Home Improvement Contracts

I am going to discuss specific details that every home owner should see when entering into a home improvement contract with a contractor. The contract you use when working with a contractor is the most important key of having a successful job. It should clearly outline what will be done, how will it be done, what materials will be used to do the work, and how much will it cost.

In order for the contract to protect the two parties involved, it must contain certain items and disclosures made by the contractor to the homeowner. There are several laws that govern how a contract is to be written and they are contained in the California Business and Professions Code as well as the California State Contractor’s License Board.

Before any contract can be entered into, the contractor must give the “Notice to Owner” disclosure form to the homeowner. This form clearly explains the contractor’s lien rights (as well as the rights of material suppliers and subcontractors), and offers four suggestions to the home owner as to measures that can be taken to ensure that the job gets finished and liens are not filed.

The second notice a contractor must provide to the homeowner is the fact that all contractors must be licensed, and if you contract with someone that does not have a license, the State License Board may not be able to assist you if there is a problem. It then asks that you check the contractor’s license number and gives the address for the CSLB to contact if they wish to file a complaint. Once the home wner receives these forms, a contractor can legally enter into a contract with them.

State law requires a contractor to use a contract if the total cost of the job exceeds $500.00 (including materials, services and labor). The contract must also contain the contractor’s name, address and license number. If he or she offers any specific warranties, they must be clearly stated in the contract, and there should also be language describing the type of dispute resolution the contractor wishes to employ.

In general, all home improvements contracts must include, the approximate date the job is to begin, the approximate date the job will be completed, a description of what work is to be done, a description of what constitutes a substantial completion of work, and a notice to the home owner that states if the contractor does not start work within 20 days of the date in the contract, he or she will be in violation of Business and Professions Code Section 7159.

The most common mistake most homeowners when entering into a home repair contract is not clearly defining what the scope of work is and how the work will be done.

For example, instead of describing the job as “refinish living room floor”, it should be stated as “ Sand down existing finish to bare wood, replace any stained or split pieces, putty and fill all nail holes and open joints and finish sand. Apply two coats of XYZ Satin Floor Finish, and stain new base to match.” It is best to give as much detail as possible so that your picture of the job is what the contractor actually does. Take the time to state the manufacturer of the product, and how the products are to be installed.

Part of the contract should also include plans and specifications as well as details on how debris will be removed, how the job will be kept clean, and any special requests like “furniture and floors to be kept covered at all times” or “home owner will install all finished light fixtures”.

Once the description the work is established, the price can be agreed upon and a schedule of payments can be written into the contract. At no time should the payment to the contractor exceed the amount of services performed or material supplied. By law, the contract must be completed for the agreed upon contract price.

Contractors can charge a down payment for their work, however, the down payment cannot be more than $1,000.00, or 10% of the contract price, whichever is less. There are no exceptions for special ordered materials. (With swimming pool contracts, the limits are $200.00 down or 2% of the contract, whichever is less.)

For those of you who would like more information about hiring contractors and writing home improvement contracts, the California State Contractor’s License Board has an excellent publication called “Home Improvement Contracts: Putting the pieces together”. This booklet contains a copy of the notices a contractor needs to give to home owners and has a list of other resources. It is free and can be obtained by calling 1 (800) 321-2752, or you can reach the CSLB at their web site, http://www.cslb.ca.gov/.

Concealed Fire Damage Q&A


“We just bought our first house three months ago and have been painting and carpeting. My husband was in the attic last week to cut a hole for a skylight to be installed. When he cut into the roof boards, he noticed that the wood had been charred from a fire. You can’t see the charring on the surface because the attic had been sprayed with a white paint. After talking with the neighbor, we found out that there was a major fire in the kitchen three years ago. Shouldn’t this have been disclosed to us? Our property inspector did not mention it in his report, and now we’re worried that we’re going to have some real problems.” –  M. T. , Alameda


California law requires that any material fact, defect or condition that may affect the desirability of a house must be disclosed to prospective buyers. A major fire in the kitchen would definitely qualify as needing to be disclosed. I’m surprised that the sellers did not inform you of this. I strongly suggest that this be investigated further to determine the extent of the fire and whether the repairs were properly done and completed.

Any time there is a fire in a house, the extent of the damage has to be thoroughly investigated to determine what components must be replaced in order for the house to be safe and structurally sound. This includes not only the framing members, but also the plumbing and electrical lines and any appliances such as the furnace and water heater. Often damage can extend beyond the wall surface, affecting items that cannot visually be seen.

The two questions that you need to answer are whether or not the fire damaged repairs were completed with the approval of the city, and why wasn’t this disclosed to you by the sellers. I am assuming that the sellers were living in the house at the time the fire occurred. If not, they may have had no knowledge of it either.

Most people assume that after a fire, a house is restored to its original condition and will not cause present or future problems. This is usually true, however, there are some exceptions to this. One such exception is the fact that not all charred or smoke damaged wood is required to be removed. It only has to be removed if it has been structurally weakened. Usually, if the charring is less than 20% of the depth of the board, the board is considered to still be capable of serving its intended purpose and left in place.

When charred or smoked-stained wood is left in place, it is almost impossible to clean. It is commonly sealed with a lacquer based, sealer / deodorizer that leaves the surface of the wood with a light white, painted finish. That is what you observed in the attic. I’m a little surprised that your house inspector did not mention that your attic had been sprayed painted with this sealer. There is really no other reason to see this done in an attic. It would have given you an opportunity to question the sellers about it.

Does this mean that you bought a house with problems? Not necessarily. The first thing that you want to do is to check with the building and fire department. They should both have records and a report of the fire. If there is proof that the work was signed off and completed, there should be no problem with your house.

If the work was not signed off and approved of by the building department, you could have some problems, and should investigate further. Sometimes fire damage repairs fall through the cracks in the system and not get properly inspected. This is often true when there is no insurance company involved at all, or if the insurance company settles directly with the home owner and is not involved in the repairs.

I’ve inspected many homes where the fire damage was cleverly concealed and not repaired, or repaired in a sub standard manner. Unfortunately for the average person, the evidence of this damage was cosmetically covered over. It was only discovered after a wall, a ceiling or floor cavity was either opened up, or undergoing repairs. Correcting in-place fire damage can be messy and expensive. Hopefully, you will not be faced with that.

If, after checking with the fire and building departments you are still unsure about the extent or safety of the repairs, you should immediately contact the seller. Your agent should be able to assist you in contacting them and in your handling of the matter. If the house was insured at the time of the fire, the seller’s insurance company would also have documentation of the fire and it’s repair. If it was not insured, and the work was done without permits, there could be definite liability on the part of the sellers for not disclosing this to you and for any costs you incur to settle this.

Fence Restrictions Q&A


“We just bought a house last year and the fence at the rear and sides of the property need to be replaced. The side fence is a common fence shared with our neighbor and the rear fence is next to a park. My neighbor wants to build an eight feet tall fence but I am concerned that this may be a problem if I continue it across the rear yard since all of the other fences that face the park are only six feet tall. Are there any code requirements for fencing? Also, I want to build a privacy fence in my front yard, is there a height limitation?” – M.C., Fremont


There are several restrictions and requirements for fencing that deal with not only the height of the fence, but also where it is located on the property. The three governing factors for fencing are the Uniform Building Code, local municipal ordinances and neighborhood conditions, covenants and restrictions (CCR’s).

As far as the Uniform Building Code is concerned, The maximum height that you can build a fence without a permit is six feet. Any fence more than six feet in height, measured from the ground up, would require a permit.

The reason for this is that a fence is basically a “wall” with minimal supports, which can be subject to wind loads and soil stability. Most people do not realize the force that wind can have on a fence, particularly if it is more than six feet tall. It is common for wind to blow down fences during severe storms.

Fences that are not properly supported also can fall or fail when the soil is saturated with water, such as during periods of heavy rain. Therefore it is important that fences are properly constructed to withstand these external forces.

Local ordinances and neighborhood CCR’s, however, are more restrictive and more specific. In addition to the maximum eight-foot limitation, there is also a four foot and 30-inch limitation on fences, depending upon where the fence is located on the property. Usually rear and side yard fences can be built up to the six or eight-foot height unless there are more specific neighborhood restrictions. It is when the fence projects beyond the front of the house and into the front yard of the property that the lower height restrictions kick in.

All homes have a front yard. The property line setback is typically measured from six inches back from the sidewalk to the front of the house or garage (whichever is closer to the sidewalk). Any fencing in this area is usually limited to a maximum height of four feet. If the house is located on a corner, there is a further restriction on sections of the fencing paralleling the corner that can be no higher than 30 inches.

The reason for this is pedestrian and vehicular safety. Building six or eight foot fences right up to the sidewalk would prevent one from seeing cars backing out of driveways, or children riding on bicycles or playing in a way that might affect cars on the street.

The proper way to construct a fence is to determine the size of the posts necessary. A six-foot fence normally requires 4X4 posts, and an eight foot tall fence normally requires 6X6 posts. I should point out that fences more than six feet in height may require some basic engineering since the building code is silent on their construction. Therefore before any construction is started, it is important that you consult with your local building department.

First, use a string line to lay out the posts, and dig the holes approximately eight feet apart. Most municipalities require that the posts be pressure treated wood. The diameter of the post hole should be twice the diameter of the post and at least 24 to 30 inches deep. Before the post is set, four to six inches of gravel should be placed at the bottom of each hole to allow for drainage underneath the post.

Once the post is set and checked for plumb in both directions, the hole is ready for concrete. The hole should be filled so that the concrete extends one inch above the soil. When pouring the concrete, it should be tamped or vibrated around the post to ensure a strong mixture. The concrete should then be sloped or tapered off away from the post to allow water to drain away. This is necessary if you do not want the base of the posts to rot away. When the concrete is poured below the top of the soil, water usually sits and pools at the base of the posts causing them to rot.

The next step is to install the kicker board between the posts and set the bottom and top rails before nailing up the fence boards. Remember to use galvanized nails as they are able to resist rusting.

If you have any questions or concerns about the height limitations for the fencing around your property, or the actual placement of the fencing in relationship the house or property line setbacks, you can call the City of Fremont’s Planning Division at 510-494-4455.

Sidewalk Repair, Who is Responsible?


We just moved into a new housing development and we are having problems with the contractor fixing some large cracks in the driveway and sidewalk. The cracks were caused by trucks and heavy equipment crossing our lot to finish up work on the house next door. The builder keeps saying that the city will fix the sidewalk when the development is done at the end of the year. I called the city and they say that it is the builder’s responsibility. Who is responsible for repairing our driveway ?

“I live in an older neighborhood, and for years the tree the city planted in the sidewalk area has been causing the sidewalk to crack and lift. It has gotten so bad, that last week one of the neighbors tripped on the sidewalk and injured their hip. I called the city and they said that the maintenance and repair of the sidewalk is the responsibility of the home owner. They stated that I needed to get a permit if I take out a section of the sidewalk. Isn’t the city was responsible for the maintenance of the sidewalks?”


In order to understand who is responsible for the maintenance and repair of the sidewalk, it helps to know that most people’s property line stops somewhere on the house’s side of the sidewalk. In some municipalities, the property line goes right up to the sidewalk, in others it can stop a few inches or feet before the sidewalk begins. This raises the question, “If a home owner’s property line stops short of the sidewalk, is the property owner responsible for its maintenance and repair?”

The answer is yes. Although a home owner does not actually “own” the sidewalk in front of their property, they are still held responsible for maintaining the condition of the sidewalk and the public right of way. The reason is, the public right of way is not only for the convenience of others, it also benefits the home owner by allowing safe access to their own home.

Whether this right of way may ends at the inside edge of a sidewalk, is not always clear. In some developments the right of way may end two feet beyond the inside edge of the sidewalk. This portion of the right of way could be used for the installation of underground utilities such as electrical, telephone and cable. A home owner would not be able to build or erect any permanent structure, planter, or fence that may affect passage in this area.

For many years, California has required a 40 foot right of way for city streets and sidewalks. This is the minimum width of a residential street and sidewalks to ensure that vehicular and pedestrian traffic have a safe and un-encumbered space to travel on.

To enforce these requirements, the local government has the authority to control how streets and sidewalks are installed, and how they are to be maintained.

For example, before a new sub division can be built, the builder must submit plans outlining how all of the streets and sidewalks will be installed. These plans must meet the strict guidelines of the local public works department, or city engineer.

Once approved, the builder is then responsible for installing the streets and sidewalks for the development.

Usually a year after the development is completed, the municipality will inspect the streets and sidewalks. If they find the streets and sidewalks in acceptable condition, they will assume the control for their continued use and maintenance. If sidewalks are badly cracked or damaged, the local government will not accept control until corrections are made. Builders are therefore ultimately responsible to ensure that the sidewalks, driveways and streets are in serviceable condition.

In existing neighborhoods, the city also maintains control of the streets and sidewalks, and how they are repaired. If the city receives a complaint that a sidewalk is cracking and lifting so as to create a tripping hazard, they will notify the home owner and request that they fix the condition. For a crack to be considered a tripping hazard, it would have to have a gap of about one half inch, or a lift of three quarters of an inch. If the owner does not fix the condition, the city can hire a sub contractor to make the repair, and bill the home owner.

Many times in older neighborhoods, where the trees in the parking strips have caused damage to several blocks of sidewalks, the city will contract with a sub contractor to repair the entire area. When this is done, the billing for the home owner often appears as a fee on the property taxes.

Repairing a sidewalk does not always require that the sidewalk be replaced. If there is only one or two large cracks or lifts in the sidewalk, they can usually be repaired by the home owner with patching concrete, or mortar. Cracks more than one half inch should be filled with mortar and leveled off. Raises or lifting of the sidewalk more than one half inch high should be bridged with the patching compound to create a smooth sloping surface.

Cracks or lifts larger than these may require that a section of the sidewalk actually be replaced. This will require a permit to ensure that the work will meet the local guidelines. Before attempting to perform any major repairs to a sidewalk or driveway, the public works department or city engineer should be consulted. They can answer any questions that you might have and will usually provide handouts and drawings outlining their requirements. They will also be able to tell you if there are any special programs through the city that may share in the costs of repairing or replacing damaged sidewalks.

Experience: Water Stains

Although we can’t avoid rain, and water actually hitting your home, it in no way shape or form should be settling and causing water stains.  If you see water stains inside our on the exterior of your home, there may be a bigger issue to deal with.  Aside from costly repairs of decay, you want to avoid creating a base for mold and mildew to grow, with mold being very lethal and causing various health issues.  To read more on  mold visit, EPA Mold Resources.

Experience: Decay

Regular inspections of your home our crucial to avoid costly repairs.  Rusted nails are always a sign that water is intruding upon your structure when it should not be.  All About Homes can keep an eye on your property with various non intrusive tests to assure that water is flowing away from your home.

Experience: Defect Investigation

Custom built home with drainage deficiencies and leakage at walls.

Suzy Silvestre: Testimonial

I would not trust anyone else with the construction of my home.  John has a deep understanding of construction, scheduling, quality work and products.  While we were preparing our home for renting, we had John review all of our contractors work as well as guide us in the right direction so that we would not waste time and money.  He is an asset to any construction project. – Suzy Silvestre


Scenic Mountain Developements

It doesn’t happen often, but once in a while, great innovations are made where people and the environment can both benefit. Imagine a community where people can live, work and shop, while at the same time enjoying clean air, low utility costs, and low housing costs. Now imagine this community in Northern California. Most developers and builders would say this is impossible, but one developer, Scenic Mountain Development, LLC, of the Bay Area is in the process of designing and building one of the most ambitious green building projects ever considered in the United States.

The project is called Sierra Meadow Village and is being developed in Lassen County, in a town called Herlong. Herlong is about 40 minutes north of Reno, and about 30 minutes south of Susanville California. The goal of the project is to build a small, truly affordable community that contains a mix of residential, commercial, retail, and light industrial uses that meet the energy and renewable resource requirements of most federal and state programs. Once completed, this project will be historic in proportion, and become a model for the industry to follow.

Sierra Meadow Village is being built on a portion of land that was donated by Sierra Army Depot to Lassen County for public use and development. The overall Village design emphasizes a diverse mix of land uses within walking range of each other, smaller lot sizes along with public gathering spots, and a main community park, all interconnected by a comprehensive street and walkway system. The commute will be short enough for residents to bicycle to jobs, businesses, or shopping. Yet, the true innovations of this development are the way it will be constructed, and the energy efficient systems that will be used in all aspects of the development.

To discuss the innovations of this project, I spoke with Gene Grillo, president of Bullseye Homes, and project manager for Scenic Mountain Development. Gene began by saying, “The beauty of this project is that it employs extensive creativity in its design to exceed most current energy requirements, while using cost saving and green technologies in most phases of construction. And we can do this because we have assembled a team of the best electrical, mechanical, and solar engineers to assist us in the design of this development.”

“The green technologies we will be using include biodiesel for construction equipment fuel, fuel cells, photovoltaic solar and wind power generation to bring electricity to the homes, and solar water and space heating. The buildings in the development will be constructed with energy efficient envelopes by utilizing the Structural Insulated Panels for the exterior skin of the buildings yielding higher than standard insulation values. These panels will be manufactured on site, which will eliminate transportation and handling costs.”

Gene stated that construction innovations will include the use of helical piers to support the residential units. Helical piers resemble huge metal screws that are turned into the soil, and act as foundation supports. Heating options include the use of solar radiant heating in floors, the use of Biomass heaters which use corn pellets for fuel, as well as energy efficient furnaces and duct systems. Solar lighting will be used for all external applications, and interior lighting will be supplied by a combination of fiber optics, and low consumption halogen and fluorescent fixtures. Supplementing interior light will be multiple window openings, skylights, and solar tubes. There will also be the option of gray water recycling where water from sinks and tubs can be filtered and used for irrigation.

When I asked Gene why most builders are not using these technologies, he pointed out, “Most builders do not want to change how they do things unless they are forced to by market demands. The also don’t want to invest time and money needed to be able to incorporate this new technology into their construction without real justification.”

“However, we realized the tremendous opportunity in combining the innovative technologies available today to create a new level of housing that produces very little impact to the environment. The biggest achievement of this development is that the housing will be affordable not only in terms of their purchase prices (condos will start from the low $100,000.00, and homes from the low $140,000.00), but the yearly utility savings will have the ability exceed their mortgage costs.”

Grillo mentioned that part of Scenic Mountain Development’s ability to be cost efficient in building this development is that they are near the near the technological center of the photovoltaic and SIP development. This means access to the skilled labor necessary to install these green systems and components. They are also getting support from Lassen County and the Army.

The project is scheduled to begin construction within the next few months, and when it is finished, it will be a model for the rest of the nation. For more information about this development or the innovative technologies being used, you can contact Gene Grillo at 1-530-827-2001 or 800-495-3544.

SB 800, Part 2, Legal Limitations

When Senate Bill 800 was passed, the intent was to create a bill that would benefit both builders and consumers. The bill was designed to control to the soaring costs and occurrence of litigation involving construction defects. This bill affects newly constructed homes, town homes, and condos sold after the first of January 2003. One of the most controversial parts of the bill that will have the greatest affect on new home buyers is the fact that the bill establishes new statutes of limitations within which a claim for a construction defect must be made.

The new statutes of limitations contained in this bill are not all inclusive in terms of what they cover. Rather, they have been designed to apply to only specific components, under certain conditions, and for only stated periods of time. While these new statutes of limitations will be offering relief to builders, manufacturers and insurance companies, they are going to impact a homeowner’s ability to seek relief from construction related claims, as well as limit their ability to discover defects. Let me explain.

SB 800 requires several different specific periods of warranty coverage to protect the interest of the new homebuyer. The most basic coverage builders must offer is a minimum one year express warranty covering the “fit and finish” of certain building components. This is similar to the one-year warranty builders are offering now, yet it is limited to only the cosmetic and finish items in the house.

There are strict time limitations contained in the bill which require builders to be responsible for certain construction defects for up to a ten-year period. Although the ten-year time frame is similar to the previous California statute of limitation for latent (hidden) defects, SB 800 specifically lists categories of items that would be covered. These categories include the most litigated issues involving new construction; water penetration through the exterior of the building (siding, roof, windows and doors), structural issues (foundations, framing), soil issues (movement, settlement, drainage), and fire protection issues.

With regards to water penetration the bill expressly states that water shall not pass beyond, through or around any windows, doors, roof, decks, balconies, flashings, or trim of the building. Foundations, slabs, patios, walks, and drainage systems, installed as part of the original construction shall not allow water, vapor, or soil erosion to enter or come in contact with the building so as to cause damage to another building component.

The provisions governing structural and fire protection issues state that all structural components and foundations are required to be constructed according to the wind, fire, and seismic design criteria set forth in the code adopted at the time of construction, and shall not cause the structure to be unsafe. The requirements for soil basically state that soil shall not cause the ground upon which the structure is built, to become unusable for its intended purpose, and shall not allow damage to be caused to other portions of the house.

While these provisions of SB 800 provide much protection for the consumer, the particular provisions for the plumbing, mechanical, and electrical systems, there are substantial limitations on the provisions for walks and patios, landscaping and drainage systems, and manufactured products (windows, doors, fireplaces, plumbing and electrical fixtures, etc.).

The plumbing, mechanical, and electrical systems are required to operate properly and not impair the use of the house, or cause an unreasonable risk of fire. However, no action is allowed for defects in these systems after four years from the date of the original construction. This language suggests that these systems only need to be designed and installed so that they remain serviceable for a four-year period, which is a small percentage of a house’s normal life span of 50 to 75 years. Changing or repairing these systems because of material or installation defects can be expensive, disruptive to the structure, and should not really be necessary during the normal life of the house.

Paint and stains shall be applied so as not to cause deterioration to the building surfaces for as long as the manufacturer warranties them, yet no action can be brought after five years. Installed irrigation systems and drainage are required to “survive” for only one year, except that a claim can be made within two years of the close of escrow.

Finally, there is a “catch-all” clause that states the provisions in the bill are intended to address every function or component of the building, and if there is an issue that is not specifically addressed by these standards, it shall be actionable if it causes damage.

Also, if there is no representation of a “useful life” for a particular manufactured product, then the useful life will only have to be one year.

Anyone reading through SB 800 will realize that the time frames to file a claim for a construction defect are not as clear or specific as the bill intended. The fact that the bill contains some vague language, sets numerous warranty periods with various restrictions, and requires specific action on the owner of the building to maintain the building, will change how construction related issues are resolved, or tried and defended in court. A homeowner who is not familiar with the provisions of this bill could be at a definite legal disadvantage in trying to resolve a dispute involving construction defects.