Second Unit Gets Easier To Build

California homeowners should find it easier and cheaper to build a second unit on their property, or turn an illegal unit into a legal one, thanks to two laws that take effect Jan. 1.

The laws, along with a third that took effect in September, will ease or eliminate the off-street parking requirements and often-enormous utility-hookup fees that homeowners face when they create a second dwelling, often called an in-law or granny unit.

One set of rules will apply if the second unit is created within an existing space — such as a bedroom, basement, attic or garage. Another set will apply if the new unit, whether attached or detached, adds square footage outside or on top of existing structures.

Homeowners will still have to comply with local building codes, find a contractor and arrange financing.

The laws that take effect Jan. 1 — AB2299 and SB1069 — amend the state law governing second units and rename them “accessory dwelling units.”

About two-thirds of California’s cities and counties have their own second-unit ordinances, but the state law is more permissive than most of them. Jurisdictions that have not adopted or amended a local ordinance that complies with the new state law by Jan. 1 will have to follow the state law until they approve a compliant one.

Under the new law, second units are allowed on any lot with a single-family home, but local ordinances can say where they will or won’t be permitted based on factors such as water and sewer services, traffic flow and public safety.

The amended law will allow accessory units up to 1,200 square feet, but allows jurisdictions to impose lower limits and establish standards governing height, setback, lot coverage, landscaping and architectural review.

The state law does not prevent homeowners from renting out the second unit to short-term guests or require them to live in one of the units. But local jurisdictions can require one of the structures to be owner-occupied and regulate rentals of less than 30 days, as San Francisco does.

When a homeowner submits a second-unit application that meets state and local requirements, the local jurisdiction must approve it within 120 days, without the need to notify neighbors.

Some cities are rushing to conform their ordinances by Jan. 1 or soon thereafter. But there are a lot of unanswered questions. “It’s a confusing set of regulations, that, in the opinion of this planner, has a lot of gray zones,” said Neal Toft, Larkspur’s planning and building director.

The California Department of Housing and Community Development plans to issue guidance on the law in a week or two. “We are in a housing crisis,” said Paul McDougall, the department’s housing policy manager. “Local governments should embrace this as a way to create” accessory dwelling units.

For most homeowners, the bill will remove a big impediment to second-unit creation: the need to create off-street parking.

For units created within an existing space, cities and counties cannot require any additional parking.

The law also will let homeowners create a second unit within existing space, such as a garage, that sits within a setback area.

The other big bonus is the reduction or elimination of certain fees. Today, some water and sewer districts levy the same hookup fees on tiny second units that they charge on a full-fledged home. These fees can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars.

In the future, on second units built within existing space, utilities cannot require the homeowner to install a new or separate utility connection, nor can they impose a connection fee or capacity charge.

For units outside existing space, they can require a new or separate connection, and can charge a connection fee or capacity charge, but it must be “proportionate to the burden” of the second unit based on its size or number of plumbing fixtures.

A third law, AB2406, which took effect when Gov. Jerry Brown signed it in September, gives cities the option of allowing homeowners to create a “junior accessory dwelling unit.” This is a unit created within an existing bedroom that has an efficiency kitchen (no gas or appliances requiring 220 volts) and an interior connection to the main house. This can be two doors with separate locks, like adjoining hotel rooms.

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