Architect’s Corner: Rules & Codes

How City Requirements Can Impede Your Construction Plans

by Jodi Deranja, Nourmand & Associates

 

(Editor’s Note:  Jodi Deranja is an agent with Nourmand & Associates in Los Angeles, California, and has over 13 years of experience in the luxury building market.  She can be reached at jodi@jodideranja.com or (818) 660-5196.)

When it comes time to build, renovate, or flip a house, there are a few things you should know before diving in.  One often overlooked part of the process is understanding your city’s requirements and codes, and usually each city has drastically different processes.  Getting your plans and permits in place correctly is key: first for safety, but also for efficiency throughout the process.  If you live in a planned unit development, have a homeowners’ association, or live in a historical district, the rules are specific and you would be notified of this throughout the purchasing process of your property.  Things tend to get a bit tricky when it comes to neighborhoods that have design review.  There aren’t many, but you won’t know until you actually check with the city.  Unfortunately, when buying a home, you aren’t notified of these hurdles.  You don’t have to sign anything saying you agree or acknowledge that these rules or guidelines actually exist.  

         Design review is also drastically different from place to place and is an antiquated process that seems out of place in today’s world.  Throughout the process, before plans even begin, the city will tell you what you can and can’t do regarding the design of your home and how your house looks from the street.  Design is completely subjective, so when the city comes at you questioning your taste and design, it can be extremely off-putting.  The house is your investment, you pay taxes on it, and it’s your pride of ownership, this should be protected. 

         My first experience dealing with the design process was when I purchased a home in Glendale, California.  It took over ten months to get our permits.  This likely would have been much longer if I didn’t proactively ask for meetings with city employees and city counsel.  Unfortunately, there was a major delay when it came to dealing with the city’s urban designer.  For example, we had a one-month long conversation about moving a wall back 2”.  Once we agreed to moving it 2”, they changed their minds and asked us to move it back 1’.  The urban designer also asked us to lower the roofline, which in turn, lowered a random 4’ section of our ceiling in the interior of the home.  Keep in mind that typically design review doesn’t care about the inside of the house, but strictly the view from the street, so dropping the ceiling wouldn’t even occur to them as an issue.  You have to be your own advocate and watch out for those things.  In our situation, the designer was looking to add some depth to the house rather than have it on one plane so we ended up making the project an additional 175 sq.ft. bigger and bumped forward so that the interior of the home would actually work. 

         After we did that, they started to come at us with demands that we put wood siding on our house.  Taking our 1923 stucco home and transforming it into some uber-modern home would not only stand out like a sore thumb on our block, but it was not what we wanted.  Further, during our permitting process, no one from the city visited our house to actually see the potential project or discuss our wants and needs.  Sadly, we felt bossed around based on some poorly written guidelines that were close to ten years old.  The guidelines were treated like laws and our permits were held hostage until we agreed to their wishes and wants for our home.  Through this process, it was clear the city blames most of this on homeowners, claiming that some are demanding more design review.  I’m not certain how anyone could think they should have say in someone else’s home design and how a city can back that demand. 

         Unfortunately, these are only a few of the many issues and roadblocks we encountered.  After that horrible experience, I set out on a mission to make it better for homeowners by giving them the knowledge and resources to move forward more prepared.  I don’t want anyone to go through what we did to improve their house, add value, and make it a home.  The same goes for design professionals who are stepping in to assist homeowners and homebuyers in purchasing their dream homes and adding value to cities and neighborhoods in the West.  By understanding city codes and urban designers’ guidelines, homes can be renovated and remodeled without having to undergo the immensely frustrating hassle that I encountered. 

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