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You got a permit for that addition, right?

Times Staff Writer

It’s a crime that literally is in the closet. Or, if not the closet, in the converted garage or the room addition.

While most homeowners play by the book, there are many who, either through ignorance or negligence, alter their homes without securing the proper permits.

They not only could have a harder time selling, they also risk being fined and having to demolish the unapproved work. And, though it’s unlikely, they could even go to jail.

It’s a common problem, said real estate author Robert Irwin -- one that often surfaces during a sale. “Sellers will say, ‘Everything is up to code, but I just didn’t want the hassles of the inspections, and I didn’t want to pay the fees. If you want a permit, just go to the city.’ ”

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It’s not that easy.

Room additions are inspected at various points during construction, Irwin said, to make sure that they are within the proper boundaries, that the foundation is deep enough and the concrete is strong enough. Framing, electrical, plumbing, heating and cooling systems also must be approved before the work is completed.

Building without the proper permits, he said, begs trouble.

The Building and Safety Department for the city of L.A. issued nearly 29,000 addition and alteration permits for single-family-homes and duplexes in the fiscal year that ended June 30. There is no way of knowing how many homeowners skipped that part of the process.

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“We don’t have the staff to go out and survey for illegal additions, but we know there are thousands of them out there because we get complaints about them all year long,” said David Keim, chief of code enforcement for the department. “People think they are saving money without getting a permit. It usually costs them more in the long run to legalize them.”

The city sometimes learns of illegal construction when the owner tries to sell or refinance the property and the lender declines to close the deal because an appraiser found work that was done without a permit. The present owner is responsible no matter when the work was done.

In the city of Los Angeles, violations are punishable by a maximum fine of $1,000 or six months in jail, although Keim knows of no one in his jurisdiction who has been jailed. Most homeowners are cooperative, he said, and try to remedy the situation.

But that isn’t always easy. In Newport Beach, for example, a typical violation is an attic that has been illegally converted into a bedroom. To make sure such a conversion is up to code, inspectors would have to make holes in the wall to inspect the electrical systems and verify the support and the framing, said Jay Elbettar, that city’s Building Department director. If there is a bathroom, the plumbing must be approved.

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When violations are found, Newport Beach homeowners are given a chance to correct them. Those who refuse to comply face fines of $100 the first day after the deadline, $200 the second day and $500 the third day, Elbettar said. If the fines fail to persuade the owner, the city also can cut off the electricity and gas at the property to prevent a safety hazard.

Work done without a permit also is discovered when real estate agents compare listings or walk-throughs with public records.

“It’s always best to disclose as much as you can,” said Hugo Flores, an agent with Realteam Real Estate Center in San Bernardino. “When the appraisal is done, more than likely if there is an extra bedroom or a converted garage, the appraiser is going to know and he is going to let the lender know.”

Garages, he said, are often turned into playrooms, personal gyms, home offices and rental apartments to help owners make the mortgage payment or aid elderly parents and other family members. These units also appeal to tenants who want to live in an area that is generally beyond their means or those who either can’t find or afford anything else.

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Because of the high cost of housing, garage conversions are popular but they’re illegal 90% of the time in the city of Los Angeles, Keim said.

However, some homeowners get the proper permits and build another garage on the property to satisfy the requirement for off-street parking for two vehicles in the form of a garage or carport.

In Santa Monica, homeowners must maintain the parking required when the house was built. The oldest homes require none, and some require only one space, said Tim McCormick, the city’s building officer.

Garages are often converted into family rooms, he said. If illegal, the owners must change them back, or they could face fines ranging from $100 a day to a very steep $25,000 a day.

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“It is extremely rare that we actually need to impose the penalties,” McCormick said. “We get voluntary compliance simply with the knowledge that fines can be imposed. It does help with those people who need a little more inspiration.”

Bootleg garage apartments can be deathtraps, he said, and are taken very seriously. “They usually don’t have proper access in and out of the space. And, they don’t have the proper heating. A renter will plug in a heater and it causes a fire. A water heater improperly installed could explode.”

Because garage apartments can change the quality of life on a street by bringing more people, noise, cars and trash, neighbors often report them, code enforcement officers say. Names need not be given.

Still, thousands of violations are missed unless a property is about to change hands.

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In those instances, a buyer should tell the seller, “Yes, I’ll buy it if you go get a permit for it,” said real estate author Irwin.

If the seller can’t or won’t, “it can become a negotiating point on the price because suddenly the advantage of having that extra room becomes a disadvantage.”

According to Irwin, a buyer can also insist that the seller tear down the illegal addition, return the garage to its original purpose or buy it as is “and then hope when you sell, you find a buyer as gullible as you are.”

There are also owners who are willing to take that chance.

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“In the area I specialize in, Topanga, I would probably say that 90% of the homes have something that was done without permits. It could be anything from a deck to a three-bedroom addition to the house,” said Karen Dannenbaum, manager of Coast & Canyon Realtors. “This went on more in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Today, people are more likely to get permits.

“They’re more likely to get caught these days,” she said, especially if an annoying tenant is renting a converted garage.

A Dumpster in front of the house that is filled with construction material is also sometimes a giveaway.

“If Building and Safety happen to be driving by going to another location,” she said, “that’s kind of a red flag.”

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gayle.pollard-terry@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Complaints about illegal remodels

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Inspectors routinely find out about illegal room additions or remodels through reports from neighbors. Complaints generally can be made to local building departments in person, by phone or online.

* For the city of Los Angeles: Call (888) LA4-BUILD and press “2"; or go to www.ladbs.org, click on “Report a Property Violation,” then click on “next” to get to the code enforcement complaint form. Five district Building and Safety offices also take complaints.

* For Santa Monica: Call (310) 458-4984 and press “0"; or go to santa-monica.org/planning, click on “Building and Safety, Code Enforcement Forms” and “Submit a Report Online.” A report may also be made in person at City Hall, Room 111.

* For Newport Beach: Call (949) 644-3275 and press “0.” Complaints also can be made in person at City Hall, Building C, second floor.

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* For the city of San Bernardino: Call (909) 384-5205; or go to www.sbcity.org, click on “Departments, Code Enforcement” and then “Code Complaint,” or visit 201-B North E. St., Suite 201.

* For Topanga: Call (818) 880-4150 or visit the Los Angeles County Building and Safety Office in Calabasas.

* For other areas overseen by Los Angeles County, visit any of the 11 district Building and Safety offices, or dial 211, press “1,” then press “4.”

GAYLE POLLARD-TERRY

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