Beware of setbacks!

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Apologies, in advance, for a fairly technical piece, but this is very important information for anyone doing remodeling in LA.

If you’re rehabbing a property, you need to be extremely careful about touching anything located in any setbacks.

What do I mean by setbacks? They are the parts of any lot in which the city prohibits you from building. Depending on the zoning, they’re typically the areas 3-5′ from the property line on the sides and 15′ from the property line in the back. In the front, the setback varies a lot, but it’s typically 10-15′.

Why is it so important that you take care before touching anything in the setbacks? In a word, “grandfathering”.

There are many properties in LA that have important features that were built prior to the imposition by the city of setbacks. These features include decks and walkways, some of which are essential for accessing parts of properties.

Because these features were built prior to the imposition of setbacks, they are grandfathered in.

The problem is that many of these features, particularly those built in the 1920s, are at the end of there useful life. They are rotted out by moisture, termites, etc. As a rehabber, you will be sorely tempted to rip them out and replace them.

Careful! If you entirely rip out one of these grandfathered features, you will forfeit your grandfathered status. You will then have a hell of a time getting the city to allow you to rebuild it, because the city will hold you modern codes which require you to avoid building in the setback. Getting approval to do so would involve zoning variances, plan approval, etc… not something you want to go through.

So, what’s the solution? Instead of entirely ripping one of these features out, pull a permit for “replacing termite-eaten wood”. Then, replace only the worst areas, leaving the rest, and get the permit finaled. Later, you can repeat the process if you have to.

Side note: Can you see how insane the above situation is? The city is basically incentivizing you NOT to replace potentially dangerous decks, etc… a recipe for unnecessary injuries / death. Instead, they should change the rule to allow you to replace grandfathered features without going through plan-check so long as you do not expand the footprint.

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