Re: Low cost housing
From: Matthew Whiting (
Date: Thu, 15 May 2008 12:50:01 -0700 (PDT)
On Building Codes and Inspectors:

Although most of the posts in this thread are on zoning, building codes come
into play also.  As much as I want to gripe about enforced luxury, the
building codes can prove very useful for keeping costs down.  Here's a for
instance from my life not many years ago.

We decided to turn our basement into an accessory apt.  We live in an area
of the city zoned for them and I had a neighbor talk me into how great a
project it would be to tackle, home value increase, etc.  Having learned a
good deal while renovating our main floor, I decided to take the plunge and
do the accessory apt.  I'm also a do-it-yourself guy.  I designed the plans,
got them approved through our building dept and got the necessary permits,
(not that expensive as they were based on cost and my costs were estimated
rather low).  I should mention that I had never framed anything more than a
backyard fort as a kid, nor drawn up plans for anything else.  I did the
demo work, cut the egress windows in the concrete foundation, removed
plumbing, changed all the duct work, did all the electrical work (including
moving the subpanel for the upstairs), moved gas lines, did all the framing,
drywalling, taping, finish work, (hired out the plumbing), etc, etc.  It was
a lot of work that took about 16 months to finnally complete (I worked full
time and wasn't doing work on the house on Sundays).  I learned a ton as I
struggled with gaining skills that I didn't have or weren't very good to
start with.  I relied heavily on the building inspector and the plan
approvals to make sure I was doing things safely and "correctly".  I made
sure to have the inspector look over things I was worried about and ask
about the next steps.  They were invaluable to me in providing a sense of
security and freedom to do the work myself.  I paid about $1,800 to contract
out the parking pad I had to have added, the plumbing and the bit of
electrical work I wasn't confortable with (the main panel connections).
With that cost included I spent just over 15K on the project - that includes
a full bath, a much nicer kitchen then we have upstairs, one bedroom and a
living room.  I would consider that pretty low-cost for housing for two. I
also now have the skills I acquired doing so.

I also realize the importance of design in ease/difficulty of construction,
safety, and usablility and the role that building depts and inspectors play
in that.  I've been in plenty of apts that were not done legally through the
building dept.  I would NEVER buy a apartment like that.  I'm constantly
amazed that there aren't more housefires etc.  The inspector isn't going to
be able to help with everything, no one can see all the problems in so
complex a structure as even a simple accessory apt.  The drain lines for the
upstairs bathroom I plumbed with vent elbows.  Vent and drain elbows look
very similar in a pile of fittings, but vent pipes have sharp 90 degree
curves, drains are gentle.  The building inspector didn't notice and neither
did I till it was ready to drywall over it.  I let it go and didn't replumb
so now I have to clean hair out of our bathtub drain about every six months
even though we are diligent about trying not to let any down the drain.  A
small inconvienence, other problems could be much more serious.  When you do
the work yourself and are not a professional you will make mistakes, you
take extra risk.  If you can live with them its a great way to save money,
but make sure you have professionals inspect your work - including your
plans.  Some mistakes you can live with (i.e. cleaning hair out of the
drain); some can kill you, your family, etc.

Would I recommend others take on a similar project, or try do do lots of the
work themselves on a coho project, self-develop?  Yes and no.  I was
"allowed" to do my own electrical, etc without being a licensed electrican,
in a coho project I doubt I would be allowed that latitude by our building
dept - probably a good thing.  I'm comfortable with my skills, but is the
rest of the community comfortable with them?  That was a very hard 16 months
on my marriage, its stressful work, especially for an amatuer.  There's lots
to consider.  The main take-away is that I would never have felt comfortable
doing so much of the work myself, (and paid contractors to do it for me at a
large expense), without the security provided by the codes and inspections.
Yes it took more time, but I had time to give, not extra money on hand.

-Matt Whiting
Utah Valley Commons - forming

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