Photo courtesy of Sweeten general contractor Cecille M.

Sky-high prices and tight supply in the housing market are causing many Los Angeles-area families to stay put rather than sell. Whether you want your kids to remain in the same school district or can’t bear the thought of losing your backyard citrus trees to a ground-floor addition, adding a second story to your existing home can alleviate all sorts of growing pains. 

Jean Brownhill is the founder and CEO of Sweeten, a free renovation platform that matches homeowners with licensed general contractors and tracks their projects. She’s also a trained architect with over 15 years of experience in residential and commercial design, construction, project management and systems. 

We asked Brownhill to answer five common questions about what it takes to raise the roof (spoiler: it’s not for the faint of heart) and the obstacles you’re likely to face as a renovating Los Angeles homeowner.

1. What are the benefits of adding a second story?

“Building a second story allows you to add square footage without taking away from your yard space,” says Brownhill. “It can mean the difference between being able to stay in a neighborhood you love versus having to move for a bigger place.” When deciding whether to remain in your home or put it on the market, do your due diligence. Find out how much it will cost to sell, factoring in agent commission, attorney fees, closing costs, moving expenses, etc., and then compare that to the cost of renovating and the potential value it could add to your property.

Photo: James Bombales

2. How much will it cost?

“Sweeten general contractors’ most recent estimates begin at $200 to $300 a square foot, with the high end at $700 per square foot,” explains Brownhill. “One of the key factors is the functionality of the addition; running plumbing as well as extending electrical lines can increase the cost and complexity of the renovation.”

If you’re looking to save money on your renovation, Brownhill suggests prioritizing your family’s needs above flashy finishes and custom-designed features. “You and your design team are creating a new space from scratch, so take advantage of that and incorporate standard and easy-to-find items, from windows to door frames to the size of the bathtub. By using materials with a wide range of options, you’ll find more opportunities to save.” Subway tile for the win!

3. What obstacles could my renovation potentially face?

Renovations hardly ever go entirely according to plan. Unexpected costs and timeline delays are par for the course, although there are steps you can take to mitigate those risks. One factor you have zero control over is the weather, so it’s important to schedule your renovation strategically. “Early spring is best, to have it completed before winter, when LA gets more rain,” notes Brownhill.

Structural issues are the biggest budget-busters of second story additions, according to Brownhill. “Having to reinforce the first-floor ceiling or walls, for example, or building a second story on a hillside lot, which will likely involve a soil engineer and report to assess if more foundational work is needed. A more controllable part of the budget is your vision of the space and what level of finishes you select, such as tile, fixtures and flooring.”

If you’re looking to add a bedroom and bathroom, you’ll need to secure more than just a building permit. “Your project will require electrical, plumbing and mechanical permits (if you have an HVAC system),” says Brownhill. “Other factors to consider are height restrictions, so as not to block your neighbor’s view, especially with hillside lots, and powerline clearance, typically, a residential structure needs to be at least 15 feet below overhead power lines.”

Photo by Ameer Basheer on Unsplash

4. Are there any LA-specific building codes and bylaws I should be aware of?

Brownhill points out that zoning is not typically an issue for most second story additions, however, there are a few city ordinances you should be mindful of. “In recent years, some LA counties have passed measures to guard against ‘mansionization,’ where the architectural style of new builds or remodels clashes with original homes in the area,” explains Brownhill. “One example is when the LA City Council reduced the floor area of new homes or proposed remodels to 45 percent of the lot size.”

If you live in a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ) — there are 35 such neighborhoods in Los Angeles, including Miracle Mile, Hancock Park and Angelino Heights — you must obtain approval from the HPOZ board in order to make any changes to the exterior of your home. 

Securing a building permit for a second story addition “varies by area,” says Brownhill, but “paying an expeditor is an option to speed things up.” Renovations in California must also be Title 24 compliant, meaning they must meet energy efficiency standards and environmental quality controls. 

5. How much value will a second story addition add to my home?

“To calculate how much you can recoup when you eventually sell your home, figure out what your second story renovation will cost per square foot, then compare it to the square-foot price of homes in your area that match the size and amenities your home will have once the planned renovation is completed,” recommends Brownhill.

Although ROI may be top of mind, you should also consider the value it represents to you and your family. Will your oldest daughter finally get a room of her own? Will it allow your aging parents to move in? These lifestyle perks may outweigh any potential increase in home value.

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