Legalizing Unwarranted Space

Legalizing Space

We often find “Illegal”, or non-legal rooms in San Francisco homes, typically in the the ground floor. I often get asked about the implications of this, and what the process is to legalize it. I will summarize as much as I can in a Q&A format.

Q: What does this mean?
A: This technically refers to habitable space that was added without permits. 

Q: When will this come up?
A: It will typically come up when a home is sold, or if building permits are applied for.

Q: How exactly is this determined?
A: If there are existing permits for construction or renovations, it can be easily determined by looking at the records. 

Q: What if there are no records?
A: The city will usually go off of what floor area is on record with the assessor/recorder’s office.

Q: How do you legalize it?
A: You must essentially legalize it all, proving that it meets every aspect of current code. Unfortunately, even in the rare instance that it meets current code, for inspectors to verify this, they need to see what is often beneath finishes, like electrical plumbing, insulation, waterproofing and fire protection. So even if the work was done to code, it will probably need to be ripped out and reconstructed with the required inspections along the way.

Q: What are some requirements and ramifications?

  1. Ceiling height: All living space needs to have 7’-6” ceilings, except for bathrooms, kitchens and hallways, which may have 7’ ceilings.
  2. Light & air: Living spaces will have to have access to minimum light and air requirements via windows meeting certain parameters.
  3. Escape & Rescue: Bedrooms will have to have an emergency escape/rescue opening meeting certain requirements.
  4. Egress: All spaces need a way out of the building. Path of travel distances may come into play.
  5. Sprinklering: If the entire floor was originally non-habitable, sprinklering may be required depending on the number of stories the building has.
  6. Structural: If the entire floor was originally non-habitable, converting a portion of it will trigger a partial seismic upgrade. This may drive adding foundation and sheer walls to other areas of the house.
  7. In-laws. If the unpermitted space even functioned as a rental, planning will require you to legalize it as a dwelling. They will often research this, and can require it even if no kitchens exist.

Hopefully this will give you a better understanding of “illegal” space. Of course it will need to be verified formally with the city. Architects like ourselves experienced with the city protocol will be able to make more specific recommendations, and take it through the legalization process.