Homeowners Guide to Remodel / Addition Projects

At some point, nearly every homeowner will consider improvement projects. Most of these are relatively minor: painting, landscaping, updating finish materials, etc. At some point, however, a project crosses the line into one that requires a building permit and/or other type of approval from a city, county or other jurisdiction. That's the point where homeowners and contractors can benefit from the help of someone with experience in dealing with those matters. It helps to ask and answer a few questions:

  1. What is the project? This is harder than it sounds, and is usually partly dependent on the next question...
  2. What's my budget? For many basic DIY projects, this is not to hard to determine. You make a list of items needed, then go to the retailers (now much easier online), see what things cost and add it up. It gets harder with the next question...
  3. Do I need design help? If so, that's another item for the budget. Depending on the nature of the project, appropriate people to talk to may include various stripes of contractors, designers, engineering consultants, retailers, manufacturers and others. The good news is that most of these people will give you some free time and opinions at the beginning of a project. For them, it's called marketing, so be aware that at least part of what you hear will probably be a sales pitch.  
  4. Do I need a permit? Many property owners head over to the city/county planning department to ask this question. Without sufficient knowledge of the laws/codes/regulation/policies and lingo, however, you may leave a meeting more confused than before. If that happens, you probably need to hire someone with experience in these areas. A related question...
  5. Who's in charge? The location of a property can have a big impact on permitting requirements and costs. Also, be aware that a typical building permit involves reviews by a number of different departments, agencies and jurisdictions (sometimes overlapping and contradictory, which can create a whole new category of problems). 

Where do I start? 

Thanks to the internet, you can find out a lot about your property without going anywhere. For most residents, the best place to start is the Santa Cruz County Planning Dept. website. From the main page, starting in the "Quick Links" list on the left:
  • "Application / Permit History Lookup". This may be important for new owners who aren't sure whether all improvements were done with permits.
  • "County Code". This is where you'll find local rules, standards and regulations. Searching and interpreting the Code can be daunting, however, unless you're familiar with how these things are done. Better to start with the "Site Development Standards" links (see below)
  • "Fees". Useful for preliminary budget planning. Note, however, that Planning Dept. fees are often only a small part of total project fees. 
  • "Flood Information". For properties in low-lying areas near the ocean and along waterways.
  • "GIS". The County has a good "Geographical Information System" that can zoom in on a particular parcel and provide a lot of useful information. Be sure to download the "Zoning Information Report"
  • "Parcel Information Report". Especially helpful in providing property "characteristics" information that used to require a trip to the Assessor's office.
  • "Site Development Standards" provides shortcuts to portions of the "Zoning" chapter of the County Code.
  • "What's My Parcel Number" let's you look up that important information, using a street address. This may be the first information stop for many. 
  • "What's My Zoning". This information can also be accessed through "GIS" and "Parcel Information Report".
  • "Links" connects you to other agencies that may have jurisdiction over some aspect of your project (especially the Fire Dept, for those living in more rural areas).