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Remodeling Homes in the San Juan Islands

Updated: Jun 18

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 mid-priced new homes, the cost is $500-750 per square foot, and it is 24 months before you can walk over the threshold.   High-end priced homes will be $1,000 + per square foot.

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, work 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 or acquaintances should be a good starting point.  Insist on a legal contract between the parties with procedures for change orders, punch list items, warranty, and cost overruns.  Many of the contractors on the island will not generate a bid on a remodel due to the complexity and unknowns, therefore they offer time and materials contracts. 

Your contractor should walk through 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 arranged 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 overruns 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 unknown 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. 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 when the system was installed.    Systems must have replacement reserve areas that must also meet current regulations for the number of bedrooms.  The existing system must be non-failing.  To evidence non-failing to the County, the on-site sewage system inspection forms must be submitted for past years.   

The designer will perc the area that they believe is qualified for the expansion and then have San Juan County Health department out to inspect the perc holes.  (Typically 3 holes) In many cases, the entire system must be upgraded or converted to add capacity. The designer will then create the drawing for the additional lateral line for the increased sewage flow and then apply for the permit.  The health department and a few other departments, will all review the application and, if all is in order, issue a permit.  Those permits are good for 5 years.  They take about 8 weeks to process after the designer has submitted the package to the Health Department.    

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 by the inspector or designer 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.



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 level of change in location is obviously new construction and no longer a remodel.


Non-structural items such as countertops, 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 modify interior walls, plans and a permit will be required which may include structural engineering.


You should always comply with the regulations and obtain permits.  I know it is tempting 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 modifications 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 damaging 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 Permit:

If you plan to use the Owner Builder Permit process for the remodel or if the home was built after 1988, under the program, the owner must have an Owner Builder Life Safety Inspection from the County.  Any deficiencies that are identified pursuant to the inspection, must be remedied.  Property owners must provide written proof that the home passed the Owner Builder Life Safety Inspection prior to a sale or renting of the home.   The title report will reflect the Owner Builder Affidavit as the County requires that those be recorded.


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 that they are familiar with the product line.  Often, the service provider will have discounts that they can pass on to you within the product line that are easier to install and tested for this area.  The biggest issue is the on-line purchases may not include all the parts necessary for the installation.  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 6 months and have it remodeled perfectly.  You need to monitor the progress or lack thereof via Zoom, Facetime or similar, if you are remote.    Daily or weekly site inspections are very important.  Change orders and cost over runs must be documented.



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

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

·         Punch list with the contractor and assigned completion dates.



Fortunately, it is not difficult to evaluate the potential resale value of a remodel. 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.


According to Remodeling Magazine's Cost versus Value Report, nationally, there are several popular projects with high paybacks, a portion of their report is shown below:

·         Adding a bedroom -                         83.1 percent

·         Adding a wooden deck -                80.6 percent

·         Minor kitchen remodel -               78.3 percent

·         Major kitchen remodel -               72.1 percent

·         Basement remodel -                       75.4 percent

·         Bathroom remodel -                       71    percent

The return on your investment for all types of remodels is also market dependent.  Further, some items such as luxury upgrades will not always grant you a great return.  Items such as in-home theaters, sport courts, pools, wine cellars, are too specialized.  The average return on investment for remodels is 70%.

The highest returns include remodels for HVAC, garage door, siding, entry door, kitchen, windows and baths.  Most of these are under the curb appeal category.

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.

As with all my articles, the opinions expressed herein are solely my own.  And these opinions are based on my personal experience, observations, and from interviewing and reviewing both public and non-public information sources. 


Written by:

Merri Ann Simonson

Coldwell Banker SJI





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