How to Properly Legalize an Unpermitted Los Angeles Garage Conversion/ADU

Unpermitted Los Angeles Garage Conversion: What You Need to Know 

It should be no surprise there are tons of unpermitted Los Angeles garage conversions. With home prices so high, residents have been taking advantage of their extra garage space without getting the appropriate permits for quite some time. When we talk about Los Angeles garage conversions, there are many different varieties and uses. Some homeowners have turned their garages into music or fitness studios.

Other folks have created an office, man cave, rec room, or she-shed type space, often with a bathroom. Of course, some have turned their garage into a full Accessory Dwelling Unit ‘living space’ with a bathroom and kitchen, etc. These are being used to house family members or as rental units. To learn more, check out our blog about Garage Conversions.

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 legalizing garage conversion projects – here are some tips to get you started.

Many of these illegal garage conversions have been created in LA and surrounding areas without the necessary permits, and now a large portion of these homeowners are thinking about legalizing their units. Now that new ADU laws are in effect starting January 1, 2020, the state and city are encouraging people to legalize their Los Angeles unpermitted garage conversions, and have given a 5-year grace period to complete this without imposing any fines, etc. So, folks are starting to realize its worth the costs to legalize their unit rather than keep ‘hiding’ their unpermitted garage space.  A legal ADU can be rented to a tenant without issue and clearly adds value to the property at time of sale, unlike unpermitted space.

 There is some really good news with regard to legalizing unpermitted Los Angeles garage conversions. In a majority of cases, the garage itself is ‘eligible’ to be converted into an ADU. Assuming your garage was permitted when it was originally built, you should be within your right to convert it into an ADU (for detached garage) and Junior ADU or JADU (for an attached garage). Even if your garage doesn’t meet current setback requirements from your property line, it should be ‘grandfathered-in’. 

There will be some exceptions like hillside or high-fire areas, so its important to confirm your property qualifies by speaking to either a knowledgeable architect or the city’s building or planning department (in the city of LA, speak with the Building Department, Zoning Section). Another piece of good news with the recent ADU legislation is that you do not have to provide any new parking on your property when converting your garage to ADU.

 Let’s discuss the steps involved in legalizing your unpermitted garage. As discussed above, your first step is to confirm your garage is eligible. Once you have confirmed this, the next step is to hire an architect/designer to create the plans for you and meet at least one ADU contractor to discuss rough scope and costs.

Create a Set Of Plans

The city requires you to create a set of plans for your Los Angeles garage conversion. These plans are drawn to show your garage conversion meeting today’s building codes and guidelines. So, the plans will include such elements as structural and framing details, windows & walls, energy efficiency (title 24), and other notes. An architect will measure your space and create these plans with the help of a structural engineer, as needed. This will be the plan submitted to the city building department to secure a permit. You can expect these plans to cost between $3,000-$10,000. An ADU Contractor can also help with this task. 

Meet With Your Contractor

How to Properly Legalize an Unpermitted Los Angeles Garage Conversion/ADU 1

 You should definitely meet with an ADU contractor as well. The ADU contractor can look at your garage and give you some ideas/thoughts regarding the costs involved, the construction process, and the potential “unknowns”. Depending on how well or poorly your unpermitted garage conversion was built, there may be a substantial disparity between the costs to legalize. For example, is there insulation in the walls? Is the existing sewer line adequate? Are the foundation footings deep enough? Are there structural/framing improvements that will be required?

Based on what they see, a good contractor can give you a sense of the likelihood and costs of these unknowns. It’s important to know this so you can budget appropriately to legalize your ADU and not be shocked after you create plans and pull a permit.

Submit Your Plans

Once you have some idea of budget and a set of plans done, the next step is to submit these plans to the city building department.  In less than 60 days, you should receive a permit to start. While your plans are in plan check, you can provide them and any other scope of work you want to include several garage conversion contractors so they can prepare detailed cost estimates for you. Once you select your right garage conversion contractor and sign a contract, you’re ready to start construction.

Start Building Your Los Angeles Garage Conversion

How to Properly Legalize an Unpermitted Los Angeles Garage Conversion/ADU 2

At the very beginning of construction, your ADU contractor will call for an initial city inspection.  The city inspector will want to see how your unpermitted garage conversion compares to your plans (and current code), so you might ask the contractor to remove some areas of drywall to ‘see inside’ the walls. He will be looking to check the adequacy of framing, electrical, plumbing, insulation, etc. He may also ask to see the depth of your foundation footings.  Based on what he/she sees, the inspector will issue a set of ‘corrections’ your contractor will have to make in order to proceed. As we discussed above, these ‘unknowns’ could be minor or major depending on the original construction quality.

 The costs can vary significantly based on the existing condition and quality of the ADU. To give you some idea, a brand-new Los Angeles garage conversion to ADU costs approx. $70,000-$100,000. That number includes taking a standard garage and adding everything necessary to create a dwelling: kitchen, bathroom, appliances, walls, windows, flooring, HVAC, plumbing, electrical, structural framing, etc. When legalizing a garage conversion, presumably some of this work has already been completed and can be saved. So, depending on the extent of work needed, the construction costs of legalizing this space will likely range from $15,000-$50,000. 

How to Find the Right ADU Contractor to Legalize your Los Angeles Garage Conversion

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 illegal or unpermitted ADUs. You’ll want to hire a contractor who has done this before, and therefore knows the potential issues/pitfalls.

 There are several other important criteria you should use in selecting a ADU 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.
  • 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

Compare Your Contractors’ 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. That’s why it’s important to carefully review and compare all bids for consistency.

 If you want to learn more about the costs or process of legalizing an unpermitted garage conversion/ADU project in Los Angeles, Orange County, Ventura or San Diego, or if you’re ready to take the next step and talk to a local contractor or designer/architect about your specific project, feel free to call one of our friendly GreatBuildz staff at 818.317.3567 or submit your project at

 Check out the GreatBuildz Guide Blog for more construction tips and advice for any type of home remodeling project!


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