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
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