There used to be a formula to buying a house and raising a family. You get married, you buy a small starter house, you start a family. The family gets bigger and you look for a bigger house using the equity you built in the starter house. You might even get a den.
Now, you’re lucky to find any house to start and chances are, once you get it, that’s where you will have to stay unless you can find at least $140,000 for a down payment and outbid every other young family and all-cash investor looking to go around $100,000 over asking price for even the most marginal of homes.
To put it simply, it’s slim pickings out there even with low interest rates. This is a seller’s market and it doesn’t appear to changing any time soon. Add in the fact that home values have returned to 2006 levels before the Great Recession and even higher and it appears that growing families have limited options.
And that’s where the home renovation and expansion discussion begins. In San Mateo, for instance, there are an increasing number of applications for modest home expansions. Most are 300 square feet and likely represent a single room, more than likely for a growing family. They’re not cheap nor easy, but more palatable than hitting the open houses and being continually disappointed.
A recent expansion application hit the San Mateo City Council when a family sought to add 800 square feet in a second level to their home in the Hillsdale neighborhood. A dispute ensued because a neighbor’s views were blocked and appealed the Planning Commission’s approval. The City Council sided with the commission and allowed for the expansion to continue.
The situation was painful for all involved because it involved a family wanting to expand its home and another wanting to preserve their views. One component that was oft-pointed to was view equity. As defined by the city’s single-family design guidelines passed 12 years ago, view equity is: “Neighboring views should be maintained to a similar level as that enjoyed by the proposed addition. Balance the private rights to views from all parcels so that no single parcel should enjoy a greater view right than other similar parcels, except for the natural advantages of each site’s topography.” My interpretation is that the new addition should not have greater views than other parcels, and no other parcel shall have a greater view. But when you have a view, you don’t want it taken away.
Could the council’s decision set a precedent? Doesn’t seem so, but there is some concern that anyone can point to the recent situation and say this council is amenable to expansions even if it takes away a neighbor’s view. Councilman David Lim points to two California Supreme Court decisions that there is no right to the air and space above a property and that limiting it would open the city to liability. Councilman Jack Matthews sees view equity as the idea that views have to be shared, and that was the case in this situation for him.
So don’t look for the San Mateo City Council to lead the charge in a revision to its guidelines. With more and more residents unable to find a new home for their growing families, there are more and more applications for expansions and remodels. Most don’t get to the council level.
This one may have been an anomaly among a handful of similar projects on hillsides that block views. For the most part, the guidelines provide a framework for negotiations between neighbors. Most residents with conflicts can solve them through compromise before they reach the council level and providing more rigidity might preclude that back and forth for an agreeable solution.
That’s why they were passed in the first place. However, the trend that kick-started these guidelines 12 years ago was that of home expansions and, while the market has ebbed at points, it is still marching at a steady clip up with little opportunity for growing families to follow the old model of moving to a bigger home. Now the question that remains is if this will move from what is now considered to be an anomaly into a new status quo?
Jon Mays is the editor in chief of the Daily Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Jon on Twitter @jonmays.