How to Get a Certificate of Occupancy—in Only 14 Months

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Susan Stiffelman (left) and Larry Gray (right) pose at City Hall with a city staff member.

Susan Stiffelman, longtime Malibu resident, family therapist and author, lost her home of 26 years in the Woolsey Fire. Only 14 months later, she became the first of more than 460 homeowners in Malibu to get her home rebuilt and obtain a certificate of occupancy. She and local general contractor Larry Gray shared what they learned so others can learn from them.

Although Stiffelman didn’t take any action for the first few weeks after her house burned down, once she saw her neighbors in motion to get their houses rebuilt after the fire, it shook her out of her “stupor” and she became highly motivated to get the job done.

The first thing she did was ask friends for recommendations on architects—she interviewed candidates in December and made her choice in January. She then asked around for recommendations on contractors. Someone reminded her about local Larry Gray; their kids had gone to school together.

“He was so helpful and knowledgeable; I took three pages of notes. He was one of three contractors we asked to bid on the job,” Stiffelman said, and he got the job. They worked on finishing the house’s design and got a building permit in early July.

“It was a Herculean effort,” she said. “I think now there’s a very comprehensive checklist for fire rebuilds, but there wasn’t then, and sometimes we didn’t know about the requirements until the last minute—like needing a fuel modification plan.”

Not everything went smoothly. 

“At one point in the process, I had to get documents notarized, and then drove to the county hall of records in Van Nuys to present my documents,” Stiffelman recalled. “I waited 45 minutes in line only to have the county say the notary hadn’t signed properly. For $15, I found a mobile notary right outside the door to re-notarize the document.” 

For Stiffelman, it was a matter of putting one foot in front of the other.

“I kept my head down during that time. Just keep doing the next thing in front of you,” Susan advised. “Find out what needs to be done next and get it done.”

Susan said the fact she’s self-employed gave her flexibility with time that she realizes some fire victims don’t have. Even so, she realized early on that she was going to have to “scale way back” on the amount of time she spent earning a living in order to get the house rebuilt in a reasonable period of time.

Gray said that as far as “lessons learned,” it worked well that he came up with a “very aggressive” schedule to finish the project, which he asked Susan to buy into. He needed her to order the windows on the very first day of construction—not an easy task, because there are thousands of windows to choose from. Following that, he set up deadlines for choosing every single item that needed to be ordered in advance for the project: doors, cabinets, flooring, fireplaces, etc. 

“And she pulled it off,” Gray said. “We never lost a single day of work waiting for deliveries. My attitude was, ‘Whatever it takes.’ I saw every issue as an opportunity and never forgot that ‘Hey, this lady lost her home.’”

“When the owner is involved and very proactive, like Susan was, things get done,” Gray added. “And I didn’t take a day off, either. We talked at least 10 times a day over the phone on who, what, how and where we’re doing things.” 

He also praised the city. 

“Many employees there are rooting for people to complete their projects … We weren’t trying to be first, we just had the mindset of ‘get it done,’” he said.

“The miracle,” Susan said, “is that the house was done almost to the day that Larry had scheduled—Dec. 25. I still can’t believe it’s done. It was like watching something in fast-forward.” 

“I urge people to trust their instincts when choosing a contractor—not only looking at skills and references, but also paying attention to whether they communicate clearly and well, and what they say they’re going to do,” she continued. 

Granted, there were things about Stiffelman’s location and neighborhood that automatically saved a lot of time in rebuilding: they saved their slab, had a flat lot, are connected to a sewer system and have a fire hydrant up the street. There was no expense or hassle of having to widen the driveway, buy a big water tank, build retaining walls or get a septic system inspected and repaired—things many Malibu fire rebuilds are faced with.

In addition, drawing on her skills as a therapist, Stiffelman has this advice for the community:  

“Support your friends and neighbors. Call a friend who lost a home and say, ‘How are you doing?’ It would’ve been amazing to have a friend offer to be there for a delivery,” Stiffelman said. “We’re knee-deep in this experience and many haven’t moved on because they’re in this hurricane of regulations and concerns. We’re not meant to do difficult things alone. Take the time to check in with friends. Many struggle with depression and anxiety and withdraw. We need to prop each other up.”