BUSTED! A True Story
While researching my new book on in-law units, I heard many stories of units that had been or were illegal, hence my book’s title, In-laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats. No doubt you’ve heard of similar situations-or perhaps have run afoul of zoning codes at some point during your building career. If so, please share your comments below.
Many homeowners create second units that, though compliant with current building codes, are outlaws (illegal units) because a permit was never issued for construction. Stiff permit fees and red tape are the reasons most often given for not getting a permit from city hall. But I think a case can also be made that our patchwork of zoning codes-many of them enacted in the 1950s or 60s-are badly outdated.
In many cases, homeowners skirt permitting because of a family crisis: An aged parent falls and breaks a hip, a breadwinner loses a job, an adult child moves home because they’re just not cutting it on their own. In such emergencies, even if one is inclined to obey zoning rules, the need to act immediately may be more compelling. Waiting a year while applications work through a bureaucracy just isn’t an option.
Whatever the reasons for not getting a unit permitted, however, owning an outlaw may cost you-financially and psychologically. Consider this example in In-laws:
“I didn’t get a permit because we milled the trees on our property and I didn’t want to pay $2500 so some “expert” could tell me that it was good wood. We had just finished the cabin and installed the kitchen stove when a guy with a hardhat and a clipboard comes walking down the drive. I knew right away what it was about. He stood next to the cabin and said, ‘Do you have an illegal building on this property?’ And I said, ‘You’re looking at it.’
“So I had to go through the rigamarole of permitting after all. Because the cabin was built to code, the county didn’t fine me much but the permitting fees were expensive. In the end, setting things right cost about $10K. So it cost about $30K to build the cabin and about a third more to get it permitted. I wasn’t happy about losing that money. On the other hand, I’m home free now. I’ve got nothing to hide.
“If I want to rent this place, I just put an ad in the paper. If there’s a political dispute in town, I can stand up and speak my mind. Cutting corners and not getting permits is very common around here-a deck here, a little shed there, a room that was storage but now is a bedroom-but not getting a permit makes you feel vulnerable. If your neighbor gets really miffed about your dog barking, they could turn you in.
“Incidentally, it was not a neighbor who called the county-my neighbors are all friends and, besides, I discussed the cabin with them before I built it-but someone in town who had a beef with me. But initially I didn’t know who had turned me in and that climate of suspicion can really be corrosive. In time, though, I got over it and moved on. So in hindsight, it was a valuable lesson.”
Please share your experiences and we’ll get a discussion going.
Create Your Own In-Law!
If you’re interested in second units, please check out my recent book, Outlaws and Granny Flats: Your Guide to Turning One House into Two Homes. The Library Journal named it one of the 10 Best Design Books for 2011. You can also preview In-laws, Outlaws‘ lush professional photos at www.cozydigz.com
If you will be renovating your home (or perhaps creating an in-law suite), there’s no better companion than Renovation 4th Edition, (November, 2012). Its 614 pages, 1,000 photos and 250 detailed illustrations cover home renovation from start to finish and contain lifetimes of practical, field-tested techniques that professional builders shared with me over a 40-year period.
© Michael Litchfield 2012