possible.  Have them wired in, or check the batteries in spring and fall.  As a rule of thumb, replace batteries when Daylight Savings Time starts and ends.  Upgrade your electrical panel as necessary to accommodate the heavier load placed by the ADU.  Don’t overload outlets with too many devices, and be careful with any open flames or candles.

 

  • Makes utility connection fees for new construction proportionate to the burden that the ADU will place on the existing water or sewer systems. Advice:  Install low-flow toilets, showerheads and faucets.  Use a grey-water or smart-system for irrigation.  Be thoughtful about anything you put down the drain or in the toilet.  Don’t overload or clog the sewer system.

 

  • Requires “ministerial” approval for remodeling existing homes or garages if they are compliant with building and safety codes. Advice:  The trick to this is to check City/County records to be sure that all construction on your home, including any additions and improvements, were permitted.  Any do-it-yourself additions done without a permit will be revealed if you start the ADU permit process and will hold up your permit.  Be proactive and have your architect who is working on the ADU include any legalization issues that need to be addressed as part of your project.

 

Item #4 has also, in practice, relaxed some of the development standards for ADU’s.  These may not apply in every case, but here are some examples.

 

Depending on the height of the ADU, the rear and side setbacks from the property line could be as little as five feet.  Advice:  Consider what is on the other side of the fence when you design the ADU.  Try not to place a window in a spot that makes your neighbor feel that their privacy is affected.

 

May increase the potential floor area of a detached second unit.  Advice:  Check your local ordinances.  Be sure that the total floor area for the primary and the secondary units combined does not exceed the maximum floor area allowed within the zoning district for the parcel.  It’s also a good idea to increase your insurance coverage for the ADU based on the additional square footage.

 

Height restrictions have also been relaxed somewhat, but second floor balconies, decks, and windows are still subject to a variety of restrictions.  Advice:  Again, check local ordinances and be considerate of your neighbors.

 

The above general descriptions are summaries and will not apply to every property.  Your existing city/county ordinances have much more detail.  For the County of San Mateo, here is a link to the document: http://bit.ly/2rAlTZs

 

Maybe you are planning for multi-generational housing to accommodate your grown children or your parents.  You may be figuring out how to offset your mortgage costs by creating a rental unit on your property.   These new rules will be of great help to you and will eventually expand the availability of residential housing units in California.  Talk to your local licensed architect about what your options are.  Excellent sites to search for architects are www.bbb.org or www.aia.org.

 

 

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The Kastrop Group receives Better Business Bureau Torch Award for Ethics!

By Lorianna Kastrop, Vice President, The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects

Torch Award 2017 logo - blue

We are excited to announce that The Kastrop Group has been selected by the Better Business Bureau of the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern Coastal California as their first-ever recipient of the Torch Award for Ethics in the small business category (1-10 employees)!  This is a wonderful validation of our continuing commitment to honesty, integrity and fairness in our work and in our pricing.  We are also dedicated to community service and improving the business standards of the architectural profession.  We know that our clients, employees, professional consultants and engineers, general contractors, planning and building departments, and vendors are our partners in making The Kastrop Group successful, and we thank them for helping us to achieve this recognition.

We would love to hear from past clients or people we have worked with as part of our celebration.  If you are so inclined, please post a note on our company Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/KastropGroup/ or Twitter feed @KastropGroup.

The award announcement page is  http://www.bbb.org/greater-san-francisco/torch-awards-for-ethics/.  It states “The Torch Awards for Ethics honors companies whose leaders demonstrate a high level of personal character and ensure that the organization’s practices meet the highest standards of ethics, and consequently generate trust. These companies generate a high level of trust among their employees, customers’ and their communities. The award embodies the Better Business Bureau mission of advancing marketplace trust.”

We have maintained membership in the Better Business Bureau since we were eligible to join and we have maintained the A+ rating ever since.  We agree with their mission of promoting “trust” in business by recognizing those businesses that are trustworthy and encouraging the public to patronize them.  Architecture is a profession that relies on trust.  When our clients come to us they must trust that we are competent, reliable, creative and skillful in our work on their project.  They might pay a lot of money before they ever have a document or building permit in their hands.  It’s not a one-time transaction, like the purchase of a product.  And it doesn’t end when we give them their construction documents.  We must be available to answer questions, interact with contractors, engineers, permitting agencies, and others to make sure that the project moves forward successfully.  You are not just buying a service, but you are investing in a relationship, one that will have a big impact on your home or business.

We want to give special thanks to our employees.   They have been responsible for maintaining our “brand” and our reputation in the community.  We rely upon their honesty, integrity, and capabilities every day.  We are very lucky to have a staff that believes in the same goals that the founders believe in.

Having won at the local level, The Kastrop Group will be submitted by the BBB to the international level of competition for the Torch Award.  We are pleased to represent the Bay Area and we are grateful to the Golden Gate Better Business Bureau for giving us this wonderful recognition!

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Project Timing: Leave Room in Schedule for Consultants

By Lorianna Kastrop, Vice President, The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects

 

Clients often come to us ready to start a project and ask us “How soon will the drawings be ready?”  Surprisingly, the simple answer is misleading.  If we tell them how long it will take to do the architectural work, they assume that’s when they will be able to start building.  Here’s why that assumption is incorrect.

Professional consultants are in high demand whenever there is a lot of construction work going on in your area.  These include (but aren’t limited to) engineers and surveyors.  Many projects require several engineering specialties such as structural, civil, geotechnical (soils analysis), and Mechanical/Electrical/Plumbing.  Each engineer will review the architectural design drawings, and often require a site visit.  Then the engineer will prepare drawings for the project in their area of expertise.  Those drawings are added to the “Construction Document” set that is submitted for a building permit.

In addition, many jurisdictions are requiring a property survey to be completed to verify whether the assumed boundary lines are correct.  Over many years, property lines might have drifted from the correct property boundary due to inaccurate placement of fencing, pavement, landscaping, etc.  When planners are reviewing setbacks and maximum lot coverage they want to be assured that they are measuring from a professionally verified property line and that there are no unknown easements.

Other requirements really catch people by surprise.  For example, in our area some jurisdictions are requiring a “sanitary sewer video inspection” as part of the Building Permit application for projects of a certain size and scope.  This entails having a plumber run a remote video camera into the existing sewer lateral (pipe) from the existing building to the sewer main.  A Public Works inspector must review the video and complete an inspection report to determine whether the sewer lateral needs to be repaired or replaced.   (The rules on this vary from one jurisdiction to another, so check with your architect to see if it would apply to your project.)

One of our clients has old and large trees on the property.  To build an accessory dwelling unit, their property must have a certified arborist’s report about possible “heritage” trees that cannot be cut down.  The root systems must be protected from damage from the planned construction.  That means the placement of the building must be shown on the architectural drawings to be the proper distance away from the trees’ drip lines.  The arborist is very busy, and is taking a while to get his report done.  That is slowing down the project.

When several consultants and specialists are required for a project, the timeline for the project will grow, sometimes by a huge factor.  Let’s say the architectural documents will take a month, but the Structural Engineer can’t look at it for two weeks.  Since the structure affects the design, the schedule moves out by at least two weeks.  If a survey is required, the architectural work might not even be able to get started until that is done.  Sometimes surveyors are so busy that it will take two months just to get the survey completed.  And so on.

In summary, we wish we could give a short answer to “How soon will the drawings be ready?”  We can’t answer how long will it take for the architectural work without first explaining all the other possible factors that could affect the timing.

It is essential to give yourself lots of lead time for design, engineering, planning and permitting if you are considering a building project.  (All bets are off on the timing if your commercial project is subject to the California Environmental Quality Act.)

For your peace of mind and to get an accurate assessment of the timing for your project, consult a licensed architect well in advance and be prepared to hear a detailed explanation!

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Home Insurance Policy Replacement Cost: How to calculate it for your home?

By Lorianna Kastrop, Vice President, The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects

 

A friend just asked us a question that might be of interest to others – What dollar figure should I use to calculate the correct coverage for replacement cost on my homeowner’s insurance policy?  Policies vary, but we recommend that you work with your insurance agent to make sure that you have adequate coverage.  Here are some things to consider:

  1. Replacement cost is not the same as sales price. When buying a home, the price of the land is a large portion of the cost.  If you lost your home in a fire, or other catastrophe, the land would presumably still be there and you could rebuild.  You do not have to insure for the value of the land.
  1. Replacement cost should use an average cost per square foot at today’s construction rates. Update your policy annually (or when it renews) with the current going rate.  Ask a licensed general contractor for a ballpark rate for new construction in your area.  Obviously, variables might apply if your home is built on a slope or hillside, if it has unique or custom features, if it has luxury elements, etc.  Don’t let the insurance company tell you the cost per square foot based on a “national average”.  Building costs can be much higher in urban areas, and they are particularly high in the Bay Area.
  1. Multiply the cost per square foot times the number of square feet covered in your policy to get an overall replacement cost.  Then increase that number by 10-12% to cover “soft costs” such as architectural plans, engineering, planning & building department fees, etc.  Insurance companies often fail to include soft costs, but you cannot avoid paying them when you rebuild, so make sure you are covered for them.
  1. Check your policy for accessory dwelling coverage. This might include a “in-law” or “granny” unit, a detached garage, a backyard shed or studio, etc.
  1. Check your policy for “contents coverage”. Construction costs do not cover the costs of furnishings and appliances, etc., so you will want to have adequate coverage for your belongings.
  1. Consider “umbrella coverage” for items that are not covered in your standard homeowner’s coverage.

An example for the Bay Area might be around $400 per square foot for an entire house.  That breaks down to $300/S.F. for a standard living room, bedrooms, garage, etc. and up to $600/S.F. for kitchens, and baths.   If you have a 2,000 S.F. home then you will want approximately $900,000 of replacement cost coverage.  ($400 x 2,000 = $800,000 + 12% = $896,000)

The policy might offer coverage of about 10% of the replacement cost for contents coverage, or $90,000.  That probably isn’t enough to pay for all your furniture, clothing, appliances, fixtures, electronics, entertainment system, etc., that could be destroyed in a fire.  That is why we recommend additional coverage for those items.

Again, as architects we do not have the expertise to evaluate insurance coverage.  We only hope to help you consider all aspects of rebuilding costs when you are buying insurance, so that you will be adequately protected.  Using our suggestions above, you can talk to your insurance agent and figure out the best, most cost-effective coverage for your individual situation.

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