Building an Accessory Structure in San Diego

5 things you should know.

Space for your classic car, laundry room, man cave, or workshop; a detached accessory structure can serve so many purposes, but how to get it done? Here’s a breakdown for homeowners in the City of San Diego.

Meldrum Design_BuildingAccessoryStructure

1. Helpers: find a draftsperson or permit expeditor.

If you have any experience with the City of San Diego Development Services (“the City”), you know this won’t be quick or easy. You will need plans drawn up and help navigating the city. Find someone who has experience with both and you’re well on your way. If you can’t find a draftsperson or designer you like, find a permit expeditor and they should be able to refer you to someone to produce the plans.

2. Drawings & Design.

You need to build a set of plans. This should start with a feasibility study. Get your Helpers to help (duh). You’ll need to know your property lines and zone. This will tell you where and how high you can build and what you’re allowed to use the structure for. If you’re in a special neighborhood there may also be restrictions on what the structure can look like.

Then comes the fun part: design! Tell your Helpers exactly what you want in no uncertain terms. Give them images, furniture requirements, appliances you want included, whatever it takes for them to realize your vision. Once you submit for permit it’s very costly to change your mind.

Let your Helpers develop the plan set. For a detached garage this should include title information, site plan, floor plans, elevations, stormwater/BMP/drainage plan, electrical/mechanical plan, structural plans, and a ridiculous number of standard notes. Check out the City Submittal Manual for a complete list of possible drawings.

I’ve seen homeowners try to do these drawings themselves. Unless you have experience in drafting, construction, or permits, don’t even try. The City requires the plans be a certain size and scale with specific notes and details. They have very little patience for homemade plans and you will spend hours trying to convince them of your worthiness as a draftsperson. In the end you’ll probably leave the City office disheartened and angry.

3. If you REALLY want to help.

There are a few ways to take the load off your Helpers. The more information you give your Helpers the less time they spend (the more money you save).

            A. Gather any existing documents like floor plans or property surveys*.

            B. Find your APN (parcel) Number, Legal Description, and exact Owner Name. Call or visit the County Assessor’s office and give them your address. They’re used to these inquiries.

            C. If you don’t have a proper survey, find your Assessor’s Parcel Map. Visit the County Assessor’s website and click the “Parcel Search” link. Enter your APN, pay about $2, and you’re in business! This will give your Helpers a jumping point from which to draft your site plan*.

            D. If your existing building is 45 years or older, you need approval from the Historical Department. Among other documents, they require a Building Record. Visit the County Assessor’s Office to pickup your building record. If you’re the owner on the grant deed, you’ll just need your ID. If you’re an agent for the owner, you’ll need ID and a letter signed by the owner granting you access to the Building Record. Oh! And it costs about $2.

            E. Know exactly what you want. How many cars do you have? If you want to put your laundry out there, what kind of washer and dryer do you have? If you want a workshop, how many toolboxes do you have? You get the point…

3. Permit Submittal

Be mentally prepared. Submittals are complicated, time-consuming, and can be very frustrating. I highly recommend using your Helpers for this. They know the jargon and the people, the number of plans to print, and how to avoid getting lost in the system. The City can feel like a black hole of money and time, better for the inexperienced to stay away.

That being said, there are two ways to get a permit:

            A. Over-the-counter (OTC)- this is the quickest and cheapest route to a permit. Basically you visit all the necessary departments in one day (and it will probably take the entire day). Make an appointment or arrive when the City opens.

            You start with a screener who sets up the project in their system and ensures you have all the necessary forms and drawings. Then visit each department reviewer “on the counter.” Usually these departments include Zoning, Planning, Combined IAS, Structural, and Engineering. (If any of your buildings are 45 years or older, you’ll have to submit to Historic for an internal review.) Each reviewer will have corrections you need to make to the plans. Sometimes these can be sketched into the plans right on the spot. Sometimes you have to take the corrections home and come back with newly printed plans.

            B. Internal Review- If the City is backed up or it’s a complicated project, they make take your plans for internal review. In this case, you only see the screener. They set up your project in the system, make sure you have all necessary documents, and then you hand it all over. At this particular moment, construction is booming in San Diego and even the simplest internal review is taking 2-6 months. No joke. Relax and settle in, it’s going to be a long haul.

            Each department will review the plans and send back corrections. Sometimes they email, sometimes they just leave it at Plan Pickup for you to face your fate in person. Take your corrections, edit the plans, andresubmit.

4. Resubmittal/ Implementing Corrections

Once you’ve made corrections, you’re ready for your second review.

            A. If you were lucky enough to be reviewed OTC, revisit the departments who gave you corrections. Bring your correction list, show that you addressed each issue, and you should receive a beautiful approval stamp that day!

            B. If you had to submit for Internal Review, you need to set appointments with individual reviewers and/or resubmit to necessary departments. Your list of corrections should show the person to contact. If you’re thinking, “Wait, my project was reviewed by five departments, I have to make individual appointments/resubmittals with ALL of them??” Yes, you do. I told you this wasn’t going to be easy! I bet those Helpers are looking very dandy right about now…

            Once you have approval from all departments, you’ll go back to the Screeners for Issuance and construction can begin.

5. Cost

Most homeowners are astounded at the cost of a permit in City of San Diego. Here’s a basic breakdown:

            A. The Helpers- Remember those people who are guiding your process? They’re worth their weight in gold. Luckily, they don’t cost quite that much. Permit Expeditors can charge differently but they’re usually around $50/hour or $50 per department visited.

            Draftspeople can greatly range in price and pricing structure. A licensed architect is the easiest and most expensive option. Architects will usually handle the permit without you having to get involved.

You can also use a draftsperson with an education in architecture. There are lots of recent college graduates looking for drafting work. They’re cheaper than an architect but you’ll spend more time guiding the individual steps of the project. A pure draftsperson is usually the best bet. If you choose someone with permit experience, they can give you guidance through the process along with a set of plans ready for the City. Prices change based on the market. Call around to see which type of Helper is best for you.

            B. City Fees- You’re going to pay for the submittal AND for issuance. Representatives at the city explained: submittal fees are for the time reviewers spend checking your plans, issuance fees are for the inspectors who come out to your site for periodic inspections during construction. These fees are based on the size and use of your garage. For example, if you’re running a new water line to a huge pool house, fees will be higher than a small, basic garage. There are also additional fees that may be charged based on the use of the building. In any case, you should expect to spend at least $2000 on City Fees.

*Site plans are the foundation for your permit. I highly recommend have a survey done to establish your exact property lines. An Assessor’s Map is technically for tax purposes only and some of the maps have not been updated for decades. Without up-to-date documentation you risk placing your building on a neighbor’s parcel. Whoops!

Good Luck! Please comment if you have any questions.