Property Line Setbacks, Title Company Q&A

QUESTION

“A person buys a cabin in the foothills. It was sold “as is” and there was not much disclosure about the property. After living in the cabin for two years, It was discovered that the laundry room addition to the cabin was actually built on the neighbor’s property line. The neighbor is now thinking about suing me. Shouldn’t this property line issue have been disclosed by someone? Doesn’t the title company check some sort of maps to make sure that there no discrepancies with property lines?” – D.W., Oakland

 

ANSWER

Buying a piece of property in a probate sale, particularly in rural areas, can be quite a gamble if you are not prepared to do a lot of research. When a property is sold in probate, it is usually part of an estate of someone who has just died. There are no requirements for the estate to provide disclosure information to a prospective buyer. This basically relieves the estate of any liabilities that might arise after the sale if some problem were to be discovered. This is one of the few situations in which a house can actually be sold “as is,” leaving the buyer with very little protection from non disclosure.

The title company that you received your policy form, does give you some protection, but it is specifically related to the “Ownership” of the property. Having title insurance policy makes sure that your rights and interests to the property are clear, and that no governmental or individual entity has any right, lien, or claim to your property.

California has two commonly used title insurance policies, California Land Title Association (CLTA) which insures that all items on title are revealed to affected parties, and American Land Title Association (ALTA) which further insures that if an unrecorded claim of ownership arises it will be settled or affected parties will be reimbursed. ALTA policies are preferred by most lenders to insure a deed of trust.

Title companies spend a large percentage of their operating income each year collecting, storing, maintaining and analyzing official records for information that affects title to real property. Their technical experts are trained to identify the rights that others may have to your property such as recorded liens, legal actions, disputed interests, right of way or other encumbrances to your property.

Title companies do not normally check for permits, and they would not necessarily know of any property line violations if there were no recorded notices. The maps that they provide in the preliminary title report show the boundaries and size of the property, but do not show the location of any buildings or structures. This prevents anyone from knowing if there were property line violations. The responsibilities of a title company are clearly set forth in the specific coverage of each policy. To determine the coverage that you have, you must first check the existing policy to see if it even includes coverage of building violations or property line disputes.

If it does, you then want to carefully check to see what the exclusions are, and whether or not there is a deductible. It is possible that the title company is responsible for the result of not having a permit, but each case needs to be evaluated by all parties on its own merit and the conditions in the policy

However, without knowing all of the specifics of your policy, it is impossible to say if your title company had any responsibility. If the title policy contains the new expanded coverage that has recently been introduced by CLTA, there may be some protection for you as legal owner of the property.

Effective August 1998, CLTA began offering an “enhanced” title insurance policy which includes additional coverage that were normally only offered at an additional price. Some policies offered in California now provide coverage for such things as building permit violations, property line violations, restriction or covenant violations and coverage for post policy forgeries that may occur in the future and cloud the title.

All of these enhanced coverages do have some restrictions, limitations and deductibles, but they allow the title companies to provide a higher level of service and protection for the consumer. For more information about the CLTA Policy, you can contact your local title company.

The Condition of your Home?

It’s hard to believe a new year is already underway, and this is probably the best time to invest a couple of hours in taking stock of your most important investment, your house. How much do you really know about the house you are living in? Whether you’ve been living in your house for several years or have just moved in, it is necessary to know the current condition of your house and its various components to be able to maintain it and keep it in optimum working order. Over the years, building components age and deteriorate. Think about it. Are you living with conditions now, which might affect the value or safety of your home?

The truth of the matter is that most people know very little about their homes, and this can lead to costly expenses in the future. It does not take an experienced person to realize or see that a problem exists, but it does take a conscious effort to look for them. The problem is that people can sometimes live with deteriorated conditions for years without really realizing they exist.

For example, if the dishwasher is running, do you still have enough water for a shower? Do the kitchen lights dim when the microwave oven and toaster are operated at the same time? How old is the roof? Is it water-tight? Are there any cracks in the walls or ceilings that might be an indication of building settlement? When was the last time you looked in the attic or under the house? If improvements have been made to your house, have they been made in a safe and code complying manner?

Whether or not these specific questions apply to your home, you will want to know as much about your home as possible to properly maintain it. If you do not maintain your home, you could face large expenditures of time and money when a system or component finally fails. Take some time and think about the actual condition of your home. Look around and find out what kind of shape your house is in.

The best way to begin analyzing the condition of your house is to approach it in an organized way. Start by looking at the outside, and then move to the interior. Keep a written list of the items you see, and note their condition. Once you have finished, you will have a good idea of the things that will need to be fixed immediately, or in the near future.

The exterior of your house can be divided into several categories to assess; the exterior siding, the drainage around the building, the walks, patios, and decks, and the window and doors. Check the siding and trim around the windows and doors for signs of weathering and cracking. Look at you gutters and downspouts for signs of leakage at the seams and rusting. Make sure all the water from the downspouts drains away from the building.

Step back away from the house and look at the roof for signs of missing roof covering or debris in the valleys. If the roof is wood shake, it should be serviced every three to five years and has an average life of 18 to 22 years. If the roof is tile, look for broken or missing pieces of tile.

One of the most important things you should look for at the exterior of your house is the emergency shut offs for the gas, electric and water meters. Are the shutoff valves and disconnects accessible, or are they concealed by plants and vegetation. If there were an emergency could you shut these items off?

Once you have finished the exterior, inspect the interior of the house. Inspect each room, and look at the walls, ceilings, and floors. Check the interior walls and ceilings for signs of cracking and water staining. Minor cracking around window and door openings is common, but it can also be an indication that the house is settling. Cracking in sheetrock less than 1/16” is usually not serious. However, it is important to know if the crack is existing, or new, and if it is getting bigger. Is the floor sloping? If they are new cracks, or they are getting bigger, the house may be settling with the recent rains.

Do all of the doors and windows properly open and close and are they weather-stripped? Are there panes of broken glass? Do the windows have screens?

Inspect the bathroom and kitchen, paying particular attention to the plumbing under the sinks. Many times, leakage under sinks goes undetected because of all the items people tend to store in the sink cabinets. Do the toilets flush properly, and does the water shut off when the tank is full? Toilets that continue to run, or faucets which leak once the water shuts off not only costs money, but wastes water. Finally, check to make sure that all of your smoke alarms operate.

Once you have finished, you will not only have an accurate appraisal of your house’s condition, you will also have a detailed list of what needs to be fixed at your house. With this information, you can plan your repairs, and avoid having to fix things at the last minute. In this way, you can keep your house in top condition with a minimum of effort.

To assist homeowners in this process of inspecting their home, All About Homes, Inc., has develop a free, simple and straight forward checklist called the “Home Owners Guide to a Property Review.” It walks you through the exterior and interior of your home, allowing you to inspect each of the components, and make comments. If you would like a copy of this checklist, you can either visit our website at www.allabouthomes.com, and click on Brochures, or you can fax your request to our office.

Green Building Development Q&A

QUESTION

“I’m starting to hear and read more about “green building”, and how efficient and economical these homes can be without taking a lot of natural resources to create. Can you tell me what builders are doing incorporate features that are environment friendly, and what features homebuyers should be looking for? What kind of real savings does building green generate for the consumer?” – C.T., Pleasanton

ANSWER

“Building green” refers to building homes that use natural resources to their full potential in creating an energy efficient dwelling. These homes use materials, systems and components that do not require lots of energy or resources to create, and that use a minimal amount of energy to sustain. Examples of green building include homes that use solar or wind energy for electricity or heat, and homes that are constructed from recycled materials. However, the list does not stop here.

Green building is definitely on the horizon for the future of construction, but it has not yet taken over mainstream thinking. The reasons that many of the green systems and components are not being fully utilized in today’s construction are the initial costs, lack of easy integration of components, and the lack of motivation for builders to do so. In some cases, there are also aesthetic concerns such as the visibility of solar panels or passive heat components.

Before builders will embrace and utilize many green components, they have to be convinced that the demand is there, and that the initial costs of gearing up and incorporating the components into their homes will pay off. For every new component or major building system that builders use, there is a learning curve for not only the builder, but the manufacturer and sub contractors involved in its installation. Many of the individual components of green building have never been fully integrated into a particular home or development, which presents little or no history on their actual acceptance or performance.

Today, most homes being built meet certain energy standards to be classified as an “Energy Star” home. These homes include energy efficient features such as high insulation values in the floors, walls, and ceilings, tight sealing ductwork for all furnaces, double or triple pane windows, and energy saving appliances and fluorescent lighting. Yet, building green goes much further. Building green means making the entire structure and mechanical systems so energy efficient, that they consume less energy and resources than conventional housing.

As an example of this, consider the amount of trees needed to produce the wood necessary to construct a house. What if you could use recycled materials, or wood scraps to build the house? Think of the natural resources we could save. Well, some builders are using this alternative today, and they do it by using structural insulated panels.

Insulated structural panels (ISP’s) are panels used to frame walls, ceilings, floors, and roofs that are basically a sandwich of two wood panels made up of wood chips glued together, with a dense layer of rigid insulation in between. These panels are designed to interlock, and can be assembled and mass-produced to almost any design. A house built using SIPs will be at a minimum 50% more efficient that a house built with conventional framing. Straw bale construction is another option for creating an extremely efficient shell of a house, however its use has not been developed to consistent standards that allow it to be easily mass-produced.

Once the structure is built, a photovoltaic system can be installed to generate most or all of the house’s electrical needs. You can then add solar heating for the interior of the house and water heater. You can also heat the house using stoves that burn corn kernels, or generate your electricity with a wind generator. Decks, porches, and outdoor structures are being built with recycled plastics and wood fibers. Builders are also devising ways to recycle gray water (water from sinks, washing machines, and tub and showers), to be filtered, and used to irrigate the landscaping around the house.

The options for green building seem to be ever expanding as the industry develops new technologies for recycled materials, and better systems and designs of current innovations.

Next week, I will tell you about an ambitious green building project of historic proportions that is in the process of being developed in Northern California. It is being designed and built by some innovative industry members from the Bay Area, and has the cooperation and support of local and state governments. 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 California’s EPA’s Million Solar Homes Initiative, and many of the programs sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. Once completed, this project will become a model for the industry to follow.

The Value of a ASHI or CREIA Inspector Q&A

QUESTION

“What standards do home inspectors have when writing reports and disclosing information? We made a decision to buy a house because it looked pretty good, and the inspection report was minimal. However, after our offer was accepted, a second inspection report from a previous buyer surfaced, that noted serious defects with the house. There was leakage everywhere, from the roof, to the exterior walls, to water leaking into the garage, and to water pooling under the house. The siding wasn’t properly installed and there was extensive wood rot. Once I got the report, I went back to the property with my agent and rechecked the house, and it was amazing the damage this inspector found that I never would have noticed. I was going to buy a real money pit. How come the other report missed all of these significant items? Wouldn’t the other inspector be liable for not disclosing this?” –  C.H., Castro Valley

ANSWER

Home inspectors and their reports vary greatly in terms of thoroughness and the ability to clearly communicate their findings to a client. The reason for the variance is basically two-fold. First, there are no real standards or specific requirements that govern the experience of an inspector or the details that have to be in a report. The basic obligation of a home inspector in California is to perform the inspection according to nationally recognized standards for the industry. This requirement is so vague, that it offers very little assurance for the consumer that the inspection will provide the information it should.

The second reason for the variances between inspectors and their reports is directly related to the experience and skill of the inspector. Since there are no licensing requirements for home inspectors, anyone can hang a sign out and start in the business whether or not they have any construction experience. There are many people entering into the home inspection industry that believe that the home inspection industry is an easy opportunity to generate income. They think, how hard can it be to inspect a house?

Having 20 years of experience in the industry, I can attest that it requires skill and experience to thoroughly inspect a house, and provide the level of disclosure information expected in California. Having trained dozens of inspectors, I know that it takes about 500 inspections before an inspector can adequately perform an inspection with a consistent amount of skill. This is not a profession that you can learn and master on your own, or through a class.

Based on the information in your letter, I could only guess that the first inspector was unskilled and the second inspector experiences. Finding and disclosing the water issues you mentioned often require a keen sense and a thorough knowledge of how a house is constructed. Obviously, the first inspector did not have the skills or abilities to identify the items that the second inspector did.

You were very fortunate to have seen the second inspection, because if you had purchased the house based on the information listed in the first report, the inspector would have had tremendous liability. He or she would have been liable for any damages resulting from those non-disclosed items, assuming they were visible during the first inspection.

The best advice I can give anyone thinking of buying a house is to hire a qualified inspector to inspect it. And make sure you see a sample of the inspector’s report to see if it will give you the type of information you will want to rely on. There are literally hundreds of inspectors in the industry today, with dozens of report formats, and several national and regional inspector organizations. To find a good inspector, consumers do a little research and find someone they feel comfortable with, and one that is willing to stand behind the accuracy of their report.

The two most established home inspector organizations in the industry are the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), and the California Real Estate Inspectors Association (CREIA). Both of these organizations require that their inspectors have a performed a minimum number of inspections before becoming a member, and require continuing education to continue membership. The strengths of these two organizations are that they truly support the industry by promoting high standards of professionalism, and the continual education of their members.

For example, the local ASHI and CREIA chapters hold seminars and trainings almost every month, and there are many opportunities for inspectors to share experiences and learn from established members. Last month, the Silicon Valley ASHI and CREIA Chapter hosted one of the best seminars on moisture intrusion ever offered in the Bay Area. The inspectors attending that seminar learned more about how moisture infiltrates into building during that day, than they could after years working in the industry.

Remember, the most important thing when hiring an inspector is to feel comfortable with the person and their experience. You will be relying on their abilities and written report when you buy your next house. And you want that information to be accurate, and clearly communicated. To locate an ASHI inspector you can call ASHI headquarters at 1-800-743-2744, or you can contact ASHI through their web site at www.ashi.org To find a CREIA inspector, you can visit their website at www.CREIA.org.

Water from Exterior Damages Floor Covering Q&A

QUESTION

“I live in a 4 year old townhouse and I have vinyl floor covering installed in the kitchen and eating area. A few months after I moved in, I noticed some faint discoloration and staining on the floor covering near the outside wall. It appears to be on the underside of the flooring because I could not clean it. I contacted the builder and he said that it was probably a manufacturing defect and he had the vinyl replaced. Lately I have noticed that the staining was coming back. Do you have any idea why the staining is occurring? My house is built on a slab so there is no way to look underneath the floor.” – R.K., Alameda

 

ANSWER

Staining on the underside of vinyl floor covering is usually the result of moisture infiltration, and before the floor covering is replaced, it is important to locate and eliminate the source of this moisture. If you don’t, the staining will continue to re- appear no matter how many times you replace the floor covering.

The most common example of this type of staining occurs in bathrooms, usually near the base of the toilet or adjacent to the tub or shower pan. While moisture cannot permeate the surface of the vinyl floor covering, it can seep underneath at joints and edges that are not fully sealed.

If the joint between the vinyl floor covering and the face of the tub or shower pan is not kept properly sealed, it will be exposed to moisture that can collect there from tub or shower over spray. People do not realize how much water can collect at this location just from stepping in and out of the shower or tub.

Water that collects at this area can then wick under the vinyl floor covering, making the back side of the vinyl wet. Over time, this moisture creates mildew growth which starts out as a light gray stain and then turns black. If the staining or discoloration that you see on the floor covering won’t come off, chances are it is coming from the underside, and it is probably moisture related.

The staining that you are describing in the kitchen and eating area also sounds like it is moisture related because it has re-occurred. What you need to do first is to find out where the moisture is coming from. The fact that your house is built on a slab, limits the possible sources of the moisture to three things; a leaking water line in the slab, water being sprayed at, or pooling at the face of the concrete foundation, or finally, sub surface water wicking up through the underside of the slab.

If it were a leaking water line, the staining would be more or less in one area (near the break in the pipe and the slab would be wet or damp. This would have been discovered when the floor covering was first replaced.

If there was sub surface water wicking up through the slab, it would mean that there was a break in vapor barrier beneath the concrete that is allowing the moisture to pass through. This commonly occurs during periods of heavy rain, or over-watering. My guess is that your particular situation is the result of water either pooling or being sprayed at the face of the foundation.

This could be the result of heavy and /or continuous rains or possibly from the sprinklers. Sprinklers spraying against the house allow water to run down the face of the foundation and then pool at the base. The surfaces of the concrete foundation can absorb tremendous amounts of moisture when exposed to water.

When this source of moisture is allowed to occur on a daily or every other day basis, (such as with sprinklers that are on timers), there would be enough moisture for it to travel in towards the interior of the house two to three feet.

If you find that the sprinklers are not spraying directly at the building, check the drainage to make sure all water flows away from the house. This is particularly important if your property has an up slope on one side of the house. If water cannot be drained away from this area, you may need to install a drainage system to carry the water somewhere else.

Remember, when water is allowed to pool adjacent to a foundation for long periods of time, it can do a lot more than cause staining to floor coverings. It can be one of the biggest contributing factors to building settlement and foundation failure. Water and moisture also have the capability to destroy wood members throughout the house if left unchecked. It pays to eliminate sources of moisture infiltration and improper drainage before they have a chance to become bigger and more expensive problems.

Excessive Moisture in the House Q&A

QUESTION

“For the past few weeks, I’ve been having a problem with moisture inside the house. I’ve noticed lots of condensation on my windows and mold starting to grow on the window frames, and at the base of several walls. When I clean the mold up, it goes away for a while, but then comes back. I’ve even noticed mold on some of the indoor flowerpots. I don’t know where all of the moisture is coming from, and what I need to do to correct this. Any suggestions?” – L.J., Oakland

 

ANSWER

Excessive moisture in a house is never a good idea, and over prolonged periods can allow mold and mildew to grow. What you are experiencing is common, and tends to occur after winter rains. During the winter the air and exterior elements of a house are cold and damp. To stay warm, we tend to keep our homes sealed up by closing all of our windows and doors. This eliminates natural ventilation and traps moisture inside the house. Without ventilation or enough temperature, moist air cannot circulate, and the moisture cannot evaporate.

Moisture inside a house only occurs if it is generated by the occupants of the house, or from some external source such as a plumbing or roof leak. Believe it or not, normal living conditions can generate several gallons of water vapor a day. Every time we cook, shower, wash or dry clothes, or even breath inside a house, we are releasing water vapor into the air. Unless we provide some means for this vapor to escape, it will remain in the house and condense on window, wall, and ceiling surfaces.

Ventilation is really the key to controlling moisture in a home, and when combined with some heat, it can ensure that a home remains comfortable and dry. Without ventilation, wet or humid air is drawn to cooler surfaces such as walls, windows, ceilings, or personal belongings, where it condenses on the surface. If the moisture does not evaporate, it creates a cool moist environment for the mold spores in the air to grow.

The first thing you should do is to determine what the sources of moisture can be. The most common sources are from bathing and cooking. Does condensation form on your walls and ceilings after cooking a meal or bathing? If so, you need to increase the ventilation in the area by using an exhaust fan or opening a window. Do you have indoor plants or aquariums? These are also big generators of moisture indoors.

Occasionally, indoor moisture can be the result of standing water under the house, or excessive moisture in the attic. Often times during the winter a home can have some amount of standing water under it, or excessive moisture in the attic from a roof leak or from a lack of ventilation. Moisture from the sub area and attic can infiltrate into the interior of the building through vapor pressure and condense on wall surfaces and personal belongings. It is important to check these areas of the house to ensure that they are well ventilated and basically dry.

If standing water is noted in the sub area, it may be necessary to have it pumped out, or to have fans installed to accelerate its drying. If excessive moisture is noted in the attic, it may be necessary to install additional eave or roof vents.

Moisture and mold growth on the inside of the house usually forms on surfaces that are not exposed to any air flow or movement of heat such as behind dressers, beds, and in closets. Moisture is more apt to condense on exterior walls that are not insulated and in rooms that do not have their own heat register or source of heat. Many homes built in the 1940’s through the 1960’s only had a centrally located wall or floor furnace. These heating units could not efficiently get heat into most of the bedrooms and bathrooms like the forced air furnaces used today. Because of this, it was common for mold to appear.

Once the sources of the moisture are realized, then you have the ability to deal with correcting the mold conditions. Minor amounts of surface mold can be cleaned and removed with a mild solution of chlorine bleach and water. Start by mixing one part bleach and 7 parts water and spraying the solution on the mold. Let this set for a few minutes, and the color of the mold will begin to disappear. Then, wash the area with soap (cleaning detergent) and water and dry. This will remove any mold spores that remain on the surface.

Finally, keep in mind the importance of keeping the interior of the house well ventilated. In the morning open the blinds so that any condensation on the windows can evaporate, and open doors to bedrooms so that air can circulate. And remember to either open a window or use the exhaust fan after bathing or cooking. Following these simple suggestions will normally keep mold from occurring.

Water Under a House Q&A

QUESTION

“Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a strong musty smell in the living room and dining room. I looked all over for signs of moisture or leakage but did not find any. However, when I looked into the sub area the smell got worse, and I noticed standing water under my house. The water appeared about 2” to 3” deep, and covered most of area that I could see. I’m very concerned, and do not know where the water is coming from. Is it possible that this is from a plumbing leak? How do I find out, and what do I need to do?” – D.S., Dublin

 

ANSWER

A little standing water under a house is not uncommon especially after all of the rains we have been having lately. Once the soil around the house gets saturated with water, water will tend to seep under it and often go unnoticed. However, too much standing water can cause structural damage to the foundation, corrosion to furnace ductwork, wood rot to the framing members, and cause mold and mildew to grow. The amount of water necessary to cause this damage depends a lot on the type of soil under a house, the amount of underfloor ventilation, and the clearances between the earth and the components of the house.

Standing water under a house is usually the result of only two things; either a leaking water line, or from surface water drainage around the house. If it was from a leaking water line, the leak would have to be substantial, and you would hear running water in the house. It would take a few days of leaking to create the amount of water you described, and the leak would continue until the water to the house was shut off.

I suspect that the water under the house is actually the result of poor surface water drainage around your home. It is important for all homes, whether they are built with a raised foundation or on a slab, to be constructed so that the water from rain and irrigation drains away from the house. This is why most homes built within the past 20 years have all of their downspouts connected to a drainage pipe to carry the water to the curb and gutter, and why walks, patios, and planter areas slope away from the house. Builders understand the importance of keeping water away from the house’s foundation.

To determine if the amount of water under your house is serious, look into the sub area from the access opening with a flashlight. Usually, if there is enough height to the sub area, standing water is not necessarily a concern. If the water only covers a small portion of the sub area, and other areas are dry, it is not significant, and will probably drain away after a few days.

However, if the water covers a large area and is in contact with the base of any wood supports, or the furnace ductwork, then the water should be removed. The simplest way to remove water from a sub area is to use a sump pump to pump the water out. The pump must be installed at the deepest area of water to be efficient, and the water needs to be discharged away from the house.

If it turns out that there is a lot of water under the house, then consideration must be given to improving the drainage around the perimeter. A simple investigation can often determine where the water is coming from. Water can drain into a sub area from planter areas next to a house, or low points in the landscaping. Walk around the outside of your house and see if you can spot where the low points might be. If most of the water is under the rear of the house, there is probable a low point at the rear yard. Next, check to make sure that all downspouts drain away from the building by using either splash blocks, or corrugated piping to divert the water to a safe location.

Sometimes correcting the low points of drainage and adjusting the downspouts is not enough to prevent the water from infiltrating into the foundation, and other measures must be considered. The best solution for keeping water from getting into the sub area is to install a French drain on the sides of the house where the water appears to be coming in. A French drain is basically a 12” wide trench dug around a building down to the base of the foundation, and then filled with gravel and a perforated pipe sloped to collect and divert the water to the street.

Although, basic in design, French drains often require the expertise of a foundation or drainage contractor, or landscaper to install so that they operate properly. If the drain is installed too far away from the house, does not have the proper slope, or has not be installed with a filter fabric (to keep the soil from clogging the trench), a French drain will not work. Installing a French drain can cost thousands of dollars, therefore before you consider one, make sure that it is necessary.

My best advice for homeowners is to check your sub areas at least twice during the rainy season for signs of standing water. If standing water has been under the house in the past, it will leave a mud like (bathtub) ring around the inside face of the foundation, the interior pier supports, and any furnace ducting or pipes that have been in contact with the water. Find out if there are drainage issues before they cause a problem, because it is much easier to fix them when it is not pouring rain and the ground is real muddy.

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/.

Sidewalk Repair, Who is Responsible?

QUESTIONS

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?”

ANSWER

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.

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.