Legalizing Bedrooms and Unwarranted Bonus Rooms in San Carlos.

December 4, 2012

What's the Process?

This is a topic that comes up quite often when you talk about homes in San Carlos.  In fact, a blog reader just posed that question to me last week, so I thought it would be a great topic to address on the site.    If you own an older home in San Carlos, or a split-level house that is built onto a hillside, chances are you've got some square footage in that house that isn't recognized by the City of San Carlos or the County of San Mateo — i.e., it's “unwarranted” or “unpermitted”.

These issue tend to occur with older homes because the typical post-WWII San Carlos home was pretty small by today's standards.  People who lived in them for many years would often increase the square footage of the house by adding a room or enclosing a patio area.   The cavernous, unfinished downstairs areas of hillside homes are particularly tempting candidates for these kinds of projects because of the sheer volume of space that can be converted into living area.  Sometimes these projects were done completely above board with permits…but quite often, they weren't.

The other situation that often occurs is that you have a perfectly legal room that you'd like to have converted to an “official” bedroom on the county records so that you can fully market the house with a higher bedroom count.

In either case, legalizing these rooms will very likely involve both the Planning Division and the Building Division of the City of San Carlos.  So if you take nothing else away from this post, you'll know who to contact within both Divisions when you're ready to get started.

“What” vs “How”.

Whether you're building a brand new house in San Carlos, or simply legalizing what's already there, the San Carlos Planning and Building Divisions will definitely be involved in the process.  A very simplistic way of differentiating their responsibilities is that the Planning Division is primarily responsible for approving what you're doing, while the Building Division oversees how you're doing it.   So when you're ready to proceed, your first step will be to speak with the Planning Division.

For jobs like we're discussing in this post, you should probably bring a simple sketch or some photos of the area into your first meeting with the Planning Division, according to Gavin Moynahan, Assistant City Planner with the City of San Carlos.   Many times they can get the Planning Division approval completed with a minimum of review, provided the area is within the envelope of an approved structure.   The review process is much more involved if the project is outside the “shell” of the existing approved structure.

Once Planning gives the project the thumbs-up, the Building Division then ensures what needs to be done to the structure for the room (or rooms) to be made legal.    According to Chris Valley, Building Official with the City of San Carlos, each one of these projects is usually unique and requires various code upgrades to be implemented.  But sometimes no code upgrades are required, depending on the past permit records of the residence.    He also noted that sometimes a site visit may be required by a Building Inspector to assist the property owner.  A property owner should contact the County of San Mateo Assessor’s Office, at 650-363-4500, to check the past permit history that the County may have on record.  The County Assessor’s records and Building Division permit history help with addressing unpermitted work.

If you're interested in more detail, here's a good handout from the city website that outlines some of the main steps required in approving existing unpermitted square footage:  Projects without Permits

Is It Worth Doing?

Generally speaking, both of these types of projects are worth their respective time and effort.   There are risks involved with purchasing or owning a home with unpermitted square footage.  As a buyer of such a home, you inherit all of those risks as the new owner, so make sure you understand what you're getting into before you buy it.   As an owner of a house with unpermitted living area, it can be a bit more difficult to sell your home and get top dollar if there's a cloud hanging over that house about discrepancies in the square footage.

For those looking to convert or legalize a room as a bedroom, the answer is generally the same.    A home with a higher bedroom count will obviously sell for more than a home with fewer bedrooms.   And despite how the home is marketed, it's important to know that ONLY the City of San Carlos can officially determine whether a room can be called a bedroom or not.

But this process is not without some risk.  As Chris pointed out, some code upgrades may be required to get your project approved and this may add significant cost to your project.   It's easy to see how a simple electrical upgrade can have a domino-effect all the way back to your service box, thereby adding complexity and cost to the project.  Same goes with plumbing and egress windows.

Who to Contact.

If you're interested in taking on such a project,  I highly recommend you contact either of the gentlemen who were kind enough to help me with this post:

Chris Valley:  Building Official, San Carlos Building Division:  (650) 802-4262, or

Gavin Moynahan:  Assistant Planner, San Carlos Planning Division:  (650) 802-4267 or
(you can also contact Jill Lewis 650-802-4361)

They're both extremely helpful, and I'm grateful for their assistance with my frequent questions.

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