Ask the Architect

Making the garage into living space


Q. We were told by a building inspector that we need a permit for making our garage into a bedroom and bathroom. He gave us 10 days to “respond.” He told us we just need an architect to file a sketch of the room; he would even help us expedite the permit. We called around and are being told some crazy things and high costs to prepare the sketch. Why are we being told we need all these things, like a survey, a possible Sandy repair permit, an energy report, etc.? The inspector didn’t say we needed any of this. Who’s telling us the truth? We’re so confused.

A. I’ve always wondered why people in your situation aren’t given a more thorough explanation of all the things needed for a permit. Code words like “sketch,” “expedite” and “simple,” along with phrases like “all you need is a permit,” or “you just …” are misleading. Making a much more complicated process seem so simple that people have a false sense of what is needed only adds stress and mistrust to the problem when a licensed individual is trying to get you through this legal procedure. Couple this with the knowledge of codes, structure and pitfalls that a seasoned professional must apply, and you may have a better sense of how you got pulled into a much more involved situation than you were told about and why it costs more than you assumed.
For example, there are many regulations for sleeping spaces and bathrooms, such as means of escape, minimum space size, plumbing requirements and use. In most jurisdictions, the extra bedroom has been used as a non-permitted rental, so the examiner of the plans, not the inspector you met, may have a policy to first get proof that you are not illegally renting the space. If you have a door to the outside from the room, for example, they will require that it be substituted with a window or blocked entirely with wall materials, meaning that you have some remedial construction to do.
I’m working with a few files right now where the owners didn’t know that the ceiling heights are lower than allowed by state building code, so, in addition to applying for a building permit, we are in a multi-month processes of first applying for a building code variance. This requires much more documentation, time and cost to the owner that the inspector might have noticed and said something about when they saw the spaces in question, but the owner wasn’t made aware of it. The owner was also only told they needed an architect or engineer and a sketch. This creates the false sense that the much more complicated process was simple when it wasn’t, and left the licensed professional to look like the enforcer of the law and “the bad guy,” possibly trying to rack up more fees.

Site plan, zoning analysis, energy loss calculations and more are all required. Good luck!

© 2022 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.