A Guide to Renovating Homes in Los Angeles, California

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What you need to know, from hillsides and permits to seismic retrofitting

kitchen island(Above) Renovation in Los Angeles by Sweeten contractor Netanel

Renovating in L.A. has a few unique twists—how do you remodel on a hillside lot while making your home earthquake-proof? What about embracing the city’s green ethos that could help the planet while shrinking your monthly electric and water budget? And how does all this play into the cost of your project?

With a little bit of research, preparation, and the right team around you, an L.A. renovation can be a satisfying, creative endeavor that yields sizable dividends on your investment. Not to mention that you get to live in a dream home that you helped shape.

To get you started, Sweeten, a free service matching renovators with vetted general contractors, outlines key elements to know for renovating in L.A.:

What to know about renovating on a hillside

With the more-leveled lots having been snapped up long ago, the majority of new homes being built in L.A. are going up on sloped lots and hillsides, according to Curbed L.A.. Some of the most desirable neighborhoods—who doesn’t want a view?— can be found on hillsides.

  • Call in a structural engineer: Your first step with a hillside renovation is to call in a structural engineer to assess the condition of your lot, according to Sweeten architect Jordan. “A good structural engineer will do a site visit and let you know how complex it will be so you can decide whether to kill the project or continue,” he said. A Sweeten contractor working on your project can recommend an engineer.
  • Consider your timeline: It will take a bit of extra care, preparation and time if you’re planning new construction or a significant renovation on a hillside. “Building on a hillside is in a way different ballpark,” said Sweeten contractor  Netanel, adding that access to the site for construction crews can add up.
  • Special requirements: Hillside projects require a structurally engineered retaining wall that is made from concrete, said Sweeten contractors Anna and Vahik. These types of projects can also need stormwater drainage plans, sewage disposal, water supply as well as access for fire safety elements, which all increase the budget.
    • Fire safety: One project—a 6,000-square-foot hillside property—that Anna is working on was 300 feet from the nearest fire hydrant. The estimate to install a public fire hydrant near their driveway came to $30,000. The homeowners opted for a commercial sprinkler system throughout the home instead.
    • Drainage can be another issue. “It is becoming a common requirement to keep your water on your property,” said Sweeten contractor Brett. Water, such as rainwater, running down a hill from property to property can destabilize the ground, potentially causing a landslide. This can sometimes be solved by burying rocks and gravel underneath a lawn or garden, allowing excess water to funnel through the ground rather than run off the property.

When do you need soil testing for your remodel?

One of the first items many renovation projects in L.A. require is a soil report. If you’re adding a new room, a second story, or a retaining wall or if you are on a hillside, you will most certainly need this. “The soil or geotechnical report gives an understanding of earth conditions affecting a building,” explained Sweeten contractors Anna and Vahik.

Those performing the soil report are looking for how firm the soil is or if there is bedrock, especially when building on a hillside. “Sometimes you have to go down five feet to get down to bedrock. Sometimes it is 50 feet,” said Sweeten architect Jordan. The results will determine how much work is needed to “get out of the ground,” meaning what is needed to support a secure foundation, he said.

Getting the report results can take a month or two. The good news? “I have never had a project not go ahead because of a soil report,” said Brett.

What’s involved in a seismic retrofit?

There’s a reason why L.A. requires due diligence when it comes to hillside renovations and soil reports: earthquakes. It’s also why a seismic retrofit is a good idea for older apartment buildings. Seismic retrofits are mandated for apartment buildings built before 1978 with wood frames that have parking or a similar open space as a ground floor.

This is not the case for single-family homes. “It is very strongly recommended but it is not mandatory,” said Brett, adding that taking the initiative can add value to your home. A seismic retrofit of a single-family home essentially adds extra bracing around the crawl space, which is the shallow area under the ground floor that provides room for pipes and electrical wiring. “This ensures you have a strong mechanical connection between the framing of the house and the foundation” in an earthquake, said Jordan.

Sweeten has found that the cost of a retrofit for a 2,000-square-foot house will likely come in between $10,000 and $15,000. Whether there is any damage or rot to the existing framing as well as the cost of materials and labor will impact that figure, according to Sweeten.

Title 24 requirements when renovating

The building code Title 24 is the result of California’s leadership in sustainability. It is a set of standards some projects must meet for “energy conservation, green design, construction and maintenance, fire and life safety, and accessibility.”

Title 24 requirements are triggered when your remodel meets a certain scope, such as the building envelope changes like replacing windows, adding a door, or a new room. Renovations that alter the heating, cooling, and water systems can also prompt Title 24 requirements. An internal project, such as a minimal bathroom or kitchen renovation, might avoid those requirements, but “Title 24 is going to pop up on a lot of projects,” said Jordan.

There are two different methods for meeting Title 24 requirements:

  • The prescriptive method involves criteria such as insulation in the home, efficient heating and air conditioning, and limiting the number of windowed areas in the home compared to floor area.
  • The performance method involves trade-offs. For example, the windowed area in the home can increase as long as insulation or efficient heating and cooling mechanisms do, too.

It’s no secret that California’s Title 24 is complicated and ever-changing, but an experienced building professional will help guide you through the requirements. For more details about Title 24 and renovating, see this guide. At the end of the day, it is both good for the environment and your wallet when it comes to your electrical bill.

Remodeling permits in Los Angeles

Permits and local red tape can be a major hold-up for people looking to renovate, which is especially the case in Los Angeles. In Sweeten’s 2019 Renovation Stress Survey, Angelenos outranked all other U.S. markets as the most worried about getting local permits for their remodeling project. Though permits will ultimately be handled by your architect or general contractor, it’s helpful to know how long it will take and what the cost could be.

Because of reporting requirements for Title 24, changing even a faucet or a light fixture might mean the need for a permit, according to general contractor Brett. Thankfully, the City of Los Angeles has made a big effort to speed up this process in recent years, especially when it comes to those smaller projects.

There are 88 different cities that makeup L.A. County and each has its own permitting process and fee structure.

When you need a permit

  • For example, in the City of Pasadena, only new structures, room additions, and larger remodeling jobs require plans to be submitted for a permit. Projects, like upgrading electrical or replacing a water heater, do not necessitate a plan, but they will require a permit.
  • Like other L.A. cities, the cost for permits is linked to the cost of the project. In Pasadena, a permit for a $25,000 job without the need for plumbing or electrical or mechanical work will cost at least $480. A $100,000 project will cost $1,312.
  • Permits for larger projects—structural or mechanical changes or hillside renovations—could take up to a month, said Sweeten contractor Netanel. These larger renovations typically require architectural plans as well as a soil report.

When permits can be quick

  • For the City of Los Angeles, if your renovation project avoids structural changes such as a bathroom or kitchen remodel that keeps the original layout, then you can obtain an express permit.
  • Approval can be as quick as one day, according to contractors Anna and Vahik, or even instantly, if your project enables you to apply online.

Cost of permits are calculated by the value of the project and to take the guesswork out of it, L.A.’s Department of Building and Safety has a fee calculator. For a $20,000 renovation that doesn’t require plumbing or electrical or mechanical work, for instance, the permitting fee estimate is just under $700.

Renovations in condos

Not only must you deal with red tape from the city, but your condo’s homeowner’s association (HOA) will also want to have its say. While every building is different, typically condo HOAs will restrict what you can do to the outside appearance of your condo and be less interested in what you do to the interior, according to Brett.

Condo renovations can cost slightly more and take a little longer. That’s because construction work is usually restricted to an eight-hour window on weekdays. (That includes the time needed to clean up any common areas each day. ) There are also the HOA rules, from where your building team will park their vehicles to how and when the construction crews might access the condo, and how they can lug away trash.

Condos will likely call for higher levels of insurance. “One million is a little low for condo work,” said Brett, whose company carries $2 million for general liability and workers compensation. “The HOA might even ask to be additionally insured,” he said.

While it is likely the condo manager will act as a bridge between your project and your condo’s HOA, it’s always good to give your neighbors a heads up that you will be doing some work. “Noise is a big issue,” said Brett. For an example of how to approach your neighbors, click here.

Have a good understanding of the important elements in a renovation in Los Angeles County and be one step closer to transforming the home you’ve always wanted.

Here’s how much it costs to renovate in Los Angeles.

Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, and scope, helping until project completion. Follow the blog, Sweeten Stories, for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation on Sweeten.



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