Checking Things Out – Part 3

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Beams are too small or the supports are too big - FAIL, from City of Miramar, FL Code Compliance website

Additions and remodels done w/o a permit  Buying a house in foreclosure or REO or what-have-you, means YOU end up with the burden of determining whether previous projects were done legally.

A former U.S. politician and his wife (they are a fun couple, they’d hung out at the house we had for sale in Willow Glen, I enjoyed talking with them and had no idea who they were…my mother would not be impressed by my political acumen) asked us to review some homes to see if they were suitable for the project he and his wife were thinking of doing.   One house has a gorgeous kitchen but the previous owners had ripped out some stuff in anger at losing their home and also hadn’t bothered to get permits for the extensive kitchen remodeling and we could tell that there was an addition to the house – maybe two. 

 If someone doesn’t think they need permits, what is to say they are actually going to do the job itself correctly?  What other corners did they cut?  We recommended against buying that house – just walk away.  Sometimes a good deal isn’t.

 Another issue with non-permitted work is that your insurance company may take issue with any problems that arise because of work done in that space.  Electrical fire?  Water damage?  Drywall cracks?  Check with your insurance company to see what their standards are.

 Its important to gather as much information as you can in order to make an informed decision.  Ask the Building Department what permits were issued for a property; ask if there were/are any Code Compliance issues.

 What is Code Compliance, you ask?  Code Compliance is making sure that work on a property meets with current laws and regulations and can also be used to force property owners to DO work on their property – or even the City property close by.

 For instance, when a street tree (owned by the City) overhangs the sidewalk below 7’, we can be forced by the City to trim the tree to meet Code.  And…that actually happened to us.  Code Compliance sent us a note saying they’d received a complaint about our tree and we had a specific amount of time to fix the problem.

 Frequently, garages are secretly converted to a family room or even a bedroom.  Danger, Danger, Will Robinson!  Illegally converted space canNOT be counted in the square footage of the house.  The property appraiser won’t include it in his/her valuation of the property.  One of our previous neighbors created a bedroom inside his garage with NO window to the outside!  The window was facing into the garage.  The Building Code requires an egress window (egress = exit) for each bedroom, allowing for quick escape in case of an emergency.  Whoever was using that bedroom would merely escape into the garage and then try to find the garage door opener (or use the man-door) – YOU try to do that in panic-mode!

 Other Code Compliance issues also relate to cars stored in the driveway or parked on the street for too long, fence heights and weed abatement, too.

Accident waiting to happen

Here’s a picture of work that was most likely done without a permit.  The ‘landing’ outside the left’ish door, is supposed to be 36” x 36”, so you don’t trip coming out the door.  This pictured landing is obviously just a step (and the steps themselves are different widths!).  As I am a tripping fool, I really need that landing, otherwise I’ll be landing my butt right on down those stairs!

 Bottom line:  Don’t expect someone else to find out what’s what about a property.  You have an obligation to protect yourself.  Be an informed Buyer.

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Mold

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Breathing in mold spores can cause permanent lung and brain damage.

I got this picture of mold-gone-wild from a website:  www.kill-mold.com  – very specific about what they do, eh?

Reading the disclosure reports:  Mold

 Before we bought the 1906 Craftsman house that we converted to our office, we reviewed all the house inspection reports.  One of those reports was from a company that had inspected for mold. 

 Now, the house had large roof and window leaks and the previous tenants had put masking tape around every window and keyhole to keep out drafts (yikes!)  so condensation ran down all the windows and rotted the sills.  There was lovely mold everywhere. 

 Ok, so we reviewed the report and the estimate to remove the mold was for $18,000 dollars!  Ouch.  This was during the height of the mold scare.  Black mold, especially, which can cause health issues.

 Since we didn’t have $18,000 (eighteen THOUSAND dollars!) to throw at mold, I decided to find out exactly what the mold was.  I carefully read the entire report, including all the footnotes and went online to several sites to understand the terms used.

 The mold in our house was not the kind that sprouts mushrooms (yes, we had a client with mushrooms growing in their bathroom!)

Here's his mushroom, the Caterpiller can't be far off.

nor was it the scary black mold (did you know that there have been lawsuits over the color of mold?  Because a real-estate agent referred in a report to seeing a spot of black mold, he was sued.  After all, the lawsuit said, the agent was not a color expert, so he should not have indicated a color and, since he was not a mold expert, he should not have written the word ‘mold’.  So, now an agent will specify that a ‘discolored area’ was noticed.   In reality, the lawsuit was all about that scary black mold which, for awhile, was the curse of doom for anyone selling a house.) 

 But, back to me and MY mold problem, the inspection company wanted to carefully clean the areas with HEPA filter vacuums, then wipe down the areas 3 times with special solutions and so forth.

I discovered that our particular kind of mold, having dried up once the leaks were stopped, was no longer a threat – it died – mold needs the water to survive.  I also discovered that the mold was as threatening to a human being as walking on the street in the spring.  Yes, literally.  So, I vacuumed the areas, wiped them down with alcohol and thought no more about it.

 Can you take care of your own mold problem?  Depends on the mold and, well, you must decide that for yourself.  The report was long and full of tiny print and footnotes and weird words.   But, I read it meticulously and felt comfortable that I understood what it was saying.  The mold we had was not life-threatening, so we took care of it ourselves.

 The point here?  Read the reports carefully, don’t make assumptions.

 Oh, btw, here is a link to the EPA website info regarding mold  http://www.epa.gov/mold/moldguide.html

Checking Things Out, part whatever…

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Migrant worker's housing

Are you looking to buy property or a house?  Here are some tips:

 #1  First and foremost – the land.  You can create a bigger house but you can’t make the land bigger.  You want a pool and tennis courts?  Maybe not immediately, but one day?   Want to add a guest house or master suite?  Then make sure the property is big enough!  That’s the first priority and the house size/condition/etc. become secondary.

 #2  Find out all you can about the property and the house. 

       ~  Go to the local Planning Department and ask them what kind of project is allowed in that property’s Zone.  For instance, some neighborhoods don’t allow 2nd stories (true!).   Some exteriors can’t be changed because the house is considered historic.  In fact, Ramona wanted to tear down her sad little ragamuffin of a 900 sf abode, but it turns out the homes in her neighborhood were built to house migrant farm/orchard workers.  Since the homes have a unique history, the city won’t allow her to tear it down.  But, Ramona didn’t know about that when she bought the house.   

A property on a hillside might have restrictions on the size of addition that is allowed.  – look at ‘slope reduction’ issues.  Planning frequently has a calculation based on the percentage of slope of the hillside that regulates how big a house can be.  The size of the slope reduces the allowable house size.   The allowable house size per size of lot = FAR, Floor-area-ratio.  This is important!  Our clients, the Masons, can’t do an addition on their lot because of the ‘slope reduction’ issue, so the Masons are just updating the look of the front of their house.

Steep building site

 In some cities the Planning Department will ask your neighbors to weigh in on your project.  Yeah, seriously…  Sam called us to ask about re-doing his roof from flat-top to pitched.  Sorry, guy, no-can-do in your neighborhood…  So, see what the Zoning rules are. 

 We have a client, Marty Stein, who owns a duplex in a little town north of me.  He wanted to do an addition on his duplex.  It turns out that the town hasn’t actually written rules for his neck of the woods.  It’s a tiny black hole in the middle of town and if he wants to do a project on his house, then he has to PAY for them to figure out what the rules should be for his area.  ?!?!?  Its been about 5 years since the subject was originally brought up to them.  It took the town 2 years just to figure out that they weren’t going to allow a project until the rules were written.  Round and round we go, where it stops?  …will probably have something to do with your wallet…

 Warning, sometimes even Planning doesn’t know what will happen until an actual application comes through for their review.

 ~   Talk to the Building Department and find out what permits have been issued for the property.  Some city/county jurisdictions have this information online, yay for San Jose!, but not all of them.  If that porch conversion wasn’t permitted, you might have to remove it or get it permitted, when you do your project.

Our historic building, photo by Barbara Bourne

 ~   Go to the County Recorder’s office and look for a Record of Survey for the property.  Are there any easements or restrictions that would affect your desired project?  We saw one property for sale that had an easement going right through the middle of the property!  No one is using that easement right now, cuz the land next door is vacant.  But when that land sells and someone starts building a house on it, then that’s how the contractors and new owners will get to the job site – right through your land.  Another property we reviewed had a gravel driveway that looked like it would be the easement access but, looking at the Record of Survey, we discovered that there was no authorization for that driveway and the actual property access point was blocked it with a neighbor’s trailer, discouraging use of the easement.  If you absolutely love the property, fine.  But you need to be aware of what you’re getting into.

 #3  List your priorities:  Must-Have, Want, Absolutely canNOT have.  If you absolutely HAVE to have 4 bedrooms right out the gate, then don’t look at 2 bedroom homes.  BUT, if you can possibly live with 3 bedrooms and a den, then that might be an OK alternative.  If the master bath is tiny, and you don’t like the location of that 3rd bedroom, you might be decide to convert the bedroom into a walk-in closet and master bath, then add another bedroom later.  We looked at a home with a horrible kitchen design (don’t get me started on that)  with 1960’s yellow and brown tile – tired & cracked with that huge grout we just love to clean, don’t we?  Plus a moldy family room and bedroom in the basement.    But I could live with that because of the magnificent backyard.  I can eventually redo the kitchen and basement but I can’t add 1000sf to the backyard. 

What are your stories?  What did you learn?  I’d like to hear from you.  You can comment in the blog or email me at MyBetterHouse@live.com

Another Hometec house in Sunset Magazine

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Here are pix of the house on University designed by HOMETEC.  

Front of house

Front of the house

side of house

Outside the dining room, courtyard deck with benches

The interior designers did a lovely job – I really like the tile work.  The pictures of the kitchen and the bathroom tile don’t convey the subtlety of their tones.  The colors of the rooms are very bold, not for everyone, but still, the entire house feels warm and inviting and I even sat in the backyard by the fountain for about an hour while Rick talked with guests and answered lots of questions about the original floorplan and the whys and wherefores of the design. 

Living room

Living room, those arched windows are original to the house

Of course, not EVerything turned out exactly like the drawings but, then, that’s the price one pays for being part of a team.   Being a ‘project house’ for a magazine meant that the builder, DeMattei Construction, had to have a larger team in on the process than usual.  DeMattei’s people always do good work, though, and it shows in this house.

veggie garden

Veggie garden in the front yard, tomatoes are already a good size.

Instead of grass lawns, there are pavers and gravel pathways and a vegetable garden, along with a tiny grassy area.  The outside spaces are gorgeous and tailor-made for entertaining.  Invite me!  Invite me!

The house has already sold – isn’t that a lovely pat on the back for those involved.  And, I heard the new buyers even bought the furniture…nice…  

kitchen tiles

Gorgeous tilework

Rick doesn’t always get the chance to take pictures of a house after its done AND the landscaping is in AND the interior furnishings are pristine and fabulous, so this opportunity was a rarity and much appreciated.

THEY have a fountain

This is where I spent an hour...lovely...

Our 4th house to be featured by Sunset Magazine!

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Sunset will be having house tours.  For more info, go to Sunset.com
Click on ‘Tour our Dream House’. We aren’t actually mentioned by Sunset. Something to do with, oh, I don’t really know! Why IS that? Whatever, we are milking it for all its worth. I’ll post pix soon, haven’t toured it ourselves, yet.

Upcoming topics – feel free to jump in!

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Here are some blog topics that will be coming up – I’d like to include your pictures, stories and comments, so bring ’em on!

~ One year of experience 20 times over vs twenty years of experience:  Don’t stop learning

~Repurposing rooms:  Living room becomes recording studio, garage becomes mancave, tree house hosts tea party, etc.

~ Green Building:  What have you done?  Tips, products, ‘green for less’ (because a lot of products/companies aren’t really worth the return on investment – for you or for the earth)

~ Checking things out:  How did it save you heartache and $$?  We can help and learn from each other.

~ Suggest other topics, don’t be shy!

Attic Conversions

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I was reading the paper the other day – newspaper, that is…they say the paper format is outdated but there is nothing like sitting on one’s deck having morning coffee and reading the paper.  Its just not the same staring into a laptop or iPhone or whatever.  Not to mention how easy it is to skim pages when they are full size…I’m just sayin’.

 Anyway, I was reading the paper and some syndicated (read ‘not from around here’) columnist was waxing eloquent about how homeowners were finally coming around to using space wisely and not necessarily adding square footage to their homes.  One idea for getting better use out of rooms was to repurpose unused rooms (how many of those do YOU have? Although I’m being a little small-minded about that cuz it is really a good idea to sit back once in awhile and rethink how one’s rooms are being used vs how one might have originally thought they’d be used.  But, that’s for another blog update).

 The other idea, and here is the reason for my rant, was to convert your attic space.  Well, in my book, that’s called ‘adding square footage’ not to mention the fact that, in our part of the world, you must do a lot to the lower story to make it earthquake-resistant, you may just as well add entirely new rooms to the house.  The existing structure has to be reinforced to meet the Building Code (often referred to as Code…as in “must meet Code”).  So, it’s frustrating to read a column and know that gazillions of homeowners are going to be asking about converting their attic because they read about it in the paper!  Yet, they can’t do it here – at least not very cost-effectively.  Thanks, Merc News, for blindly filling column space with irrelevant information. 

 When you think about it, it makes sense that the structure must be reinforced.  Your attic floor isn’t really a floor; it’s a ceiling, generally not built with the idea of somebody walking on it much.  And the walls aren’t built for the additional stress put on them by people living in that space.

Laundry room?

Crammed workstation

Here are a couple pictures of an attic conversion done by someone who had no design-sense at all, let alone common-sense.  You walk on a tiny bit of, what, floor?  shelf?  along the stairwell in order to get to the laundry room!  Imagine walking that tightrope…now imagine it with a laundry basket in your arms!  And there is an itty-bitty workstation tucked between the angled roofline and a wall.  The landlord converted these spaces illegally in order to rent them out.  Wanna take bets on how many other cost-cutting measures he took?

 Of course, there are times when converting the attic IS a good idea and here are a couple pictures of one.  The house is historic and the property is small so there weren’t a lot of options.  Three bedrooms and 2 bathrooms were tucked into the attic.  Since the entire inside of the house was being remodeled, the client wasn’t concerned about the destruction of the inside walls in order to add strength.  The exterior front picture doesn’t show you the dormer windows.  The other picture is one of the dormers from the inside, the angles at the roofline and the dormer.  The goal of a project like this is to gain living space without changing the front of the house much, so it retains its character without looking chopped up.

Attic conversion exterior view

Attic dormer

 

Sometimes converting the attic is the best idea, but not always, so find out what’s involved before you start slapping down plywood floors and installing drywall.

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