Changing The Face Of The American Home

LA MESA -- Children don't grow up and leave as soon as they used to. Sometimes they return.

Elderly parents are living longer and eventually need to live with family.

The Internet and the changing employment market has launched more home businesses than ever.

The living arrangements of the American family are clearly changing and no one is seeing that more than Jan Wilcox, a La Mesa home designer who has spent 25 years helping families reshape their homes for new and sometimes unexpected demands.

"I've been getting calls from all over,'' Wilcox said recently. "There are clearly a lot of needs out there for reshaping things for families.''

From million dollar mansions on Coronado to modest ranch homes on Mt. Helix, Wilcox has taken pen to paper to come up with ways of giving older children their own space or the elderly a sense of independence after moving in with their own children.

Things are changing so fast, Wilcox recently launched a new website to help those looking for this sort of help find his special kind of service.

Truth be told, building departments of local governments have traditionally had a suspicious eye for requests to add living units to existing homes. Adding a garage apartment or a separate dwelling unit was often a way for landlords to extract more revenue from a property while causing crowding and parking issues for the rest of the neighborhood.

As a result, winning approval for this kind of expansion can require the patience of a Talmudic scholar to decipher from each city's code book the requirements and limitations. Each town is different. Coronado allows more density, La Mesa insists the addition be attached to the main unit, the County of San Diego has its own rules. And parking is always a sensitive point everywhere.

Still, Wilcox says more and more families are willing to slog through the small print to shape their homes. Cities are also understanding that these requests are not coming from property investors but from established families whose needs have changed.

In La Mesa, the issue comes up frequently enough that a flyer outlining the process is permanently available from the front counter at City Hall.

"We understand the needs,'' says Bill Chopyk, the City of La Mesa's development guru, "but we also need to be sure everyone understands the requirements.''

The potential for a property to add new living space or a standalone home office is also becoming part of a good Realtor's analysis of a property for their clients.

"This is very human work,'' says Wilcox, who works from a small office along University Avenue. "You are dealing with the stress that renovation can bring to people's lives, but at the same time, you are relieving pressures by giving them the home they need.''

Home offices have been a big change, Wilcox said. Rather than just being a small place to bring home work from the office, many people are running more robust businesses from their homes. Wilcox has added full-fledged, stand-alone offices to some homes to give the stay-at-home worker a sense of "work" space within the property.

A tour of Wilcox's recent work alone shows the range of needs and the sometimes creative steps the designers need to take to meet both codes and the property owner desires. A second floor addition in Kensington that required a unique setback. A two-bedroom addition in Coronado that had to be located across the pool from the main house. A ranch addition on Mt. Helix that was standalone but built to look as if it had always been there.

"You have to have the patience to dig into the property records and the city codes to determine what is really possible,'' Wilcox said. "It is not always apparent exactly what can or can't be done. The key: get to know and understand the people who decide these issues.''

With regional government policy beginning to tilt against more suburban sprawl and toward urban in-fill and increased density, Wilcox and designers like him are likely to get more work as property owners look to make structures built in earlier eras work for the needs of today's families.

Gina Garcia is a Realtor (CA DRE #01704251) and is publisher of Her column, The Homefront, is published regularly here and in other local publications. To contact her, e-mail

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Comment by David Stanley on August 6, 2013 at 8:05am

In the constant grasping for more and more money, towns and cities make it ever harder, financially, to do much property improvement through ever increasing fees, licenses ( also fees ) and restrictions. We all understand the scarcity of money every where but why must one stagger backward when applying to improve their own property because of some bureaucrat with hand out, smiling and saying $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$!

Comment by Dennis S. Twiss on June 21, 2012 at 7:13am

Of course the City will do nothing when an addition for the granny becomes an office for an employed that comes to work there from elsewhere.

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