The California Coast is one of the most beautiful, temperate and desirable places to live in the United States. Many Americans move to California with the hope of constructing their dream home directly on the beach or overlooking the ocean on a rocky cliff. While building a dream home along the California Coast is certainly possible, there are also a number of challenges. From expensive permits and environmental regulations to property use restrictions and sky-high maintenance costs, building a beach house in California is not for the faint of heart. Below we outline seven essentials to keep in mind when building a home along the California Coast -- from figuring out the right floor plan to picking the perfect materials.
In her 2020 article “The California Coastal Commission: Real Estate Laws & Regulations” for Legal Beagle, Michelle Nati writes that “the goal of the California Coastal Commission is to preserve the shoreline for current citizens and future generations in partnership with cities and counties by planning and regulating water and land use along the state's coastline.” Because the Commission’s primary goal is to preserve ecosystems of and public access to the California coast, development within the coastal zone is highly regulated. The California Coastal Commission oversees all “development of beachfront properties, including the division of parcels, the building of structures and the issuance of zoning ordinances.” Supported by the California Coastal Act of 1976, the CCC also “monitors any activities that change or intensify the use of, and public access to, coastal lands or waters in a specific area.” Any California property owners or real estate developers who wish to alter the “California waterfront must follow the regulations laid out by the Act.”
Any such changes require that homeowners and developers apply for permits from “either the Coastal Commission or from local city and county governments.” To determine whether one’s property is within the Coastal Zone, property owners can view this California Coastal Zone Map from Data Basin. As one can see, the Coastal Zone stretches from the northern tip of Mexico to the southern tip of Oregon. According to the map’s description, the Coastal Zone of California “does not include the area of jurisdiction of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, nor any area contiguous thereto, including any river, stream, tributary, creek, or flood control or drainage channel flowing into such area.”
While the California Coastal Commission regulates how, when and where homes along the coast can be built, the CCC also offers incentives to some builders. According to a brochure released by the CCC on the California State Government website, “the California Coastal Commission is now offering a 40% discount on application fees for projects certified by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) at a ‘Gold’ level, or an equivalent Green Building certification.” This discount could result in permit application savings of $1,800 for single family residences measuring between 1,500 and 5,000 square feet in built area. Homeowners who plan to build along the coast in Southern California, Northern California or along the Central Coast should check with their local district office before designing their dream house.
Next, property owners hoping to build a new custom home along the coast of California should prepare themselves for higher maintenance costs and more frequent maintenance activities. According to the technical fact sheet “Coastal Building Successes and Failures: Home Builder’s Guide to Coastal Construction” from the National Association of Home Builders Research Center, homes in coastal areas should “be designed and built to withstand higher loads and more extreme conditions.” The NAHB notes that “because of their exposure to higher loads and extreme conditions...homes in coastal areas will require more maintenance and upkeep” as well as more upfront to design, construct, repair and insure.
In his article “What are the costs of owning a vacation home?” for Bankrate, Erik J Martin writes that “experts recommend setting aside 1 percent of the total purchase price of the property for home maintenance each year.” Coastal homes, however, could require quite a bit more investment per year. Exposure to sand, sun, wind and waves can wear on delicate equipment, furniture and other elements of the home. For example -- according to the post “The Hidden Costs of Living on the Coast” from the Official Real Estate Agent Directory -- coastal homes may incur “damage to electrical components, requiring replacement.” Salt exposure can also “corrode metal present in wiring, breaker boxes and other metal components connected to electrical.” For coastal homeowners in California, “this not only means regular maintenance is required but also means extra precautions should be taken to help prevent electric shock.”
Homes along the California coast are often subject to property use restrictions. These may inhibit homeowners from using their beach houses as investment properties like vacation homes or short-term rentals. In her article “Do Californians have a right to Airbnb on the coast?” for KPCC, Jill Replogle addresses the issue. Longer term residents of small coastal communities across California often express that “the ease of rental platforms like Airbnb and VRBO [has] led to a proliferation of short-term rentals that affect quality of life” for those who live in these neighborhoods. Homeowners argue that those who use apps like Airbnb and VRBO to spend a couple nights on the beach bring “noise, trash and parking problems” to their communities. Community advocates also worry that the proliferation of short-term rentals could “decrease home values for neighbors,” while their potential profits could “tempt landlords to convert needed, long-term rental units into vacation rentals.”
Just before Replogle released her broadcast in 2017, the local government in Laguna Beach, California had “permanently banned rentals for 30 days or less in residential neighborhoods.” At the time, Replogle believed homeowners who wished to buy beachfront properties for use as short-term rental units might find an ally in the California Coastal Commission. Because the CCC and the Coastal Act both advocate for protecting and encouraging lower cost visitor and recreational facilities,” she thought landlords might have the upper hand. In fact, a court of appeal reversed the Santa Barbara city council’s ban on short-term rentals in 2018 at the behest of the California Coastal Commission.
Last year in 2020, however, the California Coastal Commission approved Laguna Beach’s ban on short-term rentals. According to Jennifer Sokolowsky in an October 2020 article for Avalara, the updated ordinance Laguna Beach adopted in 2017 “bans new short-term rental units in residential neighborhoods, but allows residential properties in commercial areas to operate as vacation rentals.” The ordinance also requires landlords of short-term rental properties to apply for and secure permits, follow rules regarding noise and light pollution and designate a property manager. Landlords of short-term rentals in Laguna Beach -- and other small coastal cities in California -- must obtain “a transient occupancy registration certificate, collect the city’s transient occupancy tax (TOT) from guests, file quarterly transient occupancy tax returns, and remit the tax to the city.” While Sokolowsky’s article focuses on Long Beach, other communities have instituted similar regulations and restrictions. As such, owners must check local ordinances and defer to the California Coastal Commission when building new homes as investment properties along the Coast.
Though standard homeowner’s insurance is not required by law in the state of California, most lenders will not approve a mortgage or construction loan for prospective homeowners without a policy. Coastal California homeowners with property in high-risk flood zones should expect to pay for flood insurance and other disaster coverage as part of or in addition to their standard homeowners insurance policy. In his article “Can Your Mortgage Company Force You Into Buying Flood Insurance?” for SF Gate, William Pirraglia writes that mortgage companies across the US can force homeowners to purchase flood insurance under certain conditions. If the home is in a high flood risk zone like a” Special Flood Hazard Area” or if the lender is “federally regulated or insured,” homeowners can be required to buy flood insurance.
Pirraglia writes that the former is determined by “historical statistics displaying a greater chance of flooding in some locations than in others.” According to Pirraglia, the National Flood Insurance Program of 1968 “is a federal program that permits lenders to force borrowers to purchase this coverage, even if it's not required by government regulation.” In some cases, homeowners can be forced by lenders to purchase flood insurance even if their property falls outside a Special Flood Hazard Area. Of course, this is in the homeowner’s best interest. Still, flood insurance and other disaster reimbursement policies can be expensive, so homeowners should determine whether they can afford these added costs before proceeding with their coastal home construction.
Allison Hess breaks down the true cost in her article “Guide to Homeowners Insurance in Coastal Areas” for Insuramatch. Hess writes that “standard homeowners insurance is generally comprehensive enough to help cover most of the incidents a regular home might face…[but] coastal homes near the water have more specific needs that standard homeowners insurance may not provide.” Because of this, many insurance carriers refuse to “offer standard homeowners insurance to coastal homes due to the high risk of storms and flooding.” To cover these areas neglected by standard policies, Hess recommends applying for coastal homeowners insurance. This type of policy can “provide additional coverage for the greater exposure and risk you face near the water [by] filling in the gaps your standard homeowners isn’t going to cover.”
However, the costs are high for coastal homeowners insurance. According to Hess, “this kind of policy usually separates wind, named storms, and hurricanes, [each of which] will each have their own deductibles.” These deductibles are typically “either a flat fee or between 1-5% value of the home.” For example, the typical coastal home in Malibu, California is valued at $3.8 million. In case of an emergency, the typical Malibu homeowner could pay close to $200,000 to their insurance company before their plan kicks in to cover the damage. Even in this specialized type of homeowners insurance, “flood insurance is excluded.” As such, homeowners in coastal areas of California at risk of flood “will need to purchase additional flood insurance to protect your beach home from its increased risk.”
In his September 2021 article “The Cost of Insuring Expensive Waterfront Homes Is About to Skyrocket for The New York Times, Christopher Flavelle notes that starting last month, subsidies for homeowners in high flood risk zones “began to disappear.” This is because of a program recently adopted by the federal government, which intends to “force Americans to pay something closer to the real cost of their flood risk, which is rising as the planet warms.” While FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program “covers homes around the country,” Flavelle writes that the pain of rising premiums “will be most acutely felt in coastal communities.” Quoting Wharton School professor Benjamin Keys, Flavelle writes that “‘subsidized insurance has been critical for supporting coastal real estate markets.’” In the coming months, over 300,000 single family homes across the US “will face a significant rise in costs,” amounting to hundreds of dollars in just the first year.
However, coastal homeowners in California are expected to suffer very little. Californians will not be impacted by this ruling as significantly as homeowners in Florida, Louisiana and other Southern states. Interestingly, premiums might actually decrease in the Greater LA area while only increasing slightly in low-lying coastal areas of the SF Bay Area. In Kat Kerlin’s article “What FEMA's New Flood Risk Rating Means for Californians” for UC Davis, she writes that Malibu will actually incur “the steepest discount for any zip code in CA” as a result of this ruling, averaging more than $40 per month in savings. Santa Monica and the foothills of the San Francisco Bay Area will also “experience significant discounts.” Premiums are expected to increase only in low-lying coastal areas of the Bay Area, which would not be a great deal more money in these home communities.
As mentioned in prior segments of this post, building a custom home along the California coast comes with a bevy of environmental challenges. The sun, the sand and the sea can all impact the safety, security and longevity of a single family home built by the ocean. Weathering from high winds, salty air, sunny skies and crashing waves can wear away at your home’s exterior. In her 2019 article “Want to Buy on the Waterfront? Here Is What You Need to Know” for The New York Times, Shivani Vora writes that saltwater and air is more abusive than one might think. According to Vora, both are “corrosive, and homes, especially the exteriors and deck, can take a real beating because of this.” At the same time, humidity can cause mildew and mold to develop indoors. In extreme cases, homes along the coast may be subject to hurricane-force trade winds driven by the ocean’s currents. They may also suffer from minor leaks, climate-change driven sea level rise and/or catastrophic flooding during storm season. Mudslides can also cause significant damage in coastal areas of California -- particularly after wildfires have torn through the area.
Thankfully, there are many ways to meet and overcome these challenges, beginning with the design of your new home. Choosing fade, mold and mildew-resistant materials for both the interior and exterior of the home is vital. Opting for landscaping that protects the ground from erosion and acts as a wind block for damaging sea breezes can also help. Because native plants are better suited to the region, their roots are more compatible with the type of soil along the coast. A brief from the US Forest Service notes that “native plants can significantly reduce water runoff and, consequently, flooding.” Lisa Joyner’s 2020 article “Rain gardens: 4 front garden plants that can prevent your home flooding” for Country Living provides a helpful list of rain-resistant plants. According to an article from The Los Angeles Times archive, “appropriate planting is the best way to protect a hillside” from mudslides, and “fall is the best time to plant California natives.”
Most important, however, is the location and orientation of the home. In her 2019 article “Want to Buy on the Waterfront? Here Is What You Need to Know” for The New York Times, Shivani Vora notes that site planning makes a huge difference. Quoting Miami real estate agent Danny Hertzberg, Vora writes that older homes along the coast “‘were built at lower elevations and are more apt to be affected by severe flooding from storms.’” However, coastal homes built “‘in the last five years tend to be built at higher levels, making them more resistant to flooding.’” Homes built at higher elevations also “have a higher value, compared with older properties,” so buying or building one of these homes “increases the likelihood that the property will appreciate over time.”
While closed floor plans are experiencing a resurgence in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, these types of layouts are not as practical for waterfront homes. In his Q&A article “Durable Beach House Construction” for BuildingAdvisor.com, Steve Bliss notes that “for a floorplan, [he] would consider an ‘open’ plan.” According to Bliss, this type of layout is not only “good for entertaining” but it is also “good for cross ventilation, which will help prevent mold and mildew.” Rebecca Gross elaborates in her article “Stay Cool: 6 Ways to Boost Natural Ventilation in Your Home” for Houzz. Gross writes that “strategically placed windows and doors are key to natural ventilation, as are unrestricted breeze paths.” Open floor plans are best -- according to Gross -- because they allow wind to be directed properly throughout the home.
In her article, Gross notes that “while we may think wind blows through a building, it is in fact sucked towards areas of lower air pressure.” Choosing an open floor plan and placing windows throughout the home ensures breezes are drawn all the way through the house by optimizing cross-ventilation. Of course, the right floor plan will not completely eliminate the possibility of mold and mildew. Further protect your coastal home by using dehumidifiers and fans, fixing leaks as quickly as possible, preventing seepage from rainwater and sea water and cleaning damp fabrics fast.
Last on our list of beach house design essentials is to pick the perfect materials -- both inside and outside the home. The technical fact sheet “Coastal Building Successes and Failures” from the NAHB Research Center notes that coastal erosion, high wind speeds, corrosion, decay, wind-driven rain, flood levels and wave action are all “frequent concerns in coastal areas.” Because of this, “homes in coastal areas must be designed and built to withstand higher loads and more extreme conditions.” The right architects and design-build team will choose materials that can withstand these extreme conditions day to day and in the long-term. In construction of the home, the NAHB recommends structural sheathing for exterior walls, secondary moisture barriers for flashing, impact-resistant glazing for windows and flood-resistant building materials below the DFE or Design Flood Elevation.
The best building materials for coastal home exteriors are low-maintenance, long-lasting and disaster-resilient. Unfortunately, this means that residential building materials for homes along the coast are rarely cheap. According to Steve Bliss in his article “Durable Beach House Construction” for BuildingAdvisor.com, “it’s a good idea to choose exterior materials that are either naturally resistant to harsh weather...or synthetic and composite materials designed for exposure to the elements with little or no maintenance.” Writing for Southern Living in her 2020 article “Tough Home Building Materials for Coastal Climates,” Marisa Spyker elaborates.
For roofing, Spyker recommends metal, western red cedar, clay tile or slate. However, the NAHB strongly recommends against the use of tiling in roofs of homes along the coast, as they can come loose during high winds. Steel roofs might be best for beach houses, as they “are lauded on the coast for their longevity, weather resistance and energy efficiency.” The latter is true because steel roofs “reflect the sun’s heat, meaning lower temps inside.” For exterior paint, acrylic is most popular because it resists fading and other forms of damage. In contemporary coastal homes, concrete is frequently chosen for exterior walls.
In his Q&A article “Durable Beach House Construction” for BuildingAdvisor.com, Steve Bliss writes that homeowners and their design-build teams should “choose materials that are not prone to mold and mildew or metal corrosion...even on the interior.” This means picking fabrics, wall coverings, interior paint, flooring and furniture that resists decay from exposure to moisture and sunlight.
As for flooring, cabinetry and countertops, Marisa Spyker suggests white oak, concrete, reclaimed hardwood and porcelain in her 2020 article “Tough Home Building Materials for Coastal Climates” for Southern Living. Hardwood is ideal because “it’s both affordable and highly scratch resistant as well as less porous.” The less porous surface of hardwood means this material “reacts well to stains and paints so you can customize the look.” Concrete is perfect for coastal homes because “it is extremely easy to maintain.”
If you are interested in creating a stunning, secure and perfectly safe single family home along the California coast, contact the team at Element Homes. With many years of experience designing and building homes everywhere along the coast -- from the San Francisco Bay Area to the Greater LA Area --, we understand the many challenges presented. Our team will deliver a great design for your home project that stands the test of time and California’s coastal climate. Schedule a consultation with California’s premier design-build firm to learn more.
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