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Remodeling Homes in the San Juan Islands

Updated: May 18, 2022

While showing property I am often asked, if the home could be renovated and/or increased in size as the lot is perfect but the home is too small or too dated for the prospective buyer.

As I have said numerous times, it is still more cost effective to buy existing and remodel than it is to build new construction. With new homes, the cost is $400-$500 per square foot, and it is 20 months before you can walk over the threshold.

If you are buying a home that you intend to remodel, your feasibility study should include some of these items. These tests and research should be done prior to closing so you know that your intended remodel can actually be approved.


It is important to interview several contractors as you are looking for one that is compatible with your communication style, has the time, worker force and service providers in place for the size of your remodel. Checking references is very important. We do not have a functioning Angie’s list in San Juan County, but your real estate agent, neighbors, lumber yard store or acquaintances should be a good starting point. Insist on a legal contract between the parties with procedures for change order, punch list items, warranty, and cost over runs. Many of the contractors on the island will not bid a remodel due to the complexity and unknowns so they offer time and materials contracts.

Your contractor should walk thru the home prior to closing with you to ensure that your ideas can be accomplished within your budget and time allocation. Typically, it is not possible for the contractor’s inspection to be invasive, i.e., removing siding or sheet rock, unless you have contracted for it in the purchase agreement.


Your budget is very important. As mentioned above, you will most likely not get a guaranteed bid and cost over runs and change orders are part of the life of a remodel. You need to build in a contingency fund on a remodel as there are many unknowns and unexpected items. One rule of thumb I have used is, budget x 2. An example is one contractor friend of mine went out to replace windows on a home, he ended up having to replace the entire wall on the front of the home due to wet rot. The problem was not detectable until the siding was removed.

Basically, you can do anything you want to change a home, it just depends on how much money you want to allocate for the project.


Add a Bedroom:

The first issue is the size of the current septic. In order to add a bedroom, the septic must be adequate in size for the number of bedrooms existing and proposed. To increase the size of your septic is not as easy as it used to be in the old days. You will need a perc test and the soil conditions must comply with current regulations, not the rules in place with the system was installed. Systems must now all have reserve areas that would also need to meet the number of bedrooms serviced by the drain field. The existing system must be non-failing. To evidence non-failing to the County, on-site sewage systems inspection forms must be submitted for the past years.

The designer will create the drawing for the additional lateral line for the increased sewage flow and then apply for the permit. The health department will make a site inspection and then if all is in order, issue a permit. Those permits are good for 4 years. They take about 4 weeks to process.

If the system is old or no permits are of record, an “after-the-fact” permit must be applied for with the “as built” created for the submission. The owner must expose the ends of each lateral to verify length and layout, dig a test hole adjacent to the drain field and two holes in another location for the possible reserve area.

Often it is best to upgrade the entire system to one of the pre-treatment type systems such as a Whitewater or Avantec.


In order to have an addition or remodel that expands the building footprint but does not increase the load, (number of bedrooms) the septic system must still be proven as non-failing. Even if the expansion does not change the footprint, (adding a second story) non-failing must be proven.

If you change the footprint and increase the non-permeable surface, a storm water management plan must also be submitted.


Waterfront lot coverage is 50% on the frontage; however, if the home is non-conforming due to the proximity to the shoreline, (less than 110 feet) you may only expand back or up and the footprint includes overhangs and decks. You may not expand sideways as you may not increase the non-conformity of the improvements. If there is room on the lot, you can always elect to abandon the existing footprint and move back to a conforming setback or even out of the Shoreline Management area entirely (200 feet from the shoreline). By relocating the structure back, then you have more flexibility with the size of the home but must still comply with the 50% coverage on the frontage. This change of footprint is obviously now new construction and no longer a remodel.


Non-structural items such as counter tops, carpet, and paint generally do not require a permit. However, if you relocate the oven, sink, washer, dryer or other electrical and plumbing changes, then a mechanical permit is required. If you change interior walls, plans and a permit will be required which may include engineering.


You should always comply with the regulations and obtain permits. I know it is temping to avoid the process but when it comes time for you to sell and you do not have proper permits for the changes, it becomes unpleasant very quickly. Rightfully so, buyers expect that the changes you made to the home are safe and the only way to prove that is with permits and inspections. Further, the homeowner Insurance firms may deny a claim if the incident was caused by unsafe conditions built without a permit. Lenders can also become cranky during the purchase or refinance process if they find out that the remodel was processed without proper permits. The most important part is getting the final inspection. Some property owners are so excited to move in that they and/or their contractors fail to call for the final certificate of occupancy.

Owner Builder:

If the home was built after 1988, under the San Juan County Owner Builder Program, the owner must have an Owner Builder Life Safety Inspection from the County within 30 days of selling or renting the home. If any deficiencies are identified pursuant to the inspection, the owner must remedy those. Sellers must provide written proof that the home passed the Owner Builder Life Safety Inspection prior to a closing.


With the convenience of on-line shopping it is very tempting to buy the materials and hope that the service provider can install them in a timely and correct manner. I recommend bringing in the service provider up front before you start purchasing and confirm they are familiar with the product line. Often, they have discounts that they can offer you within the product line that are easier to install and well tested for this area. The biggest issue is the on-line purchases may not include all the parts necessary for the install. You might get the faucet you ordered but the rest of the parts will need to be ordered as well. Leave it to the professionals.


You need to oversee the job. You should not buy a home on the island and expect to return in 90 days and have it remodeled perfectly. You need to monitor the progress or lack thereof via Skype, Facetime or similar, if you are remote. Daily or weekly site inspections are very important. Change orders and cost over runs must be documented.


  1. Lien waiver affidavits from the contractors and service providers upon completion.

  2. Final Inspections by County and/or Labor and Industry.

  3. Punch list with the contractor and assigned completion dates.


Fortunately, it is not difficult to evaluate the potential resale value. Kitchen and bathroom remodels, adding a deck, or finishing a basement or attic are all popular renovations because they upgrade the most-used rooms in the house or add living space.

In terms of resale value, here are some popular projects with high paybacks, according to Remodeling Magazine’s Cost versus Value Report:

  1. Adding an attic bedroom – 83.1 percent

  2. Adding a wooden deck – 80.6 percent

  3. Minor kitchen remodel – 78.3 percent

  4. Major kitchen remodel – 72.1 percent

  5. Basement remodel – 75.4 percent

  6. Bathroom remodel – 71 percent

Even smaller remodels, while costing less than major jobs, can still have a major impact on how your home looks and feels. How it will improve your life and if it will enhance your enjoyment of the home is one of the most important factors.

With some careful planning, budgeting, and research you can ensure you reap the most financial and personal value for whatever renovation you decide to undertake.

As I was married to a general contractor in the past and have lived through numerous remodeling projects, I do wish you the best with your remodel project. It can be a character-building experience but very rewarding.

If you need references for designers, architects, or general contractors, please be sure to contact me.

Written by:

Merri Ann Simonson



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