Coastal home remodel: Industry experts say home remodels are more expensive and involved than before


Do consider a home remodel if you’re in La Jolla or elsewhere in the coastal zone. But don’t think it’s going to be quick, easy or inexpensive.

That’s the advice offered by those whose business is handling the permitting, regulation and construction of home remodels. Industry professionals agree on one thing: Home remodeling is becoming an increasingly more involved - and expensive - process.

“It’s definitely time consuming, a large surprise for the client,” pointed out Scott Murfey, vice president of GDC Construction, a fourth-generation general contractor serving La Jolla. “Some clients may want to try to tackle some of the remodeling themselves.”

“The difference between today and five or six years ago, is you used to get away with just hiring an architect and a structural engineer, and you could pretty much do any remodel or teardown you wanted,” noted Tim Golba, an architect who is president of La Jolla Community Planning Association, a local advisory group that makes recommendations to the city on discretionary permits, including home remodels. “Today, you still need those two. But there are so many (other) issues with height limits, soil reports, etc.”

The first thing a home remodeler needs to do, according to Golba, is hire a civil engineer to do a survey of their property to reveal existing conditions. Depending on those conditions, more discretionary permits could be needed, which may necessitate retaining more experts to ensure proper procedures are followed.

There are permitting requirements in the coastal zone in La Jolla that will come as a real shock to many. “Virtually 70 percent of San Diego is in a flight hazard zone, so you may have to get a permit from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA),” noted Golba. “If the house is more than 45 years old, you need to do a historical analysis for the project. There are all kinds of issues, so much bureaucracy-laden review anymore.”

And permitting costs. When you tally up all the costs of all the permit reviews that may be required, costs for permitting for a major remodel could run into six figures, depending on the size and complexity of the project.

Glenn Gargas, a development project manager for the city of San Diego who has been advising La Jollans on how to redevelop their property for 19 years, said the best place to start for someone inquiring about permitting for remodels is to visit the Web site services, and download Form DS-302 to get a parcel information checklist.

“You can put the parcel number or address on it, and get the different overlay zones for that property which will let you know everything (permit-wise) their property is subject to,” Gargas said. “It lets them know if they’re in a beach impact, coastal bluff or sensitive vegetation area. Everybody, before they start designing their project, should know that information.”

The permit parcel overlay zones, said Gargas, will also reveal what hazards the property might be subject to. For example, much of Mount Soledad in La Jolla is within a geological earthquake fault zone. “If your property is in such a zone and you want to do a major remodel,” said Gargas, “you will need to provide us (city) with a geotechnical report, as well as hire an architect who is knowledgeable on how they’re going to put that foundations system in. People get upset when they get involved in the process. But, ultimately, it’s to protect their investment.”

How long it takes to do is not the most important issue with home remodels, cautioned Pancho Dewhurst of GDC Construction. Doing the job right, taking the proper steps in the right order, should be the homeowner’s overriding objective. Dewhurst talked about the most common mistake people make with remodels. “They try to put the cart before the horse, jump into it a little too fast,” he said. “You need a good design to do a major remodel. You need a good architect. You need to get proper bids. Do it right. There’s a lot of bureaucracy with the city. It just takes a little time.”

“Have a real good idea of what you want before you start,” advised Murfey of GDC Construction. “Get magazines and photographs, put a file together of clippings showing what style bathrooms, kitchens, floors, paint colors and lighting fixtures you want. You have to look at it like you’re your own designer. The toughest thing about a remodel for the contractor is not necessarily the plans. It’s trying to meet their (client’s) expectations. Sometimes, that’s hard to do when what they want done is not easily comprehended by all parties.”

City development manager Gargas said, when planning a remodel, it’s wise for homeowners to mend fences with their neighbors by approaching them directly, telling them exactly what they’re proposing to do and getting their input. He said being diplomatic with neighbors early on can avoid misunderstandings, which could lead to costly appeals and even litigation later.

“If you are subject to discretionary review, a coast development or site development permit,” Gargas said, “something that requires a public hearing to be approved, then you need to know it’s compatible with the neighbor. You see all kinds of issues raised between neighbors, whether it’s a private view, or something the permit really doesn’t govern.”

Gargas noted the city’s permitting purview does not include private views or CC&R’s, covenants, conditions and restrictions. “Those conditions recorded on the property when the subdivision was developed, the city is not a party to that,” noted Gargas.

It also helps to hire building industry professionals who specialize in certain areas, like historical homes. Said Gargas: “If the home has some historical value, I highly recommend hiring someone who has knowledge in dealing with historic homes. A lot of La Jollans don’t want their homes designated historical. But if the home is designatible in the future, the homeowner needs to ensure that what they’re doing to the home is in keeping with its architectural integrity, maintaining its historical value.”

Architect and community planner Golba pointed out each layer of permit review required of a remodeling project adds both to the project’s bottom line and the time spent bringing it to fruition.

“Eight or 10 years ago, we (architects) spent 90 percent of our time on design, and 10 percent on permitting,” Golba said. “Now in the coastal zone, I’d say it’s close to 60 percent on design, 40 percent just to obtain the permits. It’s almost an art form.”

For more information about home remodels, visit the city’s Development Services Department, 1222 First Ave., 2nd Floor, in downtown San Diego. To download a parcel information checklist go to services, click on form DS-302.