Truckee CA / Placer County Accessory Dwelling Codes are Changing

One of our design partners, Michael Hahn is a timberframe specialist. As such he spends his time in mountain towns.  This August he’s in Truckee, CA.

Being new in town he’s poking around to get the lay of the land.  As part of this he attended a city council meeting – which sounds painfully boring, but none the less, he heard some good news about accessory dwellings for Placer County.

Here are some quick notes:

NTRAC meeting on Thursday 8/13/2015: 

  •  The last item on the agenda was to vote in new language for the secondary dwelling units allowable within Placer County.
  • The portion of the code currently being modified specifically pertains to all regions in Placer County, with exception of any land that falls within the Tahoe Basin (refer to TRPA boundary).  The code has a separate section specific to the Tahoe Basin, and Crystal Jacobsen of Placer County Planning hopes to amend this section as well in the future.
  • The county and committee both seem in favor of such changes, as this helps address changing trends in density, the need for supplemental income, families aging in place, and minimizing loading on existing utility infrastructure to name a few.  The proposed changes do encourage architectural continuity, though the wording leaves a lot on the table to be determined on a case by case basis.  The dwelling sizes can range from 240 SF up to 1,200 SF based on lot size.
  • Overall the amendments are going to streamline the process of getting permits for secondary dwelling units, and has opened up the door for many to pursue this direction.  We are looking forward to getting involved in more of these structures as the codes are changed to better address this type of building.

How to Interview an Architect

Try walking through these questions:
- Ask for his or her ideas about your project
- Ask what the biggest challenges for this job will be
-Get a feel for how receptive he or she is to your ideas
-Find out how involved he would be as the building progresses 
-Confirm what is included in the fee.  Are the following included:
  • Permit forms
  • Responding to city “plan check comments”
  • Recruiting sub-consultants such as engineers and surveyors
  • Reviewing contractor bids
  • Reviewing contractor bills
  • Approving/denying contractor change orders
  • Picking out finishes: Flooring, tile, paint colors, cabinets, counters etc..
-Confirm who will actually do the designing
- Ask for clarification about anything you don’t understand
- Ask if they can provide three dimensional drawings
- You’d want to see previous work
- Talk to clients 
Anyone who is part of New Avenue has the skills to get the job done.   So this is mostly about your feelings about who you want to work with.   Ideally like him or her very much and when you are talking it becomes quickly obvious that you are on the same page. 

Budget and Planning/Zoning Permit Drawings for a Backyard Cottage / Accessory Dwelling in Berkeley, CA

Here is a completed cost of a 640 square foot accessory dwelling with an additional 200 square feet in the upstairs loft.  The architecture and construction was all delivered by New Avenue via our online platform for design/build.

If you are looking for a design proposal or construction estimate for any addition, remodel, new custom home, or guest house, then this budget is a great starting point.  All the “hidden costs”, surprises and tricks that you don’t know (honestly, you don’t, unless you’re a contractor) are listed here.

The planning permit drawings are here:  New Avenue Planning Submittal

The actual budget is here: 640 1st floor 200 2nd floor

Client Quotes and Referrals

We’ve been fortunate to receive a lot of nice feedback from the clients, architects and contractors that we work with.   We typically share this list when a potential client asks for a reference in order to verify a construction budget, construction schedule, building permit process or costs.

Thanks for the kind words, everyone!

Our son, AJ joined our little family last Tuesday. Thank you for surrounding us with a strong team during all of this,it’s good to know that New Avenue, Mick and Robert have the house project under control while we’re ramping up on this whole parent project thing.

– Robert K (San Rafael Remodel, Addition, new master bathroom, seismic, 5/6/2015, 7 days after AJ’s arrival)

The very nice thing about working with you is that I don’t need to worry about the process and oversight, and vetting people to do the work.  That is a huge value for me.

Robert is a pleasure to work with.  He is very easy and has been responsive and flexible and understands what we’re looking for.  And he certainly knows his business and how to work with the City. So that’s great.

– Marian M (Berkeley master bedroom and master bathroom remodel, client note from 5/2015)

 Chris (The Architect) is designing such a nice cottage that I might just move in myself and rent out the main house!

– Ellen H (Albany, CA  client, detached music studio, guest house, landscaping, new bathroom)

Having a fully integrated way of controlling correspondence along with billing is nonexistent. Unless you’re really happy spending your day in front of a computer all day then this is really great

If you have a system that an average client can sign into and use then it has to be pretty user friendly.  If it’s good enough for them to use then I wouldn’t think that my learning is very difficult.

Hooking quickbooks up to microsoft office and getting four systems to work together just doesn’t work.  I keep one file with six different sub files for every job.  Subfolders are bidding, subcontractors, estimates, correspondence etc… and I just leave it on my desktop.  My wife has to call me and I guide her through each file until she finds what she’s looking for.

– Mike, General Contractor (Berkeley accessory dwelling, San Francisco Addition, San Francisco remodel, Oakland guest house, Berkeley addition, El Cerrito accessory dwelling)

“You are rendering a very valuable service to the families and communities for which we have great appreciation”

-Vijai Sharma, PhD, Oakland addition

If I could do 20 projects per year with New Avenue I’d be the happiest guy on the planet.”

-Mike, Contractor  

“New Avenue has helped to take the work of finding and attracting new clients off of our to do list, allowing us to focus on what we enjoy doing the most – designing for these clients.”

-Patrick, architect  5/2014

“Working with New Ave has been such a great experience! From the beginning, New Ave and Paks Builder have been cohesive partners and we look forward to working on many future projects together!”

– Robert P – General Contractor

“You certainly make it waay better than business-as-usual.  No doubt.”

– Prasad, Client 9/23/2014

“I’m tired of trolling Yelp and banging my head against the wall.  I just want someone to show up and do the work.”

– Bryndis T


How A Fixed Price Construction Budget Works

A client recently asked one of our architect partners the following question:
“Could you ask to see the receipts so we know they aren’t cheating me on the purchases? They are not supposed to make a profit on the purchases, but they do make a profit where it says profits on the budget”
If you want to compare a project budget to the actual cost, you will need a simple table like New Avenue uses in our Budget page.   Anyone can look at the budget tab on your project page by signing into
To give an example of how budgeting works, I have attached two pictures.  One is for a roof.  This shows an original budget of $4,500.  In this example, the roof is already on.  The budget for the roof has not changed, it is now 100% complete and you can see that the client paid $4,500.  That is completed “on budget”.
 Shingles and Shakes Budget - Roof
The second shows the windows and doors.  This changed via a change order the client approved.  The client ended up selecting nicer quality windows that cost more than was budgeted for the windows shown in the architectural plans.   This is fairly common.
Windows and Doors Budget
You can review every line item in a budget.  To do so is a matter of reviewing the budget line by line to see what has changed.  Using our system, there isn’t any way for a contractor to charge you more than was budgeted unless the client approves a change.
Auditing receipts is not something that we expect any architect or client to bother with.  We realized years ago that tracking receipts is not helpful in getting fair pricing or  managing a budget.  A “time and materials” contract is one where the client pays for the receipts for labor and materials plus a markup for overhead and profit.  This markup is typically 15%.  We don’t do that type of contract because it consistently leads to 100% overages.
If anything, that type of “Time and Materials” contract moves the responsibility to track expenses and make sure to  hit the budget from the contractor to the homeowner.
Every contractor marks up portions of the materials and labor, that is simply how the industry works.  For example, a Time & Materials contract may have the contractor showing laborers at $35/hour when they actually pay them $20/hour.  The difference is a hidden markup that goes towards overhead, profit, insurance or anything else that the general contractor has to pay for.   Clients do not see this markup.
Auditing the materials purchased is nearly impossible.  Some materials are supplied by subcontractors, some are bought directly by the contractors.  If a contractor wants to cheat it’s impractical to follow this.
Instead, what we have found to be the best practice is a fixed price budget and that is what we insist on for any project where the owner has a budget in mind… and that’s almost every project.

A Long Commute Is Worse Than Losing a Limb


There are some serious academic studies that show that everything gets worse when you have a long commute… substance abuse, back pain, divorce, health etc…

The chart below seems totally plausible.

Now, what if you buy a house near your work and it appreciates wildly and you use New Avenue to build an AirBnB rental that makes you a decent income like $25,000-$40,000/year.  That’s like having a short commute AND winning the lottery.   Yes, New Avenue is like winning the lottery.

Happiness Line Graph

The question remains, what’s worse, hiring a contractor without New Avenue or losing an arm?


Cost of a Menlo Park Large Remodel – Garage + Guest House + Laundry

A recently completed project in Menlo Park included the following:

  • Converting 500 square foot of an existing garage to a new guest house/accessory dwelling
  • An addition of ~300square feet
  • New driveway
  • New two car garage
  • Shoring up and old foundation and reinforcing it
  • New bathroom
  • New Kitchen
  • New Bedroom
  • New front door
  • New landscaping, tile work and fencing

The remodel and addition cost, in 2012 is attached.  Prices have gone up approximately 20% due to the housing boom / housing crisis (depending on whether you’re the lucky few who got in earlier).

All this added up to the attached architecture and construction budget noted here:

Erin – Design Permitting and Engineering Fees

Erin – Menlo Park 2 Car Remodel + 300 Square Foot Addition

These budgets include almost everything that was paid for such as:

  • Menlo Park planning permits
  • Menlo Park building permits
  • Impact Fees in Menlo Park (such as school, traffic, sewer, PG&E etc…)
  • Architecture
  • Structural Engineering
  • Demolition
  • All Construction


8 Water Saving Steps – Client Beats “Extreme” Water Savers With Simple Changes

Our client who built a 1,500 square foot custom home a few years ago shared the water consumption from their entire property and declared “We should be in the News”.
This includes 3 “households”  The owner with a husband, wife, two daughters and god.  And two income units.
Collectively, the 8+ residents on this property (excluding the occasional trips, including the occasional visitors and let’s not forget the furry friends) consume under a whopping 30 gallons/person/day (and some of us work from home too).
The average single-family home in the East Bay Municipal Utility District used 135 gallons of water per person per day last year, but Oakland resident Elizabe…
For comparison:
East Bay Municipal Utilities District claims 55 gallongs/person/day without outside uses.
Rancho Santa Fe, in San Diego County  claims 584.4 gallons/person/day
San Francisco claims 45.7 gallons/person/day
Los Angeles claims 92.8 gallons/person/day
The owner’s household used the following measures to reduce consumption. We can only assume the two tenants in the other units are a bit less careful.
1) We have updated to the almost most efficient fixtures.
2) We take short showers.
3) We have a tankless water heater (which is actually a disadvantage for long, non-circuit hot water loops [there's a fix for that we haven't done].
4) We collect the “waiting for hot water” by using in the toilet tank, or for kitchen rinsing
5) We recycle our kitchen rinsate (sort of the “yellow/mellow, brown/flush down” approach – rinse veggies-fruit, use rinsate for dishes/pots and soaking/brushing solids off before washing ( it does get disgusting though)
6) We “mellow” the bowl before flushing
7) Drought tolerant plants – 2x a week max
8) The other units all use low flow fixtures.

8 Insights from a Happy Client – Accessory Dwelling Backyard Cottage in Berkeley, CA

We recently had the chance to reconnect with an early client who completed a backyard cottage, that included a little remodeling and a lot of custom design, custom construction and landscaping.

Here are the client’s unedited responses to a few quick questions:

 1) Why did you build an accessory dwelling?
We had been looking for a duplex to buy and share with my Mom but couldn’t find anything that met her needs and ours.  At one point, we happened to look at a fixer-upper that had a big lot and that sparked the idea for an ADU.  That particular house wasn’t the match for us, but we did find another fixer-upper that did work out and immediately started the process.
2) What was most surprising about having all three generations together.
​I thought we’d spend more time together than we actually do- especially dinners.  We each have our own routines and so we often share food, but not always together.
3) Have you set up any “good neighbor” rules between your two homes?
​We don’t typically show up unannounced though now that we walk my Mom’s dog, we’re there once in the morning and once in the afternoon.
4) What was the worst surprise in the planning and building?
​Fire sprinklers being enforced!  ​
5) What was the best surprise during planning and building?  
​The building permit was remarkably fast and made up for the delay in the planning permit.​
6) What was the best aspect of creating a custom design?
We were able to site the cottage in a way that worked for both privacy and light.  We also were able to really consider how the space(s) would be used for my Mom and configure a nice sized office space for her.
7) What do you wish you did differently?
​I’m not sure I’d choose radiant heat again.  And, if we didn’t choose radiant heat, we might not have chosen the tile floors.
8) Other thoughts?
We really love living here and sharing more of the day-to-day with my Mom.  It’s great to be able to help out as needed, but for her to be quite independent and able to walk/ take the bus/ etc. to get around here in the Gourmet Ghetto.  Her old house was up in the Berkeley Hills and not nearly as easy for accessing stores and restaurants.