Berkeley Home Expansion for Dummies

Hi all, we are contemplating expanding our Berkeley hillside home to add ground-level bedroom, bathroom and (attached or detached) plus room. The things driving this are very time-sensitive and I’m wondering what I should know about the process before we launch it so as to make it as speedy and efficient (for Berkeley) as possible. What we have so far: a basic set of plans by an architect relative not licensed in Berkeley. Aside from speed, I’m also curious about any local quirks or pitfalls of this process worth knowing about, and how it may have been affected by Covid and the economy.

One further consideration: we have a difficult neighbor.

I would welcome your thoughts and experience, especially if recent.


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Hi I'm not an expert but from my experience with recent construction on my home, getting permits in Berkeley is an arduous and slow process. It is even slower now because of COVID-19. It can easily take 6 months +  just to get the permits to start construction (in my own experience and based on what I've heard from others). If you want to get things rolling, I suggest talking to a local architect who has plenty of experience with Berkeley permitting. They can review your plans to make sure comply with your home's zoning requirements and put together a plan set that complies as much as possible other berkeley requirements. They can also shepard it through the permitting process. Things that you might want to ask the architect about are getting a survey asap and any other consultants that are required such as structural engineers etc. Everyone in construction and construction-adjacent businesses is  busy right now - it can be hard to find people who have availability on your timeline so this can end up being another source of delay. Once you have a clear idea of the plan, it will be a good idea to get a contractor to get on their calendar well in advance to try to avoid delays in starting construction. Good luck! (And sounds like congratulations are also in order!?!)

I have heard that getting permits for ADUs is really fast. You may want to add a tiny kitchen. 

Hi there, we're almost finishing an addition in Berkeley. We used an architect with limited experience and it showed during the entire process. (I believe we interviewed 5 architects). It took longer (it was more affordable) and we had to submit revisions and further studies until it was ready to break ground. In summary, it took 2 years until we started the project. Covid has been hard because the planning office is not open, you cannot go and check with the inspectors, and you depend on the city employees to get back to you; however, we can't complain because they've been diligent and there have not been any delays because of them. Pitfalls: we had to hire a soil engineer and redesign the foundation. That cause a delay in the project when it was underway (we lived in the house during construction). My only tip, get a great contractor that knows Berkeley. That will be helpful. Take your time on this. We interviewed/contacted 7 or 8 contractors, and we couldn't be happier with our choice. Regarding the "difficult neighbor", people do not like changes. I had to ask for signatures from my neighbors, and all of them but one signed the "no objection" when I knocked at their doors. This one neighbor asked for a specific meeting and she made tons of "intrusive" questions, but I was able to understand her concern (new windows and eventual shade on her property) that were addressed in our meeting. Good luck!  


Architect in El Cerrito Hills here.

You don't need a licensed architect for permits.  Your contractor can submit permits for you.  I would start vetting contractors right away.  It is SUPER important to hire a qualified contractor to make sure the project runs smoothly.  Another thing to note- because of Covid, there are considerably longer lead times for made-to-order materials like tile, plumbing fixtures, lighting etc.  If you are buying off the shelf items, this is not an issue.  

As soon as permit drawings and contractor is lined up, submit permits right away.  Permit review can take longer than usual as building departments are backed up.

I wouldn't be too worried about the neighbor- as long as you have an approved permit and limit construction noise to permitted hours, you should be fine.

Good luck!

You need an experienced contractor who understands Berkeley permitting. You will probably also need a structural engineer involved.  It's no trivial matter to make these kinds of changes to a home in the hills. There are very strict rules in Berkeley around fire safety, setbacks from neighbors and from the street.  Don't do any more planning on your addition until you have spoken with a contractor who has experience with Berkeley permitting rules. Look for reviews on BPN or drive around and see what contractors are working on neighbors' projects. You want someone who knows the code and can tell you what kinds of changes you'll have to make to get your existing design approved, and how much that would cost.  Also read up on ADU's. It's much easier to get permits for an ADU than an addition. For example, some setbacks and height restrictions that apply to an addition don't apply to an ADU. An ADU can be either attached or detached, but it has to be its own independent living space, so it needs minimal cooking facilities.

We live in the lower hills in Berkeley and since Covid began, we, or rather our architects, have investigated permits for two different projects: an ADU, which we have put on hold, and a driveway/retaining wall project which we'll start on soon.  It's the architect who usually checks in with the city during the design phase if there are questions about what is and isn't allowed.  And then the contractor will probably be the one who is pulling the actual permits once work starts. Our experience: Back in March, everything was shut down and the city was slow to respond. Our ADU's design was on pause for a month, waiting to hear back from the city.  But they soon figured out how to work efficiently in email, and things have gone really smoothly since then. On our other project, the driveway/retaining wall project, a different architect (who has also done many projects in Berkeley)  finished the design at the end of December. There was about a week of email conversations between her and city planners to refine setbacks and other restrictions.  The city allowed a couple of special exceptions for our project. Now, because of the retaining wall, an engineering firm has to make a report and recommendations, and this has taken the longest.  Apparently engineers are very busy right now. Once that report is done, it's just a matter of the actual build. So, my takeaway is, if your design was created with the regulations in mind, the permitting should not be too onerous.

Good luck with your project!

You said you’re on a time sensitive schedule and you have a difficult neighbo. That neighbor will mostly object to your plans. Have you talked to your other neighbors about your plans? If not you might realize you have other difficult neighbors. Difficult neighbors can object to your plans and add years to get your development done. It can be a long and frustrating time consuming process to do development in Berkeley with objecting neighbors even with an approved permit. 

If you can design it to fit within the ADU (accessory dwelling unit) rules, that would guarantee quick approval with no ability for your neighbor to interfere.

Assuming you can't use the ADU rules, you may end up need to request an AUP (administrative use permit). Common things that trigger an AUP requirement including.
1. Residential additions that exceed the maximum district height limit for additions (14', 16' or 18', depending on Zoning District)
2. Residential additions that exceed 600 s.f. or 15% of the lot area
3. Alterations to portions of a building within a required setback
4. Addition of a 5th (or greater) bedroom to a *parcel* in certain zoning districts (includes most of the hills).

The AUP process is expensive, slow, and subject to further delay by motivated opposing neighbors. The City will abuse state law and drag out the process. However, assuming you're not doing anything egregious, the City does actually tend to approve these kinds of small projects. But be prepared for them to debate where your windows go, how big the addition is, what color your walls are, whether you have vegetation in certain areas, and all sorts of other things the City is stretching the law to regulate. And your motivated opposing neighbor can pay like $200 to drag it out even longer and force a public hearing.

Definitely consider configuring this as an ADU or, if possible, Junior ADU.
That way when the kids move out, you can create a housing unit and have some income from it.
The ADU may also speed your permit approval process, and the good thing is your permit is "by right", which means no Administrative Use Permit (AUP) or neighbor review.

Your question is too open ended to answer in full.  The process in Berkeley is indeed "full of process".

I do ADU and Junior ADU consulting, and each job brings a City challenges.  There's no one right answer.

Being open with and involving your neighbor is still highly recommended.