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You got a permit for that addition, right?

If a converted garage or attic hasn't been approved, it may mean fines -- or hold up a sale.

September 17, 2006|Gayle Pollard-Terry | Times Staff Writer

It's a crime that literally is in the closet. Or, if not the closet, in the converted garage or the room addition.

While most homeowners play by the book, there are many who, either through ignorance or negligence, alter their homes without securing the proper permits.

They not only could have a harder time selling, they also risk being fined and having to demolish the unapproved work. And, though it's unlikely, they could even go to jail.

It's a common problem, said real estate author Robert Irwin -- one that often surfaces during a sale. "Sellers will say, 'Everything is up to code, but I just didn't want the hassles of the inspections, and I didn't want to pay the fees. If you want a permit, just go to the city.' "

It's not that easy.

Room additions are inspected at various points during construction, Irwin said, to make sure that they are within the proper boundaries, that the foundation is deep enough and the concrete is strong enough. Framing, electrical, plumbing, heating and cooling systems also must be approved before the work is completed.

Building without the proper permits, he said, begs trouble.

The Building and Safety Department for the city of L.A. issued nearly 29,000 addition and alteration permits for single-family-homes and duplexes in the fiscal year that ended June 30. There is no way of knowing how many homeowners skipped that part of the process.

"We don't have the staff to go out and survey for illegal additions, but we know there are thousands of them out there because we get complaints about them all year long," said David Keim, chief of code enforcement for the department. "People think they are saving money without getting a permit. It usually costs them more in the long run to legalize them."

The city sometimes learns of illegal construction when the owner tries to sell or refinance the property and the lender declines to close the deal because an appraiser found work that was done without a permit. The present owner is responsible no matter when the work was done.

In the city of Los Angeles, violations are punishable by a maximum fine of $1,000 or six months in jail, although Keim knows of no one in his jurisdiction who has been jailed. Most homeowners are cooperative, he said, and try to remedy the situation.

But that isn't always easy. In Newport Beach, for example, a typical violation is an attic that has been illegally converted into a bedroom. To make sure such a conversion is up to code, inspectors would have to make holes in the wall to inspect the electrical systems and verify the support and the framing, said Jay Elbettar, that city's Building Department director. If there is a bathroom, the plumbing must be approved.

When violations are found, Newport Beach homeowners are given a chance to correct them. Those who refuse to comply face fines of $100 the first day after the deadline, $200 the second day and $500 the third day, Elbettar said. If the fines fail to persuade the owner, the city also can cut off the electricity and gas at the property to prevent a safety hazard.

Work done without a permit also is discovered when real estate agents compare listings or walk-throughs with public records.

"It's always best to disclose as much as you can," said Hugo Flores, an agent with Realteam Real Estate Center in San Bernardino. "When the appraisal is done, more than likely if there is an extra bedroom or a converted garage, the appraiser is going to know and he is going to let the lender know."

Garages, he said, are often turned into playrooms, personal gyms, home offices and rental apartments to help owners make the mortgage payment or aid elderly parents and other family members. These units also appeal to tenants who want to live in an area that is generally beyond their means or those who either can't find or afford anything else.

Because of the high cost of housing, garage conversions are popular but they're illegal 90% of the time in the city of Los Angeles, Keim said.

However, some homeowners get the proper permits and build another garage on the property to satisfy the requirement for off-street parking for two vehicles in the form of a garage or carport.

In Santa Monica, homeowners must maintain the parking required when the house was built. The oldest homes require none, and some require only one space, said Tim McCormick, the city's building officer.

Garages are often converted into family rooms, he said. If illegal, the owners must change them back, or they could face fines ranging from $100 a day to a very steep $25,000 a day.

"It is extremely rare that we actually need to impose the penalties," McCormick said. "We get voluntary compliance simply with the knowledge that fines can be imposed. It does help with those people who need a little more inspiration."

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