Los Angeles Garage Conversion in 2021 – The Affordable ADU

(Updated January 3, 2021)

What You Need To Know About a Garage Conversion

Consider a garage conversion in LAGarage Conversion in Los Angeles

I recently did a garage conversion with a detached garage behind my home.  The garage was 468 square feet with dimensions of 18’ x 26’. I always wanted to convert my garage to a living space, but I didn’t know where to start. I’ve known about the new laws and regulations in Los Angeles regarding ADUs, but I didn’t have the budget nor space for a new, freestanding ADU (see ADU definition here), so a garage conversion was the perfect solution. Now that I’ve gone through the process myself, I can share the steps I took and things I had to consider. There’s a lot to know – everything from developing plans, evaluating costs, and considering various requirements, to picking a floor plan and hiring a contractor.

Here at GreatBuildz, a free service that connects homeowners in Los Angeles, Orange County, Ventura or San Diego with reliable general contractors, we get inquiries every day about garage conversion projects – here are some tips to get you started.

Garage Conversion Plans

The first step is to find a small architect or design firm to draw the garage conversion plans with your guidance.  This is a pretty basic project, so you don’t need an expensive architecture firm. They’ll be able to discuss different garage conversion ideas with you, and give you advice on which options will work best for you – depending on if you want to convert your garage to include a bedroom and/or bathroom, convert your garage into a rentable unit, or any other layouts. In most cases, you’re likely doing very little with the exterior of the garage – just adding one wall where the garage door is currently, and installing a front door, sliding door, and windows – so that part of the design is reasonably basic. 

Sunny bedroom in a garage conversion ADUGarage Conversion To Bedroom

In addition, there shouldn’t be any extensive structural design as the exterior load-bearing walls are already in place. However, the architect/designer will still have to involve a structural engineer to assess the existing structure and add any structural elements necessary. 

Most of the design work involves the interior layout. As you can see in my garage conversion floor plan below, I designed a ‘great room’ that included a living area, kitchen, and small eating area. I left enough room for a small bedroom with a closet, as well as a small full bathroom. A small bedroom would ideally be a minimum of 10’x9’ and a full bathroom is a minimum of 5’x8’.

(GreatBuildz can recommend a reasonably priced garage conversion plan designer if you need one)  

Garage Conversion in Los AngelesGarage Conversion Floor Plan in Los Angeles – Great Room

Once you’re happy with your plans, the architect will submit the plans to the city building department for plancheck. This approval might take anywhere from 2 weeks to several months, depending on the city’s backlog.  During that time, you can start sharing your plans with several General Contractors and having them each provide you with a cost estimate for your garage to room conversion. Although you could act as your own ‘general contractor’ and hire sub-contractors to complete such a project, I highly recommend against it.  It is likely to be cheaper in price, but much, much greater in time and headaches.  Also, it’s not something you should consider unless you know of good subcontractors for all the trades involved (ie. plumber, electrician, drywall, tile, etc).     

Once you start construction, the entire process should take 2-3 months. Although most of the work will be contained to your garage, keep in mind your general contractor will need to dig trenches and install sewer & water (and potentially gas/electric) lines that run from your garage to the connections on the side of your house or front yard. This is the messiest part of the job. Even once the project is complete, it
could take a while before the DWP or Gas Company comes to install your meter. Finally, don’t forget to obtain insurance for your new garage conversion ADU structure.

How To Find A Garage Conversion Contractor

A couple of suggestions about finding the right contractor for your garage conversion in Los Angeles.  It’s best to search for only local, licensed General Contractors. No other contractors are qualified or equipped to do this sort of construction, and using an unlicensed contractor or handyman would be a mistake.  Any contractors you contact, always confirm they have experience with ADUs. You’ll want to hire a contractor who has built ADUs or garage conversions in the past and therefore knows the potential issues/pitfalls. 

There are several other important criteria you should use in selecting a contractor. Check for a valid contractor’s license on the Contractors State License Board website to confirm it is active, there are no disciplinary actions, and it has Workers Compensation insurance associated with it (assuming the GC has employees).  Make sure they’re insured and get a copy of their insurance certificate. Ask your contractor for at least three references you can call. Lastly, read their reviews online on Google & other contractor search engines. If you want more tips on how to find and vet an ADU contractor check out my blog: 10 Tips To Hire an ADU Contractor

(At Greatbuildz, we take contractor screening seriously. We take all the steps above, in addition to running a background/financial check and requiring contractors to sign our 20-point Code of Conduct.  You can call our free service, speak with our friendly staff about your project, and get connected to several fully vetted, trustworthy contractors who are experienced with ADUs in Los Angeles. For more info, visit www.GreatBuildz.com or call 818.317.3567 today)

Garage Conversion Requirements: It’s All In The Details

Your designer’s plans will give contractors a majority of the information they need to bid the job, but they won’t have everything.  Most cities don’t require your plans to include details about electrical, plumbing, HVAC, etc., so you’ll need to provide your contractor with details of what you want. 

  • For plumbing: you’ll need to decide where you want your water heater and if it’ll be with a tank or tankless; gas or electric.
  • For HVAC: do you want a full HVAC system like you have in your home or do you want a small ‘ductless’ unit that is cheaper, but services a smaller area?
  • For electrical: how many outlets, lights, and switches do you need and where do you want them? Also, you’ll need to discuss with your contractor what kind of electrical panel you’ll need for the ADU.

In addition to these ‘major’ trade decisions, you’ll also want to consider if you need other items included in your garage conversion:

  • Do you need the garage to be re-roofed?
  • Do you need any concrete work like a footpath, driveway, front stoop, etc?
  • How about new fencing or landscape work in the yard?
  • Would you prefer flat or vaulted ceilings?
  • Is your garage floor currently flat or sloping? It might need to be leveled. 
  • Will you be painting the exterior of the ADU? 
  • Is there any termite or water damage to the existing garage that needs to be repaired? 
  • Do you want a bathtub or just a shower? 
  • What will your kitchen design look like? 
  • Are your appliances included in the bid? 

Finally, the more detail you can give on your desired materials, the more accurate your contractor’s price can be. Can you pick out your tile, flooring, kitchen cabinets, lights, faucets, doors, windows, etc. in advance? If not, the contractor will likely give you a material ‘allowance’ in their bid; in which case you would pay the difference if you choose materials that are more expensive than the allowance in the bid.  

Efficient bathroom in a garage conversion ADU

Comparing Contractor Bids

The next step is to compare your contractors’ bids. Be careful not to just look at the price, but also carefully compare the scope of work. Bids can be very inconsistent among contractors. Let’s face it, when you meet with three different people, they may hear three different things (and maybe you even forgot to mention something in each case).  But, that’s why it’s important to carefully review and compare all bids for consistency.

In a perfect world, you’d have your own ‘master list’ of all the items that should be in the bid that you can use to compare all bids against. See my ADU Checklist article for a full list of requirements you can use as a resource. If any contractor’s bid is missing something or unclear, make sure they revise the bid so that you can review all your estimates ‘apples to apples’.  Depending on your specific situation, you can expect your garage conversion cost to be in the $70,000-$125,000 range, including plans, contractor labor, materials, and city permits. There are several ways you can save on garage conversion costs, check out our Top 5 Cost Saving Tips for ADUs.

Accessory Dwelling Unit Garage Conversion Floor Plan

Garage Conversion Rental income property:

There are many potential uses for garage conversions which include bonus room, guest house, fitness studio, granny flat, etc; many Los Angeles homeowners are building ADUs for rental purposes. The latest State ADU laws allow owners to build an ADU and rent it out to a tenant, or even rent out both the existing home and the ADU (essentially creating a duplex scenario). There is a lot to consider if you’re planning to build an ADU for rental cash flow, so I suggest you review our complete blog on this topic. If you’re an investor that’s planning on taking a single-family home and adding a garage conversion ADU so you can rent out both units to enhance the cash flow from a property, here is some information that will help in your research & planning.

A few more things to consider for an ADU Garage Conversion

Sewer line: The city will most likely require you to run a new sewer line from your ADU to the existing sewer lateral in your front yard.  I strongly suggest you have your contractor determine the location and depth of your existing lateral so that they know where they will need to connect your ADU sewer. Running your new sewer line through a dirt area is much cheaper than running it under a concrete driveway; not to mention that a section of your driveway will need to be ripped up and patched.

DWP powerlines: If you have DWP power lines at the back of your property, and your garage is currently under the powerlines, the city of LA will not allow you to convert it to an ADU. I suggest inquiring with DWP about relocating the line over your garage; it’s a bit costly & time-consuming, but it is possible.

Renting a garage conversion ADU: You can rent your ADU to a tenant, even if you don’t live on the property (so you can rent both your main house and ADU).  You cannot sell your ADU separately from your main house.

Building an Addition to Your Garage Conversion ADU: If you want to expand your garage before converting it to living space, there are a few things to keep in mind. Although you can convert your garage to an ADU regardless of its location (even if it’s within the 4 foot setback requirements), any addition you want to build must meet the latest city ADU rules. Specifically, that means any addition would have to be located at least 4 feet from your side and rear property lines (setback requirements). This applies to a single-story addition to the garage or a second-story built over the garage. In addition, once your garage conversion is over 500 square feet, it will have to meet additional city requirements like LID-“Low Impact Development” (ask your architect more about this).

What are the city guidelines for a garage conversion/ADU? Every city will have different guidelines and requirements for converting your garage so it’s important to inquire with the city building department or hire a local architect who understands all the local guidelines. Depending on where you live, you can find resources for various municipalities in Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange & San Diego County in the following blogs:

Note: If you’ve already got an unpermitted garage conversion, now is a good time to legalize your ADU. It’s best by speaking with a contractor about the construction that was already done and get their opinion of how much you’ll need to correct to legalize the garage conversion. The process will be similar to a new garage conversion…start by creating plans, go through plan check, then have a contractor perform any work necessary to bring it up to code. Finally, the city will inspect your work and issue a certificate of occupancy. Having a legalized garage conversion will allow you to rent out space and adds value to your property when you go to sell it.

When it comes to finding the best ADU and garage conversion contractor in Los Angeles, Orange County, Ventura or San Diego – GreatBuildz is simplifying the contractor search. GreatBuildz is a free service that connects homeowners with reliable, thoroughly screened general contractors and provides project support from start to finish.

Call now (818.317.3567) to chat with a real person about your next renovation project or visit our website for more information: www.greatbuildz.com

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