Basements in Los Angeles? Yes.

You don’t often see basements in Los Angeles, but they can be an efficient way of adding square footage when there are tight zoning-code limits on the size of a house. Under current L.A. zoning, a basement’s area is completely excluded from a property’s maximum square footage restrictions. A basement can be a reasonable way of adding square feet if conditions are right.

In recent years there’s been an effort in Los Angeles to limit the size of homes, and in many areas of Los Angeles a house built today would be considerably smaller than one built last year. The new ordinances can be very restrictive compared to the previous code limits, and even a modest remodel or addition to a larger, older home can push the final size well beyond the allowable limits. The situation gets even more complicated for smaller lots, and for steeper ones where limits are more stringent still.

For owners looking to expand, there is a solution with few constraints: a basement. Under current L.A. zoning, a basement’s area is not included in a property’s maximum square footage calculations. As long as a basement does not extend more than two feet above existing grade (in most cases, but with exceptions on hillsides) it can be built anywhere on a lot, up to the limits of property-line setbacks–with no other limits on size. 

A two-story house can be made larger by 33% or more, through the addition of a new basement. You can build a basement under an existing house, or–counterintuitively– completely outside of it. One of my firm’s projects included a large basement under a spacious front yard; it overlapped the house just enough to include a staircase from the main floor down to the basement. 


If you’re building a new addition attached to the exterior of an existing house, one option is to limit the basement just to the area of the addition, which may then include three stories: a two-story addition plus basement. This is an efficient arrangement for a new basement because you avoid major changes to the existing house (and no excavation beneath it). In this case the basement could also have a larger footprint than the above-ground addition, extending out under the yard, all the way up to the property line setback if desired.  


Now the caveats: basements can be costly to build. Excavation is expensive. Waterproofing and drainage must be executed with care and precision. If the basement is built beneath an existing house, the existing structure must be altered to accommodate it. Daylighting and exiting are important, code-mandated considerations, and the architect must plan them with care. If a bathroom or kitchen are included, the architect and contractor must plan to get the waste to the sewer line, even when the basement is lower than existing sewers. In that event, a sewage ejector pump is required, to get the waste up to the required level. 

None of these items involve heroic measures. The solutions are well understood, widely used, and the equipment and materials easily available (ejector pumps, for example, are available at Home Depot). And although they can be expensive, basements are worth building if the conditions are right.

Here’s a brief rundown of advantages and challenges to basement construction:


  • Additional square footage with few restrictions.
  • Very flexible space: storage, or bedrooms, wine storage, offices, etc.


  • Cost
  • Increased complexity (waterproofing, exit requirements, ventilation, lighting and plumbing).
  • Soils conditions can have a significant impact on construction costs.


How High can your Fence Be?

Good fences may make good neighbors, but how high can your fence be? In Los Angeles the answer is not so simple, and depends on the location of the property.

In most residential zones (R1 zones), the front yard fence can be 3.5 feet high, and the side and rear yard fences 8 feet high–if the width of the lot is 40 feet or greater ( 6 feet if less than 40 feet). In some cases, an 8-foot fence can be installed in the front yard–with the permission of the Department of City Planning. 
Keep in mind that while the side yard fences can be six or eight feet tall,  they can only be 3.5 feet tall from the front property line to the required front setback line (usually the front wall of the house).

Other zones have different regulations. Properties in the RA and A zones can have a front yard fence that is 6 feet high. In Hillside areas (determined by the City, not by the actual flatness of your property), fence heights vary, and you must consult with an architect or building official to get the information for your specific lot. Wood fences typically do not require a building permit, but masonry fences do, when they’re taller than 3.5 feet.

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In Hillside areas, if you want to exceed the allowable building height, the application process frequently requires public hearings.  But with fences, you can avoid public hearings by submitting the neighbors’ written approval with the application.

Other cities in the area have different requirements. In all cases it is best to visit the local building department and ask a building official.

The Department of Building and Safety’s handout.
Beverly Hills fence information.


Adding a Second Story

Does adding a second story make sense?  It really depends on a wide variety of intersecting factors–not all of them immediately obvious–and all of which need to be considered.

This question often comes up when remodeling a house on a smaller lot. The owners need additional square footage, and do not want to use up the back yard. 

This normally leads to four options: 

  • add a second story; 
  • make a smaller, one-story addition (usually at the rear); 
  • demolish the existing house and build a new one; 
  • sell the property and buy a bigger house.
 Second story addition, Brentwood, CA

Second story addition, Brentwood, CA

If the existing house is relatively spacious and in good condition, adding a second story can be less expensive than building an entirely new house. This option allows the owners to enjoy more square footage, keep their back yard, add value to the property and remain in the neighborhood. But if the existing house is small and in poor condition, it’s often better to demolish it and build a brand new house because of the investment needed to fix up the existing structure. 

Important factors to consider can include the age of the house and size of the lot, the value of nearby dwellings, the owners’ long-term plans, the resale value of the finished remodel, and other issues as well. 

It is also important to understand, early in the process, what the building and zoning codes allow. I’ll discuss these items in other posts, but the important thing to consider right away, is that the decision on whether to add a second story really depends on a wide variety of intersecting factors–not all of them immediately obvious–and all of which need to be considered and weighted.

When to Demolish, When to Keep

An owner needing more space can be tempted to demolish an existing house and build a new, larger one in its place–instead of expanding the existing house. This can happen where the property’s value is high and the existing house small. You might consider this a logical approach, but potential pitfalls here can yield unexpected surprises.

One thing to consider: the existing house may have been built when zoning rules were looser. An older house may have been built closer to the property lines than would be allowed today. If you keep the existing house and make an addition to it, only the addition needs to comply with today’s zoning code. This means that the old portion of the overall project could be bigger than if it was demolished and rebuilt because, even if it didn’t comply with today’s zoning codes, the City would–in essence–“grandfather” that part of the project.


How do you decide whether to add or demolish? The answer depends on a combination of factors unique to the specific property. Age, size and condition of the existing house, aesthetic preferences, the size of the lot, the desire to maximize the back yard (or not); all of these are important things to consider, and it suggests that a careful analysis and weighting of the different factors will be needed before a good answer is found.

Consider the amount of space available for new construction. If the lot is large enough to allow a new addition at the side or rear of an existing house, much of the older home can be maintained without major modifications. On the other hand, if a second story is added to an existing one-story structure, the older portions will have to undergo some surgery: new structural supports will be needed from the new foundations to the second floor, a new floor structure above will replace the existing roof, and room must be found for a new staircase. In short, significant (and often costly) alterations to the existing building. 

In this second-story scenario, it is sometimes better (or less costly) to demolish the existing house and build a new one, even if this results in a smaller overall home than might be possible through an addition. A larger lot can easily accommodate a side or rear addition to an existing house. But a smaller lot may require adding a second story instead, or replacing the existing house altogether.

The Oft-Maligned Flat Roof

Flat roofs: we’ve seen them everywhere; on commercial buildings and private homes, on factories, hotels and airport terminals. People think that flat roofs always leak, but that reputation is undeserved when the roof is built properly. Flat roofs can have many advantages, including increased interior ceiling height and reduced cost. They can easily accommodate walking decks and solar equipment, and can be useful components of building additions and new homes–as long as they’re placed in the right spot and built well.

In reality there is no such thing as a flat roof. All roofs slope in one direction or another, because they need to shed or drain water. The building code mandates a slope on even the smallest of roofs. A roof that is truly flat will not drain or remove water properly, so even if the code did not require a slope, a good contractor (and architect) would still design it in. A better term for such a roof is low-slope roof. Nearly flat, but not quite.

Low-slope roofs have a leaky reputation because these roofs can be built or repaired very cheaply– and this has led to large numbers of badly-constructed, unreliable roofs throughout Los Angeles. Consider that the biggest building expense is labor, and that cheap low-slope roofs can be built or repaired by relatively low-skilled labor. This means that many inexpensive low-slope roofs are also very poorly built or repaired (although this is not necessarily or always the case), and often develop leaks. Low-slope roofs that are designed and built to a high standard, however, are very reliable, and remain so for many years. Although they are more expensive than cheaply-built roofs, they are often less expensive than conventional pitched roofs, and sometimes offer many advantages over them.

It is true that the architect must pay a great deal of attention to technical details. And the builder has to make sure that the details of the roof’s construction are expertly carried out. If the roof is also intended as a place for people to walk, extra attention is needed with the roof’s design, material specifications and care in construction to make sure that the roof is not damaged with use. A finicky roofing contractor is a good one to have with low-slope roofs. A good low-slope roof will provide trouble-free service for a very long time.

Chautauqua House, Pacific Palisades

Chautauqua House, Pacific Palisades

Why use a low-slope roof? In many cases, these roofs provide a variety of important services beyond keeping water out of the house. A low-slope roof can easily accommodate solar panels and heating/air-conditioning equipment. It can be a good place for a deck, and especially so when a person can step directly from a second-floor bedroom out to a deck with a view. 

Even when built to a high standard, low-slope roofs can still be less expensive to build than conventional sloped roofs because the construction is often simpler (although there are exceptions to this as well). And such roofs can often provide more ceiling height indoors without violating zoning-code height restrictions on the building. They can easily be integrated in a house’s design (attending to the appearance of the exposed edge of the roof is critical), and may even be concealed by extending the house’s outside walls up above the roof, forming parapets that hide rooftop equipment from view.

Chautauqua House, Pacific Palisades

Chautauqua House, Pacific Palisades

Moving Walls

People wanting to remodel or reconfigure their homes are often deterred by the prospect of removing or “moving” walls. (In reality, “moving” a wall means demolishing an existing wall, and building another one in a new location). Clients often express worry about the cost of these alterations, fearing an uncontrolled onset of big expenses. “Can we use the existing foundations?” is a frequent question, new foundations seen as emblematic of nightmarish construction costs.

These fears are not unfounded. Stories of runaway remodeling expenses are rife and popular, and there are many cases in Los Angeles where the cost of removing and reconstructing a wall is indeed serious. There are several reasons for this. First, many residential areas in the Los Angeles region are located in hillside zones, some of which have unstable or unsuitable earth. These situations often require deeper, more extensive foundation work (unless stable bedrock is found very close to the surface). Malibu has some of the more extreme cases, with some foundation piers (or caissons) extending 30, 40 or even 100 feet into the ground. Any project in Malibu really needs careful evaluation of the soils conditions very early in a project’s life. 

Second, multi-story houses often use walls on lower levels to support upper-level parts of the house (so-called “bearing walls”; a grave misnomer better applied to masonry construction than to wood). In these cases, some new double-duty lower walls may indeed need stronger foundations and structure in order to maintain support for upper levels, and sometimes provide earthquake resistance as well.

But most cases in Los Angeles, mainly those involving single-story homes, have conditions where removing and reconstructing walls results in relatively modest additional costs–especially in comparison with the overall cost of a remodel project, and with the benefits that this work provides. 

In my work, these types of reconfigurations often happen in remodels that affect large portions of a house. Examples include expanding the size of a kitchen, adding a new master bedroom, adding a new bathroom, and so on. In these projects, removing a wall can result in dramatic improvements in a house’s layout and flow, and make the difference between a project’s success and failure. With the typical wood construction of houses in the L.A. area, the cost of some new foundations (especially in a single-story house) and some extra framing for the wall often are but a modest portion of the overall project budget, which is often centered around finish and plumbing costs related to kitchen and bathroom work. 


For these projects, it is best to focus first on the character of the spaces you want (size, dimensions, functionality and flow), and then work to figure out the most cost-effective way of building them. Sometimes an effort as simple as nudging a new wall’s location by a few inches can make a big difference in cost, especially when new walls are in line with existing ones (making it easier to install replacement beams at the ceiling linking the two).

And no, you can’t use the existing foundations for new walls. A new wall will always involve some foundation work, even if it is only to reinforce the existing foundations.

Homeowners' associations & Design Review Boards

One of my clients refused to obtain their homeowners association’s approval before starting construction. The HOA was worried that the new second story would block neighbors’ ocean views (always a sensitive issue in coastal areas of L.A.) 

The city issued a building permit, and construction began. When the steel columns and beams were in place, the project was brought to an abrupt halt by several neighbors–all of them injunction-serving attorneys. The remodel eventually needed to be completely redesigned, with all new foundations and steelwork. 

You may think that if your project complies with the zoning code’s requirements on the size, height and shape of the house, that’s all you need. But no–in many areas of the city a project must also be approved by a homeowners’ association or a local design review board.

It is always best to try and work with the neighbors and the HOA, and get their approval in advance.If you live in a neighborhood with a homeowners’ association, look in the property’s deed to find the association’s CC&Rs (Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions). These describe the association’s design requirements and procedures for getting approval. Most associations also have an architectural committee that can provide specific guidance before beginning design. Get to know members of the committee, and obtain their recommendations. 

In addition to homeowners’ associations, local design review boards are often empowered by city-issued Specific Plans (an extension of the zoning code) that apply design rules to individual neighborhoods or areas within the city. To find out if a property is subject to a Specific Plan, go to the ZIMAS web site, enter the address and then look under Planning and Zoning. If a Specific Plan applies, you will see a link to the plan itself, which describes the geographical area it covers, and identifies design guidelines and restrictions.


Homeowners’ associations and Specific Plans can both impose rules that are tighter and more stringent than the normal zoning requirements for the area. In the case of Specific Plans, the local community’s design review board (or architectural review board) needs to approve a project before the city will issue a building permit (although there are exceptions). In most cases the owners and their architect present a project at a hearing, explain the project’s features, and receive the board’s (and the attending public’s) response. Boards can approve or reject a project outright, or suggest changes. It is worth paying attention to those suggested changes.

  • An example of a Specific Plan can be seen here.
  • City of Los Angeles’ description of a design review board’s procedure, makeup and action is here.
  • An example of a homeowners’ association CC&Rs can be seen here.

Getting a Variance

Clients often ask me to apply for variances to increase the height of the roof, or to build closer to the property line than allowed. These are almost never approved, but there are exceptions.

One recent example in my office: a 1920s mansion in Hancock Park. The detached garage had servants' quarters on the second floor. The owners wanted to legalize the apartment’s status, and offer it as a rental. The code allows this use, so long as the structure complies with the same property-line setbacks that apply to the main house.

The problem: the garage/apartment was too close to the side property line (by six inches), and did not comply with the current zoning code. If we could find an old building permit that included the guest quarters over the garage, we’d be home free: in that case the City would likely approve the project (subject to a yard reduction application and neighbors’ approval), since it complied with the zoning code when it was originally built.

We conducted a permit search and found, in the city’s microfilm records, a 1927 permit for the garage and servants’ quarters above. This made it possible to legalize the unit with a form of variance (applying for a yard reduction), even though it didn’t comply with the current zoning code.


Many variances never get approved, except in special circumstances

In most cases the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety rarely approves variances for single-family residential projects. Applications are almost never approved–unless there is an unusual condition with the property that makes it impossible to comply with the building or zoning code without a variance, or in cases where the impact to neighbors is minimal.

Going through the variance process can be costly, lengthy (often six to ten months), and is normally unlikely to succeed, except for exceptions.

Certain minor variances are often approved with certain conditions (minor encroachments into side-yards, for example, as long as there’s a credible reason and neighbors approve). As for larger variances–it’s worth studying those situations closely with the help of a Building and Safety official before developing a design, to get an idea of the likelihood of success. The City of Los Angeles provides preliminary plan-check consultations for these purposes, and I’ll describe those in another post.

Leaky Skylights (or not)

On a recent home remodeling television show, a contractor was shown installing a skylight into an existing roof with no curb, and apparently little roofing or flashing work other than sealant. It was a late-night TV show, but it made this architect sit up and pay attention. Sure enough, after the commercial break the skylight leaked, confirming the owners’ worst fears about skylights.

Modern skylights can be leak-free if properly installed.
Many people are reluctant to install skylights in a project because they fear leaks. But almost all modern skylights are leak-free, as long as they are installed properly. 

Proper installation of a skylight in an existing roof requires peeling back (or removing) the roofing, installing a skylight and curb, and then a new layer of roofing and sealant in the area surrounding the installation, along with metal flashing. With a new roof, the skylight goes in before the roofing, and then the other items get installed along with the roof. 

For both of these installation types (into new and existing roofs), it is important to have a proper curb, good flashing, and thoroughly-applied roofing and sealants, all of which are very familiar to good framers and roofers.

The skylight itself is very unlikely to leak. It is the installation that requires attention. Properly installed skylights will not leak even if the caulking dries out, because a good installation does not rely on caulking to keep water out. Some skylights do not use caulking at all.

Chautauqua House, Pacific Palisades

Chautauqua House, Pacific Palisades

Daylight inside a house can make it feel larger.
Bringing daylight into a house can make the difference between a dark, enclosing interior, and a light-filled space that makes a room feel roomy and bright. For interior rooms, even a small skylight can have a tremendous impact at low cost. Good locations for skylights: interior hallways, bathrooms, bedrooms, kitchens and walk-in closets. Even an exterior porch can benefit from a skylight in certain cases.

Santa Monica House

Santa Monica House

A skylight need not be very large or expensive to be effective. 
A 24” x 24” skylight is often big enough to light up a small kitchen, for example. And for closets, a tubular skylight is an excellent source of daylight, while providing UV protection for clothing. Skylight costs (not including installation) begin around $170 for a good 24”x24” skylight made by a reputable manufacturer, as of this writing. The lowest prices also indicate the simplest construction: a fixed skylight. But skylights are also available with a wide range of options: screens, manually-opening mechanisms, remote-control openers, rain-detectors to close the skylight when the first drops fall, exhaust fans, etc. All at additional costs.

When choosing a skylight, you need to decide if a view of the sky is desirable. Skylights are available with either clear glazing or frosted. Clear glazing provides a clear view of the sky, and allows sunlight to enter directly. Frosted glazing mutes and diffuses the light, creating less harsh, more even illumination–but without a clear view of the sky. Both types of glazing can be ordered insulated with Low-E materials for energy efficiency. It is the quality of the light (and visibility through the skylight) that should be the deciding factor.

One note about glazing: if your house is located in a Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone, glazing for skylights (and any other openings such as windows) must be of insulated glass (double-pane) with one tempered pane. This reduces the number of available skylight options, as only a few manufacturers produce skylights with this feature.

Taken Aback by Setbacks

The word setback is a technical term widely used in architectural and construction circles, but it is often deeply opaque to people outside those professions. It simply refers to the required distance between property lines and buildings (or certain other structures) on a property.  

In most City of Los Angeles zones, a building cannot be located right on the property line. It must be set back a certain distance from the property lines. You’d think this is a simple concept to master and use, but remember, this is the Los Angeles zoning code we’re talking about. The physical, printed zoning code is the size of a bible, and for a reason.


What can go in a yard? It depends.
The Los Angeles zoning code calls the area between the property line and the building a yard. A property in a typical R1 zone might have a required front yard depth of 20 feet, a side yard depth of 5 feet, and a rear yard depth of 15 feet. Those “yards” are generally considered by the zoning code to be areas where no structures are allowed.


This being Los Angeles, however, there are exceptions, modifications, and additional requirements that vary according to location, sub-zone (such as Hillside), the size and height of the building, and the type of structure. Fences, for example, are a type of structure that are allowed within front, side or rear yards, but their heights are controlled according to location or zone type. Decks and detached garages are also allowed within yard areas, but there are limitations there, too

Understanding setback requirements can be a challenge.
In general, understanding the zoning code’s setback requirements, as with other rules (such as height), can be an exercise in Talmudic reasoning–sometimes weighing one requirement against another, with a decision often hinging on a proper interpretation of a minute technical detail in the code (or on previous interpretations of the code by the Planning Department). 

According to Wikipedia, the Hebrew term pilpul (Hebrew: פלפול, from "pepper," loosely meaning "sharp analysis") refers to a method of studying the Talmud through intense textual analysis…–and we use the same method with the Los Angeles zoning code. For example,  the code says that a house in a regular R1 zone might have a required front yard (or front yard setback) that is either 20% of the lot depth, or 20 feet (the maximum required), or matching the “prevailing setback” in the neighborhood. This last one is particularly tricky because it is based on measuring the front yard dimensions of all the houses on a block, from one intersecting street to the other, and then running those numbers through a complex formula provided by the city to generate a dimension which the city calls “prevailing.” (The idea is to keep a new house from being built closer to the front property line than most of the older houses on the block.) The city even provides a specialized on-line worksheet tool to help calculate this dimension. 


Another example: a house that is built to a certain height might have one required side-yard dimension, and if it is built higher, another. In certain situations a house with a flat (or low-slope) roof may technically have a different maximum building height than one with a pitched roof, and the side-yard dimensions must then be adjusted according to the building’s height. 

Setback rules can have even more variations and conditions.
The R1 setbacks can be different if the property is a Through lot, a Key lot, or in a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone, or in a Hillside area, which has its own requirements, or in the Coastal zone, where additional restrictions may apply, or on a lot fronting a Substandard Hillside LImited Street–and there are several other zones, or overlay zones that carry special setback conditions as well. All of these conditions apply not only to lots in the R1 zone, of course, but to all of the 15 different zones that allow single family residences, each with its own specific rule combinations, and several with interesting variations besides.


That’s a brief overview of residential property-line setbacks in L.A. This is one of several zoning-related areas that an architect examines in detail at the start of a project, or when a project is contemplated. It explains why, when asked whether a house of a certain size can be built on a particular lot, an architect may delay his or her response. The final answer requires study, review, and pilpul. To help with this, my office uses a structured, sequential checklist that systematically steps through all the variables, accumulating bits of data that are all added up at the end to provide an informed answer.

Here’s how the American Society of Planning Officials described a typical zoning code, back in 1962:

The Zoning Ordinance Is Normally a Clear Concise Document with Liberal Cross References, and with Some of the Amendments Pasted In.

The Zoning Ordinance Is Normally a Clear Concise Document with Liberal Cross References, and with Some of the Amendments Pasted In.


A Healthy Home

The act of designing a healthy home, or making an existing home healthy, usually requires several (or even many) actions and tasks, not all of them immediately obvious. Because of this, the process of making a home healthy actually requires that you first develop a strategy for getting the specific results you want. Focus on the higher-order issues first (the need to breathe more easily, or the desire for a clutter-free environment), and the list of those issues becomes a strategy pointing the rest of the way.

A healthy home actually can mean very different things. For some people, it may require the elimination of items that aggravate asthma, such as off-gassing older carpets and other fabrics. For others, it may focus on reducing obstacles and barriers for visually-impaired folks. For someone with pollen allergies, a healthy home means a space with clean, filtered, pollen-free air, and for a person with Seasonal Affective Disorder, a healthy home may require careful introduction of daylighting and specific forms of artificial light. 

Sometimes a healthy home simply means an easy to clean house, built, finished and furnished with natural materials containing the minimum toxins possible, and with plenty of daylight and storage space to avoid clutter.

Think about your own, specific goals. If you think carefully about your own specific notion of what makes a healthy home, you can focus on the actions needed to accomplish the goal. 

Keep in mind that when several people are living together their individual needs may differ. In this case it is necessary to assemble a combined list of goals that works for everyone. For example, one person might seek a natural, peaceful and restful environment, and another may need a well-lit, barrier-free space. From a design viewpoint, these are easily compatible and can be merged into a single overall strategy. If combinations of goals appear to be incompatible, that’s where the services of an architect can be especially helpful.

Goals identified, pinpoint the necessary tasks. Once you’ve identified the core goals of your project, you can organize a collection of activities to accomplish them. In my residential design work, I help clients pinpoint the vital components of a healthy home with a series of carefully focused interview conversations, followed by a to-do checklist. The conversations result in a strategy, and the to-do checklist itemizes the actions that follow. Checklists are customized to the clients’ needs, so they vary according to the information developed in the conversations. And once a checklist has been reviewed and approved, the information is incorporated into a project’s specifications.

The main thing to keep in mind is that–as in many design and construction-related activities–making a healthy home means approaching the task in a structured, organized way. This means identifying the higher-order goals first, and the specific actions to accomplish those goals–later.


Saving Water

The municipal potable water system we have now is appallingly inefficient. We can improve the efficiency of our supply using simple, straightforward, low-tech solutions right in the home. These can save us a great deal of water–and money.

At the very simplest level, aside from the installation of high-efficiency toilets (which can yield enormous returns, as we’ve seen in the City of L.A.), a homeowner can install toilets that incorporate hand sinks into the tank cover (such as the Caroma Profile Smart 305). This would mean that water used for washing hands would also be used for toilet flushing; a kind of partial greywater system right in the bathroom; an easy and efficient way of using the same water twice.


Another uncomplicated piece of equipment is a recirculating hot water demand pump that makes hot water available almost immediately when taking a shower or washing hands. I’ve seen independent estimates that such pumps can save over 1000 gallons per year per dwelling unit, which can yield significant savings. Tankless water heaters, another often-recommended item, actually can increase water usage by supplying a seemingly endless supply of hot water, thus encouraging long showers, for example, so installing such a water heater also requires that family members be alerted to the downside of long showers.

There are new products that monitor and alert individuals when their water use exceeds some pre-set standard, through various forms of alerts. For example, the Sprav shower monitor provides color-coded alerts when certain levels of water use are reached. 

The current estimate among experts is that 60% of residential water is used in landscaping. Changing the landscaping to a drought-resistant design can reduce water use (and costs) significantly. For example, replacing the lawn in a 3,000 square foot yard with water-wise landscaping can reduce the monthly water bill by $160-$250. More importantly,  doing away with the lawn is a big environment-friendly step that benefits the entire community by saving large quantities of drinking water. 
These all may seem relatively trivial, but as we’ve seen with L.A. City’s toilet replacement program (which reduced L.A.’s per capita water use to the lowest in the country for cities with more than 1 million residents, saving 14 billion gallons of water a year), simple measures can yield dramatic improvements. There are many things that can--and should-- be done easily right away. More information (including water-savings calculators) can be found in the EPA's WaterSense web page.