How to grandfather/legalize un-permitted "workshop" structure?

Asked by Bjones, Santa Clara, CA Thu May 30, 2013

In Santa Clara county, is there any way to legalize/grandfather an accessory structure? It seems to have been built long before the previous owners bought the place. I have a feeling that it is not compliant with the setback requirements. I'm afraid to go ask in the county office for fear that they force me to demolish it. The structure is quite nice (~200 sqft) and I was hoping to make some improvements to it (with permits) of course to improve the property resale value.

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David Blockh…, Agent, Los Altos, CA
Thu May 30, 2013

Without going to the county building department and asking you will never have a solution to your (potential) problem.
Things to think about:
Had a permit been pulled on the original structure and not finalized? If so you may be able to get it "finaled" by bringing it up to code. I did this for a client in Los Altos on a swimming pool that was not "finaled" but had a open yet expired permit.. He had to add some electrical upgrades for safety purposes but otherwise it was minimal. Note: on this project, the house was within all of the setback requirements at the time as well as current setback requirements.
Second option - see if you could get a variance for the project. I would check out the variance requirements for the county.
Third option - Is the property large enough to have a secondary structure built on it? If so and you want to add value to the property, you could tear down the original structure and add a new structure that meets all of today's building codes. This might be the most risky and expensive option.
Fourth option - tear the structure down and improve the landscaping for resale.
Lastly, you could sell the property without doing anything to the structure and let the new buyer deal with it. Note: if the structure is non-compliant (non-permitted), you must disclose this to any and all potential home buyers. Otherwise you will likely be sued.
Without being able to see the project and how it sits on the lot, these are the best options that I have for you. If you would like me to take a look at the project, I can be reached at 650 917-4250.

David Blockhus
DRE# 01169028
Coldwell Banker - Downtown Los Altos Office
650 917-4250
1 vote
Mr Blockhus,
I have an issue with a very old shed on my property. The house was built in 1938. I don't know when the shed was built but I have a property tax assessment from wither 1958 or 1938 that shows it in the drawing and has it in the description. The problem is that its about 12 inches off the property line and the current code is 36 inches. Because this building is so old and might even be original to the house do I have any right here?
Flag Mon Mar 13, 2017
Juliana Lee, Agent, Palo Alto, CA
Thu May 30, 2013
Most cities have similar but not identical requirements. Palo Alto has a useful zoning manual online at

If the structure has something that could be considered a kitchen, the city could see it as substandard housing and not be very helpful. If it is just a workshop and it meets the daylight plane requirements, you might be able to bring it up to code. (Typically you can build a workshop under 100 sf)

Generally you can talk to the planning department without triggering them to come out for an inspection. However each inspector interprets situations slightly differently. Short of applying for a permit, you won't get a "guaranteed" answer.

Los Altos real estate information at

Juliana Lee
Top 2 agent nationwide at Keller Williams Realty, the nations largest
Cell 650-857-1000

Over 20 years experience
Over 1,000 homes sold in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties
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1 vote
Nina Daruwal…, Agent, Cupertino, CA
Thu May 30, 2013
Dear B Jones,

This is a situation where yes, you will be taking a risk......even though the structure has been there for a long time, if its not up to Code, they can ask you to remove it....on the other hand, City can give you permits to improve the structure and bring it up to current code, then perhaps you can add the sqft, once done with permits......I think that is feasible...
All the Best,
Nina Daruwalla
DRE# 01712223
Web Reference:
1 vote
I have a similar problem. I have a structure that has been on the property for 50 years but is only about 12 inches off the property line. 36 inches is what they want. Do you think I can get a permit without moving it? I have 8100 sqf land space and only 2200 in the house so I'm well under the total requirement. The only issue is that it's too close to the line. The house was built in 1937 and I have appraisal drawings from as far back as the 50's with the shed on it. It might even be original to the house.
Flag Tue Aug 30, 2016
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