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REMODELING : Add On a Permit to Bootleg Building


Room additions can turn a house into a homeowner's dream, but an addition built without required city or county permits can become a nightmare.


While some Orange County homeowners chose to ignore the bootleg corners of their house, others are facing the issue squarely. Journeying back through the labyrinth of building codes, site inspections and permit fees can be a tedious process, but there are some financial benefits to doing so.

First, a room addition only counts as added value to a house if it has permits to prove it's legal. For instance, if a house is being appraised for sale or refinancing, the appraisal inspector will only consider those portions of the house that are legal. Secondly, many insurance companies will not write policies on the portions of a house that are bootlegged.

With interest rates lower than they have been in decades, many homeowners are refinancing their home loans--some discovering in the process that part of their home was built without permits.

"Bootlegs were almost unheard of in the '60s and early '70s because then every new house loan had to check building permits," said Don Lamm, Costa Mesa assistant city manager.

During the financial boom of the late '70s and '80s, lenders became more liberal and some no longer required that every portion of a house be counted for a house loan as long as the property value was worth the amount of the loan.

In Orange County, where property values were at a premium during those years, it was possible that a home buyer received a loan without understanding that there were room additions that had not been calculated in the loan.

Buyers who assumed loans were often in the same position. Because there was not a new lender, permits were not checked.

"People were assuming loans on these houses and never knew that there were parts that did not have building permits," Lamm said.

Now, lenders are more conservative. It is again routine for houses to be checked for permits. "Whereas we never really dealt with this before, we have people coming in all the time now," Lamm said.

While the number of cases varies from city to city, most building departments deal with the problem on a daily basis.

So what does it take to get a room addition permitted after the fact?

Money and time.

Orange County cities follow the guidelines of the California Building Code for post-building permits, as does the county.

The first step for the homeowner is to find out what portions of the home are illegal. That can be done by contacting the appropriate city's building department (or for those who live in unincorporated areas, the county Building Department).

Most cities have the history of every house in their jurisdiction on computer and can give the homeowner that information for just the cost of copies.

Once the homeowner knows what rooms are bootlegged, the next step is to hire a licensed architect or engineer to draw blueprints of the existing structure.

The drawings are not cheap. Architects charge anywhere from $75 to $120 per hour for draw-as-built plans. A simple 15-by-20-foot family room can take as much as six hours to draw.

"I think it's a good idea for people to hire an architect in their area," said Blair Ballard, a Laguna Beach architect. "That way it's someone the city planners have already dealt with. The homeowner is already coming to the city hat in hand; it'll help their cause to deal with someone the planners know is competent."

After the plans are drawn, the homeowner takes them to the city or county for approval.

Once the plans are submitted, a building inspector will go to the house to examine the bootleg for any building code violations. Because the addition was built illegally, most cities and counties charge double inspection fees.

In Newport Beach for instance, the usual charge for an inspection is $30 an hour, with a two-hour minimum. That means the owner of a bootleg pays $120 for the first inspection.

The doubling of fees is sometimes waived.

"If it's a situation where the current owner didn't know there was a bootleg and is trying to do the right thing, then we'll often not charge the penalty fee," Lamm said.

To encourage compliance, the county is currently offering a sort of bootleg amnesty. From now through October, the penalty portion of the fee will be waived.

"The reason for getting permits is for us to ensure that buildings are safe," said Chi Tran, manager of building permits for the county. "We want to help people as much as we can to make things safe."

The first inspection determines whether the addition meets setback requirements and checks the soundness of the structure.

If the addition appears to be sound and to meet all the building codes, the inspector may sign the permit and the bootleg becomes legal.

More often, though, there are problems that need to be remedied.

Perhaps the wiring is not up to code or the foundation is inadequate. Or maybe the inspector is uneasy about what is visible and wants a wall torn out so an inspection can be made of the frame.

"That's when it can get expensive for the homeowner," said Rich Peters, building manager for Garden Grove. "But it has to be done if the property is ever put up for sale. (It) may as well be done now--the longer they wait, the more expensive it could become."

Once all the required changes are made, a permit is issued. In a worst-case scenario, the owner would have to tear down the structure. Things seldom reach that point, though.

There's one more cost to the homeowner: After the permit is approved, the tax records are amended to include the now legal addition--meaning an increase in property taxes.

And one more benefit: the peace of mind of knowing that all parts of a home are safe and up to code.

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