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ALTERED ESTATES : Homeowners Who Would Rather Fix Than Switch Are Creating a Boom in Remodeling--Legal and Otherwise

July 28, 1988|MIKE WYMA

The San Fernando Valley's great land boom may be over, but its successor--the great remodeling boom--is in full swing.

That is the consensus of building supply salespeople, contractors and industry publications. And although the boom is not reflected in the number of building permits obtained for remodeling work, city officials agree that it exists.

So certain is the Los Angeles Building and Safety Department, in fact, that it has restructured its operations in an effort to uncover more of the rampant "bootleg" remodeling.

"In past we found this only through complaints, usually from neighbors," said Art Johnson, assistant chief of the department's newly created bureau of community safety. "But it only finds a small portion of what's out there."

The main reason for the increase in remodeling is clear to anyone who has shopped for a house lately. Costs are going through the roof. In the last three months, the price of a single-family home in the Valley has averaged $230,000, up from a 1987 average of $187,300, according to the San Fernando Valley Board of Realtors.

Fueling the upward spiral are a lack of open land for homes and a budding slow-growth movement led by activists who sometimes force reductions in the size of developments. In 1987, a year of huge demand, permits were taken out for 1,608 single-family homes in the Valley. The figure 10 years earlier was more than 2,100.

The shortage of houses has created a roadblock in the traditional path of growing families in the Valley.

Little to Buy

"People used to trade up," said Mel Bliss, a 40-year veteran of the Building and Safety Department. "It used to be you could sell and buy and sell and buy very easily, but now there isn't much to buy."

Homeowners cite additional reasons for choosing to remodel rather than move. Even though the two homes may be roughly comparable in value, under Proposition 13 the property tax on the new home would be much higher than on the old one.

Some owners may have mortgages at favorable interest rates and do not want to lose them.

As the Valley enters middle age, many people live in houses that increasingly show their years. Some like their homes and decide that by adding modern appliances and changing walls or windows, they can vastly improve the residence.

"The whole country is coming to the end of the post-World War II building boom," said Paul Spring, senior editor of Los Angeles-based Home magazine. "A lot of housing stock was built in the '50s and the '60s . . . and the roofing or flooring is wearing out.

"It's unbelievable the amount of traffic we've had, and it's all remodeling," said Sherry Yadley, general manager of showrooms for Familian Pipe & Supply Co., which has one of its 19 outlets in Van Nuys. "Our showroom has been packed. Mostly people are redoing bathrooms and kitchens, but some are adding bedrooms."

Yadley and others said there has been steady growth in Valley remodeling over the last 10 years. The growth, however, is not reflected in remodeling permits issued by Building and Safety.

The department has two types of permits--alteration and addition--for the remodeling of single-family homes. The former does not allow an increase in house size while the latter does.

Last year the Valley total for both types of permits was 7,617. By comparison, in 1977 the number was 8,048.

A great many people, it seems, are not taking out permits for the work.

Johnson, of the bureau of community safety, said there is no way to estimate the extent of illegal remodeling but that it is "very, very substantial." Building and Safety created the bureau of community safety last fall to reduce bootlegging by catching violators and by easing problems for remodelers who wish to do their work legally.

Inspectors formerly assigned to the department's four district offices, one of which is in Van Nuys, have been scattered into the bureau's 18 satellite offices. Plans call for the offices to increase in number to 24. The inspectors' main job is to look at work--both new construction and remodeling--for which permits have been obtained.

"The system was to just answer complaints," Johnson said. "If they saw a violation they took no action. Now they'll be out in the community more and looking for violations will become part of the inspectors' day."

Johnson said the new system cuts driving time for inspectors, who number 105 when the bureau is fully staffed. He added that a backlog of complaints awaiting investigation has thus far prevented inspectors from finding violations on their own, but the response time on complaints has been cut from 30 days to two or three.

He said the satellite offices aid the public by stocking remodeling plans and other literature and that inspectors are available in the late afternoon to answer a remodeler's questions by telephone. The department's restructuring calls for building permits to be issued from at least some of the satellite offices in the future.

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