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DOUBLE UP : The Clarks of Huntington Beach, Like Growing Numbers of Families, Found Heaven 8 Feet Above


HUNTINGTON BEACH — In the old days, Lynn Clark came home to a house when her day was done.

But that was before the metamorphosis.

Now Clark races home to what she describes as "heaven, sheer heaven."

Clark's heaven is eight feet above the entry hall floor: an 825-square-foot master bedroom suit she and husband Tom, a retirement and health-plan administrator, added to their 20-year-old tract home.

The Clarks and their two sons are part of an ever-growing number of Orange County families who have found that adding on can be far less expensive than moving, and that with planning and a proper attitude, even as massive an undertaking as a second-story addition doesn't have to turn life into a bank account-draining hell.

There were moments, of course--such as the time a workman plowed through the downstairs bathroom wall with a power saw while Lynn Clark was inside, changing out of her leotard after an aerobics class.

Or the week the new footings were poured to support the upstairs and every major room in the house had a gaping hole in the floor.

As most homeowners who add on, the Clarks decided about two-thirds of the way through the job that they just might have been crazy to go ahead with the project.

"But it was worth it," Tom Clark says. "As you look back you realize that there really weren't very many problems, and the end result is that we have a much, much nicer house without having to change school districts or trade a small mortgage payment and property tax bill for a huge one."

Builders say that about 80% of the major room additions being done in Orange County these days are second-story jobs.

Upstairs rooms and suites are routinely added even to homes with existing second stories, and rare is the owner of one of the single-level homes that still make up the bulk of the county's housing stock who hasn't wondered, at least once, what it would be like to have an upstairs.

Although second-story additions almost always are more expensive than ground-level add-ons, they are popular for reasons both practical and cosmetic.

"Most new homes in the county are two-story homes, so people with an older place go up because they want to copy that newer look," says builder Anthony F. Palombo of Huntington Beach. Adding on is generally a lot less expensive than coughing up $600,000 or so for a new home to get the same amount of room.

"But there is also the fact that a lot of homes in the county have very small lots, so there isn't any room to add on unless you go up," he says. "And people who do have big lots with room for a ground-level addition want to keep that open space, so they very frequently decide on a second story, too."

Palombo, whose company has been in business since 1923, estimates that the typical second-floor addition runs $125 to $160 a square foot, compared to $100 to $125 per square foot for a ground-floor addition.

A big piece of the cost is the additional engineering and structural reinforcing that has to be done to meet building code and earthquake safety standards.

The second major cost is making room for the stairway--for perhaps the most difficult part of a second-story addition is getting to it.

The Clarks were fortunate. Their home had an exceptionally wide hallway just off the entry that was copious enough to swallow up a modest stairway and still leave room for passage to the downstairs bedrooms. To increase the entry space and make the area feel more open, the front doorway was pushed out several feet.

"But usually you lose at least part of a room, and you have to do something to replace that," says the Clarks' builder, Dennis D'Ambra, a Westminster designer-builder specializing in room additions.

Many clients tell their designer or architect that they want a sweeping, curving stairway that makes a major visual impact.

But when the plans come back and they see that they have to give up the entire living room and mortgage their children to make that statement, they typically settle for something a bit more modest.

The layout of a particular house and the homeowners' own desires and budgets are the primary factors in staircase location, but Palombo suggests that it makes sense to use the front of the house for a stairway to a master suit or group of bedrooms and the rear areas of the house for a stairway to a game room, media room or other entertainment-oriented addition.

In either case, he says, it most often works best to use a downstairs bedroom for the stairs. "You use part of it for the stairwell and turn the rest into a den or a study."

D'Ambra, whose company does about 100 room additions a year, says the design and engineering phases are the most critical part of a second-story addition.

"It is different than when an architect designs a new house, because we don't get too many jobs where people have us knock everything down and start all over. We must create from existing conditions."

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