In June of 2015, a dozen or so UC Berkeley students were celebrating a friend’s twenty-first birthday out on the balcony of a fifth-floor apartment when the balcony gave way. Six people died and several others were injured. It was later determined that dry rot from improper construction led to the disaster.
In response, then-Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 721, which imposed higher standards for new construction and regular inspections for existing structures, specifically those that meet the following criteria.
Buildings with three or more units that have:
- Balconies, decks, porches, stairways, walkways, and entry structures that extend beyond exterior walls of the building and that rely in whole or in substantial part on wood or wood-based products for structural support or stability; and
- A walking surface that is elevated more than six feet above the ground level; and
- Balconies designed for human occupancy or use.
As with many laws, SB 721 has been rolled out in phases. So although it was signed back in 2018, the deadline for inspections and adherence to the new standards doesn’t hit until January 1, 2025.
If you’re thinking, “No problem. That gives me plenty of time!” allow me to point out a few facts.
The inspections can only be done by one of the following: a licensed architect; a licensed civil or structural engineer; a general contractor holding any or all A, B, or C-5 licenses issued by the Contractors State License Board with a minimum of five years’ experience in constructing multistory wood-frame buildings; or individuals certified as building inspectors or building officials who are not employed by the local jurisdiction while performing these inspections.
When you consider how long it might take to find a qualified inspector, and to remedy any safety violations, suddenly, 18 months doesn’t seem like a lot of time.
Although you may be confident that your building is safe, inspectors will be liable for the structure’s safety for ten years, so they may require intrusive measures to be absolutely certain a building was constructed properly and remains safe today.
At home, I have a cantilevered, four-foot deck. I wanted to update it, but county building officials required a structural engineer’s blessing. The inspection would have cost more than $10,000 because my house was built before current building codes were in place, requiring the inspector to tear into the house to see how the deck was attached. These are the kinds of unanticipated costs that may arise from the new law.
To be clear, I believe property owners have a duty to maintain safe buildings for their tenants. Our property management division does not accept property-owner clients who are unwilling to address safety concerns immediately.
So, while you may hear me complain about the unnecessary bureaucracy associated with construction in Mendocino County from time to time (okay, frequently), I wholeheartedly support maintaining safe living environments. Railings need to be tested so they are sturdy and solid and won’t collapse under small weight, and the opening between railings should be no more than three inches.
Years ago, I owned a building with railings that complied with the law, but I wasn’t comfortable with the space between them, so I added vertical two-by-two-inch posts to decrease the likelihood of anything (or anyone) slipping through.
The building next door was similarly constructed, and the owner opted to leave the railings alone. The next year, a child who lived in the building next door fell through and landed on the pavement below, resulting in serious head injuries. Don’t put yourself in a position to save a little money and end up being responsible for someone being injured or killed.
Back to the new law, inspectors must deliver a report within 45 days of their inspection, and buildings must be inspected every six years. If a report identifies a building as unsafe and requires emergency repairs, the property owner must prevent use of the offending stairway or balcony. If that means people can no longer reach their homes, they may have to vacate the building until repairs are complete.
So, if you own an apartment building with stairs or balconies, I wouldn’t wait until December of 2024 to get started on all this.
If you have questions about property management or real estate, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org 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 45 years.