Adventures in Berkeley Building Permits (aka Hell)

April 22, 2014

We want to build a deck in the back of our house.  The four people we got estimates from, all who have done a lot of work in Berkeley for many years, have said we don’t need a permit if the deck is 30″ or less, but because I am very law abiding, I emailed the City of Berkeley Permit Department just to make sure.  An architect there told me that I need a permit because the deck will be bigger than 120 sq ft.

I’ve heard that the permit process can be terrible in Berkeley, but this is a low to the ground, rectangular structure that plenty of people build themselves.  How hard could the process be?  So, I dutifully made an appointment during my lunch hour to talk to the architect who assured me it was a simple process.

I arrived at 12:20PM for my 12:30PM appointment, which the architect told me to make so I wouldn’t have to wait.  I check in and am told that the architect will be right with me.  I wait for 25 minutes, so 15 minutes after my schedule appointment, and check back at the counter to see if there is a problem.  The person says, “Oh, I’ll tell him you’re here.  He hasn’t come out yet?”  Did he not tell the architect that I was there?  It’s unclear.  I sit back down.  A few minutes later, the check in person says, he was eating his lunch, he’ll be right out.  What?  Why would you make an appointment during your lunch?  A few minutes later, the architect comes out – no apologies or explanations for being 25 minutes late.  Oh well, he’s going to explain this simple process to me, so I can pay my city some money and be law abiding even though I’m pretty sure most people would not go through this process for a simple deck like the one we’re planning.

He starts explaining all the drawings I am going to have to submit, but assures me I can just draw them myself on pieces of 11″ x 17″ paper.  He’s using words like ledger, joist, anchorage, tension ties that aren’t exactly common terms for someone who isn’t an architect or contractor.  I am starting to get overwhelmed, so want to revisit the size of deck that doesn’t require a permit.  He poo poos this and doesn’t want to discuss it at all.  He suggests I might want to hire someone to draw up the plans.

I ask about Simpson anchors and what the rules are around using them and tells me to just do it with concrete piers.  It seems like he doesn’t really understand what the requirements would be to allow the use of the anchors, which seems odd considering he is the city’s architect in the permit department.  When I ask how much the permit will cost, he conveniently “doesn’t deal with the fees” and tells me I can “ask over there”.

I go “over there” and wait a few minutes behind a man filling out some paperwork.  I say, “excuse me” and ask the woman behind the counter if this is where I can find out about fees.  She brusquely tells me that yes, after she helps this other person (who is still filling out a form), she can talk to me.  She’s acting as if I was trying to cut ahead, which I clearly was not.  When it is my turn, I ask her how to determine the cost of fees and she gives me a chart that is based on the amount you pay to build the deck.  I then ask what you do if you are building some or all of it yourself and she laughs rudely and tells me I need to get a contractor’s estimate.  Well, seeing as I have now gotten four estimates that vary widely, by a factor of 3, I am not entirely sure how to provide this information.  Do I just give her the cheapest one?  She doesn’t seem to understand how or why this might be confusing.

Then she says, “these are only the permit fees.  There could be other fees like zoning or other things.”  So I ask how I am supposed to determine what those other fees might be or whether I will have to pay them since I am not going to build a deck if I have to pay $1,000 in fees.  She says she can’t tell me until I submit my plans (the 11″ x 17″ ones that will be “so simple” for me to draw up).  I tell her what my plans are will depend on how much it will cost since we don’t have an unlimited budget, so I ask if there is any way to estimate the fees before I make the plans.  I understand it might not be 100% accurate, but I want some idea – are we talking hundreds, thousands, what?

She keeps repeating what she’s already told me and then obviously notices for the first time that I am near tears, so she tells me to go back to the check in desk and get a number.  Excuse me, what?!  There is no one else waiting to be helped.  I have been here now for over an hour and have gotten very little information and now she wants me to get a number so she can call it and I will come back to this same desk to speak to this same woman?  I’ve had enough and walk out the door.

I immediately called my partner exasperated to explain what happened.  I decided being law abiding was not worth the risk of trauma that I would almost surely be exposed to trying to go through this process, especially since I’m pregnant and the stress is probably not good for my child.  My partner tries to convince me otherwise because he is also very law abiding.  I will probably just let him deal with it.

I can’t even imagine what this process will look like when we eventually renovate our kitchen.  Ugh, it feels like moving would be easier than dealing with the permit office again!




It’s the Little Things – Front Door Refresh

September 18, 2013

A few weeks ago, I painted the inside and outside of our front door, which hasn’t been painted since 2005.  It made a HUGE difference and cost less than $35 (and that’s with a visit to the locksmith after I dropped the lock and couldn’t figure out how to get it back in)!  I didn’t even have to take the door down.

I picked Benjamin Moore Rapture for the outside and Benjamin Moore Gull Wing Gray for the inside.



I hadn’t actually been planning on painting the inside, but once I had the lock off, I figured I might as well.  Good thing I hoard paint samples in our hall storage closet!

It took a day, maybe three hours of actual painting and removing the lock, but I had to wait for the coats to dry and I didn’t want to leave the house with the lock out.  The outside took four coats of paint and the inside took two.  I didn’t prime either side of the door, but if I had primed the outside, it probably wouldn’t have taken four coats.  It still took less than 1 pint of paint with four coats!  The inside only took two coats because I was going from a cream color (or dirty white?) to gray.  I used an angled brush for the nooks and crannies and a dense foam roller to make sure there were no brush lines.

Check it out:


2101 Sacramento 031




I think it looks fantastic, but the unintended consequence is that I think it is now more obvious than ever that we need to paint the outside of our house!  That is on the to do list for next spring.

I forgot to take pictures while I was painting the outside, but did manage to get some in progress shots of the inside.

(1 coat)

2013-08-31 15.46.09  2013-08-31 16.27.25

(2 coats)

2013-08-31 21.45.24

I also spraypainted the hardware, which was a beaten down brass color.






$0 (I had a coupon, normally $5) Benjamin Moore Arborcoat sample pint in Rapture – that’s all I needed for 4 coats

$2.50 (on sale, normally $5) Benjamin Moore paint sample in Gull Wing Gray

$7 Rustoleum Universal paint and primer in one – Oil Rubbed Bronze (I’ve used this for many projects besides this one.)

$25 Locksmith help to reinstall the handle part of the lock (the deadbolt was easy and I’m pretty confident that if it was just a regular knob lock, I could have done it on my own.  It also didn’t help that I dropped the handle and parts came out.  Youtube, shockingly, didn’t have the answers on that one!)

Now go forth and find a project for this weekend!

Color Transformation – Toddler Table and Chairs

July 23, 2013

Here’s a quick rundown of my latest project – painting a kid sized table and chairs.  It is a solid wood set from Ikea that was passed down to me from a family with three kids.  They were in pretty decent shape, but were a blah medium wood color and the finish was not smooth in a lot of places because there were teeth marks, glitter, and other things you’d expect after a few years of use by three toddlers.


This isn’t actually the before picture because I forgot to take one before I primed and a picture of the set post-priming.

Leksvik Chair

Step 1:

Primed Table and ChairsI sanded the chairs with 120 grit sandpaper.  I used a sander for the seat and legs, but did the rest manually because it’s tough to get in all those nooks and crannies!  It’s not essential to sand everything, especially if you’re using oil based primer, but it helps with bonding.  I sanded more thoroughly in areas where there were bite marks or glued on glitter to smooth things out.  If I was being very thorough, I would have used wood filler too, but I didn’t care enough to do that.

Step 2:

I used oil based primer.  I’ve never used oil based primer before, but I heard it’s very durable and my dad had some leftover, so I gave it a shot.  Since it was stinky, I did this outside.  I think the primer was a little old and chunky because some areas didn’t go on that smoothly, so after it dried, I did some light sanding by hand with 220 grit sandpaper.  It wasn’t perfect and some of the texture showed through the paint, but I didn’t care enough to fix it.  Next time, I might try Zinsser Smart Prime, which is water based, but supposedly as durable as oil based primer.

Step 3:

I can’t resist buying paint samples when they’re on sale and last Memorial Day, I stocked up on some really fun Benjamin Moore colors from OSH.  They were only $2.49 a can!  I painted the table “Sun Kissed Yellow” and the chairs “Rocky Mountain Sky” (blue), “Calypso Orange”, “Fresh Lime”, and “Bonfire” (red).  BM’s paint samples only come in flat finish, which isn’t great for things kids are going to have their grubby hands all over, but I knew I was going to put a glassy protective coat over the paint, so that was okay with me.

The blue took 2 coats.  I think the other chairs took 3 coats of paint.  And I swear the yellow took a million.  Ok, not a million, but maybe 5?

I painted inside because the BM paint was virtually odor free and I got to watch a lot of episodes of Mad Men on Netflix while I painted.  Priming outside hurt my old lady back.

Step 4:

PolycrylicI applied two coats of Minwax Water-Based Polycrylic Protective Finish in “Clear Gloss”.  This stuff has the consistency of water, but is cloudy, so if you use too much at once, it doesn’t dry clear.  You need to apply very thin coats, which I found a little challenging because sometimes it felt like I wasn’t getting any on the chairs or table.  After the first coat dried, I was reassured that it was in fact adhering and that I could be very light with my application.


A bright and cheerful set that is very wipeable and will hopefully stand up to years of abuse.

Painted Table and Chairs

Painted Table and Chairs Pushed In


I got the table and chairs for free and had the sandpaper and paint, so the only thing I had to purchase was the Polycrylic Finish.  It was $20 at OSH and I used a $5 off coupon, so this project cost me $15 total.  Also, I have almost the entire can left, so I probably only spent $1!  I supposed you could count the 5 cans of sample paint I purchased for $2.50 each, so that’s $15 + $12.50 = $27.50 for a fantastic looking table and chairs.

Now if only I could teach my boys to sit on those chairs while they eat!

DIY Hardwood Flooring

March 14, 2011

We did it!  We’ve successfully installed hardwood floor in our master bedroom and closet and our guestroom.  Hurrah!

We don’t have any before pictures of the master bedroom other than the post-flood pictures, but here are some of the guestroom.

The subfloor in the guestroom was fir, which I think is technically a softwood, but is harder than plywood, which is what the subfloor in the master bedroom was made of.  That made the guestroom floor much more difficult to install than in the master bedroom even though the master was more than twice the size.

I had a good system going where I lined up the planks so we could reduce the waste when we got to the end of each row.  It also helped us make sure each row was random and there weren’t too many stepped patterns or Ts.  My partner left lining up the planks to me.  I’m much more detail oriented 😛

Here’s the finished floor!  It’s hard to capture the whole floor without the doorway getting in the way, but you get the idea.

The only project we have left now is the stairs, but we deserve a little break, don’t we?

It’s Spring/DIY Vegetable Box!

February 6, 2011

Well, it’s not technically spring, but it’s been in the 70s and sunny the last couple of days in the Bay and our vegetable garden is responding.  Our radishes, kale, and broccoli are making a valiant effort to get to eating size.  I hope it stays warm or our veggies might get confused!
We built our raised vegetable box in the summer of 2009 when I was studying for the bar exam.  I guess I needed a distraction!  It was surprisingly easy and relatively inexpensive (about $200 for materials and dirt).  The only two things that didn’t end up as we planned were that we put wheels on the bottom, but it is so heavy that we can’t actually wheel the box around and that we were going to put mesh over the top to keep bugs/animals out, but it turned out to be unnecessary.  Here are some pictures of the building, “inspection”, and growing.

I can’t think of a better way for you to enjoy this amazing weather than to get out there and build your own vegetable box!

Bang for Your Buck

February 2, 2011

I love this show.  For those of you who haven’t seen it, Bang for Your Buck is an HGTV show where a designer and real estate expert compare three renovations of the same room with the same budget in similar neighborhoods.  It’s not a perfect comparison because even though the homeowners spend the same amount of money, some of them do work themselves, so their renovations are usually better because they didn’t have to spend money on labor.  The show is still amazing.  It combines competition, home improvement, voyerism, cost-benefit analysis, and often irritating homeowners.  What’s not to love?   It can even be used to teach narrative structure and themes!

Narrative Structure:

1. Exposition: We meet all three homeowners as they go through their homes explaining their renovation choices.  We get to see before and after pictures, which I LOVE.  They’re kind of like those ads you see for acne medication or weight loss products where they make the before picture as atrocious as photoshop will allow.

2. Rising Action: We watch, along with the homeowners, as the designer and real estate expert walk through each home and comment about what they like, don’t like, and what they think future buyers will think.

3. Conflict: The homeowners often shout at the computer screen as the designer and real estate expert express their concerns with their choices.  This is hilarious because the homeowners often get really self-righteous even though they have no expertise.  My favorite was the woman who said “Why would you want all your kitchen hardware to match?  That’s so boring!”  There’s a good deal of homeowner self-denial that happens here too, like the man who didn’t think anyone would notice that his cabinet handles were not level because they were “only” 1/4″ different!  The conflict between the designer and real estate expert is much more muted.  They usually just disagree about design choices vs what future buyers will want/expect.

4. Climax/Falling Action: Even though finding out your return on investment is ostensibly the point of the show, the really exciting part is the aforementioned drama.  The falling action really happens before the climax in this show, which is unusual, but works here.  The designer and real estate expert sit down together and recap each home and then the real estate expert tells viewers how much each homeowner can expect as a % return on their investment.  Then, after recapping each renovation, they say “and that means, ___ got the most bang for her/his buck!”

5. Resolution: Regardless of whether they got the most bang for their buck, each homeowner defends their choices and says something to the effect of “I didn’t do this for the investment, I did it because I love my new room and I wouldn’t do anything differently.”


1. Man vs Man: There’s competition between 3 people/couples who never actually meet each other, between the home owners and the designer and real estate expert, between the home owners when they’ve disagreed with how to do their renovation, and even between the designer and real estate expert!

2. Man vs Himself: HGTV picks very confident individuals for this show, so this isn’t a major theme, but every once in a while, you can see a glimmer of self-doubt where a homeowner will say something like “Oh yeah, we should have done that.”  This is where, as a viewer, I have the most empathy with the homeowners who are otherwise usually pretty obnoxious.  I mean, when faced with a gazillion choices, it’s hard to make one, especially if you have FOMA!

3. Man vs Society: This is most evident when it comes to marble.  I have no idea why marble elicits the most passionate responses from people.  Yes, realtors always want it and assume all homeowners want it too, but homeowners on this show love to pretend like they know better and that marble is passe.  I personally love marble and would probably air on the side of marble in a renovation with future sellers in mind, but who am I to thwart an anti-marble trend?

I can’t wait to spend Friday night watching Bang for Your Buck!

DIY Guest Bathroom

January 30, 2011

The guest bathroom was the first room we tackled after our flooding disaster and although we were off to a good start with the tile and got it done quickly, it probably took four months from start to finish because work and holidays got in the way 😛

1. Put up waterproofing paper and hardiebacker board.

2. The REALLY fun part – tiling the walls.  Turns out tiling is SO fun.  You get to see immediate progress right before your very eyes!

3. TILED!!!  Notice the soap dish and corner shelf.  Fancy, huh?  We lost the first soap dish to improper adhesive, but we got it on the second try and it just makes that one even more special, right?

4. Removing all the existing floor tile and old hardiebacker.  My partner is an AMAZING person who demolished all of this because I was too weak to do it 😛  I can not tell you how wonderful, amazing, and supportive of my DIY projects he is even though he hates doing them.

5. Hardiebacker installed on the floor.  One step closer to tile!

6. Tiled floor!!!

7. Smoothing out the walls.  This was the BIGGEST pain in the behind and again, I have to credit my partner.  It seems like he ends up with all the not so fun parts of the project doesn’t he?  😉

8. Replacing the vanity led to some minor plumbing headaches, but we worked it out.  Putting the towel bar back up also led to some frustrations, as did putting up a mirror frame, but it’s all good because ladies and gentlemen, the bathroom is done.  Did you hear me?  DONE!!!

Should I tackle the upstairs bathroom now?  Ha ha ha.  I think I just heard my partner faint.