A few weeks ago at an open house I was working, someone asked me if the bonus room downstairs was done with a permit. The sellers had converted some storage space into a little room that they watched TV in and it was actually really nicely finished although there were no windows in that room.

“No, it sure wasn’t” I said. “It’s not in the square footage in the county record either.”

She got this very worried look on her face and asked “Well, can’t the city come and force us to remove that room? It’s illegal, right?”

This conversation has happened alot in my experience and I find it to be sort of amusing. This person appears to have some fantasy that a SWAT team is going to show up out front after they buy the place, burst into the house with guns drawn and force that offending room to be returned to it’s original design! Umm…if that happens I sure have never seen it.

In Daly City and Pacifica for example, there are hundreds of houses who’s design has living space above the garage and that garage space has square footage equal to the upstairs living space. Preposterously large space down there at that! Over the course of the last 50 plus years up there, I’ll bet two thirds of those homes have added living space into that cavernous garage space down there and still keep room for a car! In my experience, a large number of those additions were done without permits. The bottom line is the unwarranted space is disclosed…and nobody cares. They actually want that living space anyway.

Having said all this, we now come to the square footage topic. I can’t tell you how many houses I’ve seen where the public record has the actual square footage of a house listed incorrectly. This happens all the time. A seller, or maybe a seller in 1968, adds a room or two to the house…with permits, yet somehow the new square footage never made into the county’s database. A 2200 sq ft house still shows on county records (and thus on Zillow…etc) as 1550 sq ft.

There’s plenty of things that need permits and I sure do want to know that they are in place. Second story additions come to mind. Anything that’s structural for that matter. Honestly though, sun room additions, bonus rooms carved out of old storage areas that folks use as a guest bedroom, and even some garage conversions don’t really bug me that much. Often these rooms actually add some real value to a house…whether they have the city’s official stamp of approval or not.


  1. Buyers have such cold feet these days that I’ve had that scenario kill the deal twice this year.

  2. I know people in SF that converted their garages into full in-law apartments with no permits and are now renting them out. I wonder what implications that has since they had to put in plumbing and gas for the kitchen… What happens if they have issues with the tenants and have to go to authorities…

  3. Jim Minkey says:

    As I understand it…many neighborhoods are zones single family only and not multi residential. If someone creates a second living unit inside a single family house and rents to tenants the neighbors could complain…especially if there ends up being a parking issue due to the tenants presence. If the problem got big enough the city could step in and issue a citation. In your friends situation it would be a bigger issue upon selling the place…having the unpermitted gas, plumbing and living space. Some buyers might not care at all though…
    If they had an issue with the tenants and had to go to the authorites they might be issued a citation along with resolving the tenant related issue that caused the problem. The addition part isn’t as problematic as the “renting it out” part.

  4. Compelled to comment on this. As new homeowner, I would definitely ask the question. Typical homeowner is spending over close to million dollar in good neighborhood in bay are and sure they dont want to mess with city. So with bonus room, does the seller not charging a premium for the home. I would stay away from such houses that got built without building permits, especially for homes in foster city which are at a premium. I am glad, I didnt buy the home on rigel home back in 2006 ( concrete cracks on the foundation).

  5. Jim Minkey says:

    I would agree with you Guru, that it would not be a good idea to buy a house that was not built with a building permit. I would be very concerned about a house with a second story addition that was added without a permit. I would also be concerned with a house that had a expanded footprint, either adding a family room or expanding a master bedroom and that work was done without a permit. Those things would be a big problem for me. A seller who has converted the garage into a family room without a permit is not such a big problem for me…they’re very common. I’m sure that the city would frown on it…yet they are as common as can be. I also don’t get too frightened about homeowners that enclose porches or make a room out of previously used storage areas. Certainly I would have them inspected…but putting sheetrock up in a garage or storage area to make a nicer room to sit in is probably not going to cause too much of an issue.

  6. I agree with the common wisdom Jim. I try not to go with something just because they are very common. It comes back and bite very badly later.

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