ALTERED ESTATES : Homeowners Who Would Rather Fix Than Switch Are Creating a Boom in Remodeling--Legal and Otherwise

The San Fernando Valley's great land boom may be over, but its successor--the great remodeling boom--is in full swing.

That is the consensus of building supply salespeople, contractors and industry publications. And although the boom is not reflected in the number of building permits obtained for remodeling work, city officials agree that it exists.

So certain is the Los Angeles Building and Safety Department, in fact, that it has restructured its operations in an effort to uncover more of the rampant "bootleg" remodeling.

"In past we found this only through complaints, usually from neighbors," said Art Johnson, assistant chief of the department's newly created bureau of community safety. "But it only finds a small portion of what's out there."

The main reason for the increase in remodeling is clear to anyone who has shopped for a house lately. Costs are going through the roof. In the last three months, the price of a single-family home in the Valley has averaged $230,000, up from a 1987 average of $187,300, according to the San Fernando Valley Board of Realtors.

Fueling the upward spiral are a lack of open land for homes and a budding slow-growth movement led by activists who sometimes force reductions in the size of developments. In 1987, a year of huge demand, permits were taken out for 1,608 single-family homes in the Valley. The figure 10 years earlier was more than 2,100.

The shortage of houses has created a roadblock in the traditional path of growing families in the Valley.

Little to Buy

"People used to trade up," said Mel Bliss, a 40-year veteran of the Building and Safety Department. "It used to be you could sell and buy and sell and buy very easily, but now there isn't much to buy."

Homeowners cite additional reasons for choosing to remodel rather than move. Even though the two homes may be roughly comparable in value, under Proposition 13 the property tax on the new home would be much higher than on the old one.

Some owners may have mortgages at favorable interest rates and do not want to lose them.

As the Valley enters middle age, many people live in houses that increasingly show their years. Some like their homes and decide that by adding modern appliances and changing walls or windows, they can vastly improve the residence.

"The whole country is coming to the end of the post-World War II building boom," said Paul Spring, senior editor of Los Angeles-based Home magazine. "A lot of housing stock was built in the '50s and the '60s . . . and the roofing or flooring is wearing out.

"It's unbelievable the amount of traffic we've had, and it's all remodeling," said Sherry Yadley, general manager of showrooms for Familian Pipe & Supply Co., which has one of its 19 outlets in Van Nuys. "Our showroom has been packed. Mostly people are redoing bathrooms and kitchens, but some are adding bedrooms."

Yadley and others said there has been steady growth in Valley remodeling over the last 10 years. The growth, however, is not reflected in remodeling permits issued by Building and Safety.

The department has two types of permits--alteration and addition--for the remodeling of single-family homes. The former does not allow an increase in house size while the latter does.

Last year the Valley total for both types of permits was 7,617. By comparison, in 1977 the number was 8,048.

A great many people, it seems, are not taking out permits for the work.

Johnson, of the bureau of community safety, said there is no way to estimate the extent of illegal remodeling but that it is "very, very substantial." Building and Safety created the bureau of community safety last fall to reduce bootlegging by catching violators and by easing problems for remodelers who wish to do their work legally.

Inspectors formerly assigned to the department's four district offices, one of which is in Van Nuys, have been scattered into the bureau's 18 satellite offices. Plans call for the offices to increase in number to 24. The inspectors' main job is to look at work--both new construction and remodeling--for which permits have been obtained.

"The system was to just answer complaints," Johnson said. "If they saw a violation they took no action. Now they'll be out in the community more and looking for violations will become part of the inspectors' day."

Johnson said the new system cuts driving time for inspectors, who number 105 when the bureau is fully staffed. He added that a backlog of complaints awaiting investigation has thus far prevented inspectors from finding violations on their own, but the response time on complaints has been cut from 30 days to two or three.

He said the satellite offices aid the public by stocking remodeling plans and other literature and that inspectors are available in the late afternoon to answer a remodeler's questions by telephone. The department's restructuring calls for building permits to be issued from at least some of the satellite offices in the future.

"We hope the public doesn't see us as a big brother," Johnson said. "A lot of money goes into these remodels, and people should want them to be right. Illegal work can be extremely dangerous."

A building permit is required for work that costs the homeowner more than $200 or affects either the structure of the building or public safety. Those familiar with remodeling say homeowners and their builders will bootleg projects for several reasons, among them:

The prospect of increased property taxes. The county assessor's office routinely reviews building permits and can hike taxes if the home has been made more valuable.

The problems and expense of meeting building codes. For example, addition of a room may require costly foundation work that a homeowner wants to avoid, or a home's small size may make installation of a staircase possible only if the code is violated.

Fear that previous bootlegged work will be uncovered.

Ignorance of the law.

Deviousness on the part of a builder who lacks proper skills, or has had brushes with building inspectors in the past.

Dislike of the building department's red tape. Waits at the Van Nuys counter can last two hours during midday, office manager Bob Ayers says. He encourages people to come in the early morning.

Building permit fees, although they are not a major expense. The fee is $20 for a job estimated to cost the homeowner between $100 and $1,000. For jobs of $1,000 to $20,000, the fee is $14 plus 60 cents per $100 of the work's estimated cost.

In addition, jobs that require an examination of building plans by department engineers are subject to a plan check fee of 85% of the permit fee. Ayers said about 90% of remodeling jobs include a plan check. Also, all jobs require a "one-stop surcharge" of 2% of all fees. The surcharge finances a streamlining of the permit process that was instituted in 1984.

Thus an alteration estimated to cost $6,540 (the average last year, according to building department figures) and needing a plan check will require total fees of $90. At $17,910, last year's average addition required fees of $212. Additions also are subject to a fee to fund construction of schools of $1.53 a square foot of added space.

The risk of bootlegging a job, apart from the safety hazards of unapproved work, comes when an owner sells a house, Johnson said, although a change of ownership does not trigger an inspection by the building department. The department's only legally required involvement is issuance of a "report of residential property record," which lists any liens against the property and notes the home's number of rooms.

However, prospective buyers and loan companies may insist on a "proof of permit" check, where the department gives the buyer copies of all permits for changes to the house. Also, loan companies often require that a private building inspection service look at the house. Building and Safety will perform this task for $160, but Johnson said requests for the service are rare.

Any of these procedures can bring bootlegged work to the attention of buyers or loan companies, who may insist that the necessary permits be obtained. There is little chance, officials said, that such changes as new cabinets would be detected. But larger remodeling jobs may be. The bootlegged work then must stand inspection, which may require opening walls for access to plumbing and wiring, and any violations brought up to code.

"When the building's out into the required yard, you're in real -trouble," Johnson said. "You need a variance and it can take a great deal of time, and it's not cheap. Also, variances are not always given."

The department's only penalty for the nabbed bootlegger is a $75 inspection fee. Building and Safety officials said no records are kept on the number of illegal remodeling jobs uncovered during the sale of houses.

Although building department figures do not estimate bootlegging, they do reveal one trend. The ratio between additions and alterations, which used to run about 3 to 1, is approaching a balance. Last year Valley permits were taken out for 4,177 additions and 3,440 alterations. Ten years ago the numbers were 6,098 and 1,950.

"Our homes are built on a model that is no longer accurate," Spring, of Home magazine, said of the trend.

Working, single people may want washers and dryers moved into a bedroom closet, he said, while a working mother likes a kitchen that opens into the living room so that she can talk to family members while fixing meals.

"One notable thing about remodeling in the '80s is that people are improving homes substantially," Spring said. "In the '70s people became interested in the process, materials and procedures behind construction and began to demand a role in decision-making, whether they're working with an architect or contractor or whatever. Today we're seeing improvements that are more upscale and more intelligent."

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