Class K Housing – Let’s Reduce the Housing Shortage

In the Ukiah Valley, we have a serious housing shortage. It’s so serious that local employers have had trouble recruiting qualified candidates to the area. Candidates come and interview for a job. They’re a perfect fit and receive a job offer. Then, they cannot find a house to live in, so they decline the offer and move to a different community. These are people like doctors, teachers, police officers and administrative leaders—people who would positively contribute to our community.

To help mitigate the housing shortage by making it less expensive to build owner-occupied houses in rural areas, the state of California allows Class K housing ordinances. We have just such an ordinance in Mendocino County.

As written, the Class K housing ordinance allows people to save money by foregoing some expensive (and in my opinion, frequently unnecessary) building requirements, things like sprinklers, soil engineering tests, site-milled lumber and thermal-pane windows. California’s Title 25 Housing and Community Development Regulations say people who build limited density owner-built rural dwellings (Class K houses) are to be allowed “to use their ingenuity in the pursuit of health and safety” rather than having the government define health and safety requirements for them.

Although owner-builders have some flexibility in building materials and amenities, Class K houses still have to pass plumbing, electrical, and mechanical inspections to ensure these essential functions work properly. But if an owner doesn’t want to put in sprinklers (that can add $15,000+ to the cost of a 2,000 square-foot house), then so be it.

I am particularly irritated by the requirement that sprinklers be included in all new residential and commercial construction. It’s akin to not allowing people to drive because sometimes there are car accidents. In our world, driving is a risk that responsible adults take. The same should go for sprinklers—if someone wants to build a house without them, he or she should be allowed to do so. Most of us live in houses without sprinklers because for all of eternity until a few years ago, houses were not required to include them.

In the rare situation when a house fire begins and the sprinklers are able to extinguish it, that’s wonderful. However, if sprinklers are like other appliances that malfunction from time to time, you have to wonder how long it will be before sprinklers start leaking or turning on when they shouldn’t. Then people will have spent $15,000 or more for the original sprinkler system as well as a bunch of money for the cleanup. And here’s food for thought: While your homeowners insurance premium will drop, the savings doesn’t compare to the cost of financing the additional construction cost of sprinklers.

Right now, the Mendocino County Class K ordinance is up for review, and I encourage people to chat with their county supervisor. Let them know they ought to support changes to the ordinance that allow more owner-built homes to be constructed with the cost-savings that come with foregoing some of the unnecessary amenities.

Currently, Class K houses must be less than 2,000 square feet. It’s an arbitrary limit. Let’s increase it and make it easier to address our critically short housing stock. If we expand the Class K ordinance, more people will likely go the route of getting building permits, and those homes will get on the property tax rolls. Otherwise, people will build unpermitted houses, (which won’t even have electrical, gas or plumbing inspections) and everyone loses.

If you have questions about getting into real estate, please contact me at or call (707) 462-4000. If you have an idea for a future column, share it with me and if I use it, I’ll send you a $25 gift certificate to Schat’s Bakery. Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 40 years.

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