Checking Things Out, Part 1


This photo came from a Real Estate Appraisers Assoc (REAA) flyer

Checking things out’  What does that mean?  How do you do that and what questions do you ask?

Every city here-abouts has a website where you can find much information about any property and the rules that govern what you can do with the property.

Not every city has a great website, but still, information is available.  I was researching a property for a client out in the boonies and that city had the most elaborate and complete website I’d ever seen!  They must have had a population of about 4500 but they were really right out in front with their website. 

 Some cities have pathetic websites that seem to be more of a placeholder than anything but be patient.  Sometimes you can find information by checking out EVERY webpage they have.  The WebMaster who created the website doesn’t always put the information in the most obvious place.

 So, first go to the Planning site.  There might be a page that will let you do searches on a property and its permit history.  City of San Jose has a fanTAStic website for that.  Saratoga, not so much.

 Find the Zoning Ordinance; that’s a document that will have a special ‘Residential’ section.  Each property is assigned a Zone and will have rules associated with it.  For instance, a front set-back might be 25’ in an R1 but a PD might have a front set-back of 10’.  PD means Planned Development, sometimes called Planned Unit Development.  Some people think their corner lot means they have TONS of room to add on, but sadly, no, they usually have huge setbacks on both street-sides to deal with.

 A property’s Zone doesn’t always make sense – one client of ours, the Hamlett’s, have a property zoned Commercial!  No reason for it that we can see, its in a regular neighborhood, 3 lots in from a street that has commercial properties.  What this means is that our poor client might have to submit a Planning Application for approval to do additions on their house…which has always been a house!  Odd, but true.  More on this issue another time, the project hasn’t gotten far enough along to know if Planning will get involved or not.

 There might also be a Design Regulations document or something like that, which will explain what types of designs are preferred in particular areas.  One neighborhood does not allow ‘tower’ entrances; another won’t allow anything but tiled roofs.  Perhaps this area may not add a 2nd story and the other must have detached garages.

 If you call Planning to speak with a Planner, then here are some questions to ask about the property.

 ~ What is the Zone?  What does that mean?

~ What are the setbacks for front, rear and side?

~ What is the maximum Floor Area Ratio for this property?  (That’s the size of house allowed in relation to the size of the property.)

~ What is the maximum Lot Coverage for this property?  (That’s the amount of building coverage allowed per the size of the property – house/garage/storage.)

~ Is there a Planning Folder for this property?  (Meaning: have others tried to do projects on this property in the past.)

~ If so, may I come in and look at the file?  (Usually you may do so.  That way, you can see what’s been tried before and talk to the Planner about what’s gone on.)

~ Is this property in a Hazardous Zone? 

~ What additional things have to be done to build on a site in a Hazardous Zone?

For instance, sometimes a house must be built 50’ away from a hazardous area.  Or maybe there is a slide zone area and you can’t build there at all – there are a few lots up in the eastern foothills that the City of San Jose has purchased because they won’t let anyone build there as the soil is too unstable.  But, the lots they haven’t purchased are often up for sale so ‘let the buyer beware’.

~ Is there a way for me to do a permit search on this property?

(you can sometimes pay them to do it or go to the Building Department and do the search yourself…for a long time, the permit search at the County of Santa Clara was done by going through binder after binder of paper!)

 Other places to look for information is at the County Recorders Office.  See if there is a Record of Survey on their computer system, called Paris.  You can pull up the record and review it but if you want to have a hardcopy, you will be charged a small fee.

 These questions are a good start for finding out if a property, from the get-go, has the potential to do the project you have in mind. 

 Part II of Checking Things Out will be forthcoming…


Saving 1 wall…


Front walls saved for a good reason, they didn't need replacing.

Aarrgh!  I wish I had a dollar for every time we heard someone say “But, if 1 wall is saved the property taxes won’t go up.”  WRONG!  So very, very wrong – maybe 12 years ago this was true but no longer.  Yet, people keep perpetuating this myth. 

In some cities/counties, saving 50% of the walls means the difference between a new house and an addition – which can affect when Planning gets involved (among other things).  That’s about it for the ‘saving a wall’ concept, what we call the 50% rule.

 But the ‘1 wall’ rule was before copies of permits were sent to the County Assessor’s office.  In Santa Clara County, all 15 cities must provide the Assessor with copies of the building permit.  So the Assessor will review the information and decide if a reassessment is warranted.

 For instance, if you are remodeling the inside of your house to squeeze in another bathroom – BANG, that’s adding ‘amenities’ to the structure so you might be reassessed.  If you are only remodeling but the work is extensive, then a reassessment could happen.  It doesn’t depend on adding square footage, but adding value.

 I was holding an Open House and explaining what type of work had been done (we kept the front 2/3 of the existing house exterior) and so many of the attendees would say, nodding their heads knowingly, “‘Of course, you had to keep 1 wall so the house would be reassessed at a lower rate.”   And I’d reply “No, that’s no longer true” and they would look at me sorrowfully like I really wasn’t up on the latest methods to get around taxes.  And there was no changing their minds because their contractor/real estate agent/neighbor told them this so it must be true.  >sigh<    

 We give all potential clients a copy of our local County Assessor’s pamphlet called “New Construction and Property Taxes”.  It explains pretty clearly how the County Assessor’s processes work.

 Don’t just believe what people tell you!  Check things out for yourself.

  And ‘Checking things out’ will be the subject of my next blog…


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House-hunting can be so tiresome, especially when there isn’t anything EXACTLY like what you want.  Look past the cosmetics and focus on the bones of the house and the property itself – the land on which the house sits.

 An important aspect of your purchase is the land.  You can add on to the house, but you can’t add on to the land.  Make sure the land is the right size for future additions and landscaping plans.

 List your priorites:  Must-Have, Want, Absolutely-Hate-The-Thought-Of.  Each property will have Pros and Cons.  If you’ve decided that you need a 4 bedroom house, maybe you can survive with 3 bedrooms and a den.  Try to look beyond the normal uses for some of the rooms.  You can put a pool table in the living room.  Who says it has to be a ‘living room’? 

Concrete block as a room divider

Is the kitchen a mess?  The one in this picture has concrete-block as a room separator!  Yikes!  THAT’s gonna be work to remove.  Ugh.  We looked at a house with horrendous 1970’s yellow and brown tile and old, tired appliances.  But I knew I would one day remodel the kitchen and I’d have a hard time finding a backyard as marvelous as this one – gazebo, room for a pool, view of the hills, lovely!   Look past those items that can be changed/updated/removed/expanded and focus, Focus, FOCUS on your list of priorities. 

 And, on the other side of the coin, don’t be fooled by pretty paint jobs and staging.  Look past those eye-pleasers. 

 Another helpful hint is to take photos of the houses you review – of the good and the bad aspects of each of them.  Houses tend to blur together after awhile so be organized about it.

 Take a tape measure with you and record the room sizes, particularly if you have Aunt Agatha’s armoir that has to fit into the master bedroom!

What other tips for house-hunting have you found helpful?  Let me know.

Hello world!


photo by Jon Sullivan

Welcome to our blog:  My Better House – Planning for, buying and designing your next house.  Featured within will be stories about projects we’ve designed for our clients, tips for finding (and buying) your perfect home, how the Planning and Building Department processes work, elements of building Green, what to avoid, what doesn’t matter, and more. 

With over 20 years of experience, Rick and I have a lot of insight and stories to share.  We’re going to be honest herein but will change names to ‘protect the innocent’ (so to speak) – and, we will change the names of the guilty as well.

 We welcome your comments, pictures and ideas for future articles and stories.  We, of course, have the right to edit content for readability and won’t allow slurs and attacks of any kind.

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