Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Monday, November 19, 2018

What is a legalization of non-permitted (illegal) construction works?

Precarious enclosure in a second story, hill side. Personal archives.

A legalization of (illegal) non permitted structures or construction works means to submit architectural, energy plans and calculations (as needed) and structural plans and calculations to bring everything back to Code. In other words, what had been built without a permit and inspections is shown as "new". The non permitted constructions must be repaired, altered, reinforced, modified as needed to comply with the current Codes, permits must be paid and inspections are needed, even for whatever is hidden, inside attics, underground, etc.
Who is responsible for this? The current owner. It is common to hear from owners "I didn't make it, I bought it as is". The owner may have the chance to sue the Real State company, but finally, and after a survey and the acceptance of the Grant Deed, the person is at the same time accepting the conditions of the property. My advice, please check the records before buying or even leasing. 
Beware of non-licensed contractors. They could lure the owners-tenants to build without a permit, to avoid waiting for the permits process. They could be guilty of deceiving but they are not responsible.
Why do I mention a "non lincensed" contractor? Because if the contractor is licensed, he will be afraid the owner-tenant can call the Board of Contractors and have his licensed suspended or revoked.

It may happen that the records at the Assessor's Office differ from the records at the City. Why is this? The Assessor's have silhouettes and plans to determine the taxes you are paying for the property, and they may even find in aerial pictures if the building is bigger than declared. But whatever information is at the Assesor's office, does not need to match with the City records.
To the purposes of a legalization, the City records are the valid ones. Once the legalization is ready, there will be an updated record for the Assessor's office (taxes).
Is it important to legalize structures? Of course. The homeowner maybe be denounced, the structures may have notice of demolition, illegal tenants can sue the "landlord", there are issues involving the safety of people, in case of fire the insurance company may not cover the damages. Among other inconveniences. A house with illegal construction diminishes its value in the market.

Is it just one plan needed? No, this is a package of plans. Depending on the complexity and type of works, the basics are architectural, energy, structural. More plans and calculations could be added. In commercial works, mechanical, electrical and plumbing, as an example.

A structural fissure in an illegal retaining wall, hillside. Personal archives

One typical problem of an illegal room addition is the lack of foundation, exterior walls are usually built precariously on an existing slab, no vapor barrier is provided, no walls and ceiling thermal insulation. Sometimes if the patio cover is enclosed, the height is not enough and another roof must be built on top of the existing to solve the problem.
Sometimes the legalization is not for the building but part of it. Let's see in the example below, we have two illegal works: the ceiling joists have been removed and extra support must be added; this foam insulation is no permitted in California (the provider failed to show an ICC report number approved in CA) and it has to be removed and replaced. 

The picture below is showing the construction of a room between a house and an existing (permitted) garage. The room is very low, the demolition is illegal, a header and posts must be verified and provided. The fireplace is not compliant with the current Green Code. 

Legalizations are not exclusive of residential. Commercial constructions have lots of illegal alterations that may be dangerous if they are related to fire safety. The picture below is showing a non permitted three compartments sink drainage. The work was rejected by Health department and Building and Safety.

Below, the standard outdoor kitchen, without fire safety under the roof. Besides, it is too close to the property lines. This is a case that is not possible to be saved, unless strict fire protection is provided. The set backs could or could not be accepted by planning department.

Patio covers without braces could be illegal. Braces are the diagonal 4x woods that collaborate in the lateral loads (earthquakes). I say "could be" because very old patio cover constructions may appear like this. The window is new and may be not compliant with the Title 24 energy calculation. If so, it has to be changed.

The picture below shows two constructions very close to each other, there is no eaves fire protection. Needless to say how dangerous it is if one structure is set on fire. The legalization would imply to rebuild the non permitted structure with the required set back.

Below, a wall diving a garage from two dwelling units, one adjacent, the other below. It has no full height, it is not built as a fire barrier. Fire could spread so easily...

This is a modern house, from the last years. The construction between the garage and the house proves to be illegal, the space is enclosed and not enough illumination and ventilation for a habitable space is provided.

What to do in case of an inspector's visit, a notice from the City, a Code enforcement? 
First of all, make an appointment with the inspector. Find out what he/she is requesting. The inspector will leave a written note with a due date to submit plans or demolish. 
Secondly, if you do not have the intention of demolishing, then hire a professional to proceed with the legalization and pay for an extension, to allow time to prepare the plans and calculations.
Ask the professional about the possibilities of saving the structures. As you can see in some examples above, not always they can be totally saved. And sometimes this is more expensive to repair, remodel, fix than building brand new.
Third step, keep contact with the inspector in charge and communicate the updates of the process. It may happen the inspector is not aware of the current status of the plan check.
If there is people living under illegal structures, they must have a period of time to leave, because it is considered unsafe. Talk to the inspector for reasonable due dates.
At the end of the construction works and having the inspections approved in full, request the Certificate of Occupancy, commonly called "the final".

NOTE: the pictures belong to my personal archives. The structures have been (partially) demolished and repaired. 
This post is meant to help homeowners and tenants who are not aware of the issues explained above. If you have a question, we are here to help.

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