We’re going to add a bedroom to our 3-bed/1-bath house in Palo Alto. I think this will be useful to others around here (Palo Alto, Mountain View, Menlo Park, etc.), so I’ll document the project. I’ll write every week and add photos of the project.

Ask Your Questions

Go ahead and ask questions. Use the form at the bottom.

The Goal: A Room for My Mom

A simple goal: we wanted to build a room so my 84-year old mom can live with us. She is paying rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Palo Alto. That’s $2,500 per month plus $XX in utilities and it goes up every  year, which is $XXX per year. By building a room in our house, she lives rent free.

Planning vs. Construction

One of the first things you’ll learn is to spend more time on planning than construction. Construction takes two months but we spent eight months in planning. We didn’t really understand all of the possibilities, implications, options, and limits of what we wanted, which means we really didn’t know what we wanted. In vague terms, yes, but in details? No. Sunroom or bedroom? Bedroom or master bedroom? Contractors?

Every time I asked a question, I got five more questions. It’s like when you’re in a restaurant and ask for water. Flat or bubbles? Bottle or tap? Imported or domestic? Glass or plastic? Ice or no ice? The best contractors didn’t just listen; they asked questions and explained options.

That also meant three of us (my mom, my wife, and myself) had to understand and agree. And not just an “okay, sounds good” agreement; everyone had to really understand the options, limits, and agree on the final decisions. And there are lots of items: size of room, flooring, tiles, toilet, sink, shower, lights, windows, electrical outlets, heating, cooling, and so on. Each one of these could take several pages for me to explain. It took months to understand each item, learn the options, discuss, and decide.

Because there are so many issues that you’ll have to understand and decide, I recommend The Owner-Builder Book by Mark Smith (4th ed.), whether you decide to work a contractor or do it yourself. Get it at Amazon.

Addition or Sunroom?

There are two possibilities: an addition or a sunroom.

  • Addition: When something (bedroom, office, bathroom, etc.) is added to an existing house, it’s called an addition. We wanted a bedroom with its own bathroom, so that’s called a master bedroom Any bedroom with its own bathroom is called a master bedroom; a house may have five master bedrooms. Bids ranged from $100,000 to $150,000.
  • Sunroom: We could also install a sunroom. There are two-season, three-season, and four-season sunrooms. A four-season sunroom has sufficient insulation so it can be used all year. These are pre-fab (pre-fabricated, just bolt the pieces together), $20-40,000, and can be built in a few weeks. However, city building code doesn’t allow a bathroom in a sunroom. Because the sunroom is on a concrete foundation, you can’t install a bathroom afterwards (and if you install the pipes before pouring the concrete, the building inspector will see that). Although sunrooms are cheaper and easier, they weren’t enough for what we need, so no sunroom.

General Contractors or Owner-Builder?

We met with a foreman for a construction crew who knew how to build houses. At one point, he said “why don’t you do owner-builder?” We had already met with five or six general contractors and none of them had mentioned this.

If you own your house in California, you can be the general contractor for your construction. You don’t need a general contractor license, etc. You can do it yourself. (You should have liability insurance, workman’s comp, etc.) Get a building permit from the city and start building. You can hire the same construction foremen and crew which work for the general contractors (assuming you can find them).

  • General Contractor (GC): The GC takes care of everything: the permits, the drawings, the architect, engineering, the construction crews (concrete, walls, plumbing, electrical, roof, floor, paint, finishing, etc.). He manages everyone, keeps them on schedule, and pays the bills. Your only job is to sign a check.
  • Owner-Builder: If we used owner-builder rules, we would do all of that ourselves. The cost would be half (we’d save perhaps $40-50,000) . However… we have no experience in construction so the mistakes would also be ours. Mistakes also create delays and the crews move from project to project, so a mistake can break a schedule and you end up with weeks or months of no workers. Furthermore, we don’t know where to buy lumber, bulk supplies, etc. We’d have to set up a small corporation (for liability issues), buy insurance, sign up for sales tax permit, workman’s comp, and many other legal and financial issues.

After looking into this, we decided to work with a general contractor. If you’re doing multiple projects (flipping houses, etc.), then you can use owner-builder rules. Otherwise, too much work.

However, it’s still a lot of work: you have to look into dozens of issues and make decisions.

Getting the Bids

The project is simple: three walls and a roof. No cantilevered overhang, basements, second floors, etc.

Bids ranged from $90,000 to $150,000 and every step in between.

We chose the contractor who had a good bid, was capable, and was likeable. If we’re going to spend four to six months with him, we should get along.

On Tuesday, July 19: We signed the contract and paid $1,000.

City Permits

Do you need permits? Yes. City building inspectors are constantly driving around and checking on projects in process. They’ll notice construction and they’ll check to see if it has a permit. If you do construction without a permit, you have to tear it all out, apply for the permit, and start over.

A friend told me about another friend who built a bedroom, office, and other additions without a permit. But when he wants to sell the house, his city will notice the changes. He’ll have to tear out those additions.

So, get the permits.

Working with the Architect

The city building office requires a layout of the addition to approve the project. The architect draws this and submits the plan.

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Our sketch of the layout. This is probably sketch #14.

  • Thursday, July 21: Meeting with the architect. Before the meeting, we sketched a floor plan. In the meeting, that was discussed and many items were moved or modified, based on their experience and advice. The architect planned a small window to the yard, but we pushed back and insisted as much window as possible. Frankly, if the wall was entirely glass, from top to bottom, that would have been fine. It’s a nice yard and view.
  • Wednesday, July 27: Meet with architect to review the draft plan.
  • Friday 29th. My mom finally admits that she had agreed because everyone else was agreeding. It wasn’t at all what she wanted. So we went to Ikea on both Saturday and Sunday and looked at the display bathrooms so she could see layout, size, materials, and so on. It took about two hours each time, plus several additional hours to discuss and draw. Sunday night, 10.45 pm, sent the new sketch to the architect. Lesson: Even when people agree, they didn’t really agree.

Preparing the Yard

To be added

Start of Construction

To be added