A lot of homeowners in Land Park and Curtis Park ask us about converting their detached garages into guesthouses or studios. The first question on their minds is: How much will it cost? But there are some other questions they might need to consider first.   

Accessory structure vs. secondary dwelling unit

    In Sacramento’s older neighborhoods, most of the existing detached garages are classified as accessory structures. An accessory structure may be converted to living space, but, unlike secondary dwelling units, it cannot legally be used as sleeping quarters. Instead, it might become an office, art studio, gym, or space for some other type of waking pursuit.  

    On the other hand, a secondary dwelling unit might sound more desirable, because you can legally use it as a guesthouse or even rent it out. Keep in mind, however, that this type of structure will need to meet all applicable building codes for a residence. One of those codes – the one that prevents most homeowners from choosing this option – is that the building must be at least five feet from the side yard property line. Where lots are typically 50 feet wide, that extra five feet on the side of the new structure is too much of a sacrifice. And don’t forget the extra costs you’ll be facing to provide separate utility services to your guesthouse. It might be cheaper to put up Aunt Betty at the Westin. 

    Given costs and restrictions, our clients almost invariably choose to build accessory structures, not secondary dwellings. We know several very happy artists and home-based business people, but also some who are using their new space for activities beyond our control. We just ask that you wait to bring in any compromising evidence until we’ve moved on to the next job. 

Parking regulations

    If you’re tearing down your old garage, you must be certain that you’re still meeting off-street parking requirements. A single family home must have at least one parking space. That space doesn’t have to be covered, but it has to be at least ten feet wide and 20 feet long, and it can’t be in your front yard setback. If you won’t have dedicated garage space, the area in front of your new building might satisfy the parking requirement. 

Where can it be built, and how big can it be? 

    As long as it’s at least 60 feet from the front property line, your accessory structure can be built right on the side yard and rear yard property lines, but there are a few caveats. 

    First, check with the city or search through your title documents to find out whether there are utility easements crossing your property. It’s very common in Land Park, Curtis Park, and East Sac to have a five or six foot easement across the back of the property for electric (above) and sewer and gas (underground.) You cannot build within any easement, even if the old building slated for demolition was in that area.

    The location of the building might also be affected by limitations on lot coverage. Assuming your house is in R1 or R2 zoning, you can cover up to one-third or 350 square feet of your rear yard setback, which is defined as the back 15 feet of the property. Total lot coverage, including the main house and covered patios, cannot exceed 40 percent. 

    If you're thinking about a two-story accessory structure, the greatest design challenge will be the height restriction. The building may not be more than 18 feet to the highest point of the roof. You can add dormers to increase headroom in the second story, but the combined width of the dormers on any one side of the building can’t be more than one-fourth of the width of the wall on that side. So, for example, if your new building will be 24 feet long, it can have a six-foot wide dormer on each side. 

     If your home is on a corner lot or if your garage faces an alley, there are some different regulations that apply. Other considerations for every project include firewalls and our favorite, the “building envelope,” but let’s save those topics for future articles. 

Breaking the rules

    If your design doesn’t meet all these requirements, we can apply for a Planning Entitlement. Depending on the specifics of your project, the application will be reviewed at staff level, director level, or commission level, each with its own marvelous fee schedule and timeline.