California SB 721 now requires periodic inspections on multifamily buildings with three or more units. Owners have until January 1, 2025, to complete the first inspection. What does this mean for property owners, managers and condo homeowners associations? Please see our helpful information below.
THE BALCONY INSPECTION LAW
On September 17, 2018, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law SB 721 – “The Balcony Inspection Bill.” The bill arises in response to the tragic deaths of six UC Berkeley students in 2015 at a downtown apartment complex due to the collapse of a balcony. Owners of multi-family apartment buildings with three or more units have until January 1, 2025, to complete the first inspection. This law took effect January 1, 2019.
Owners of multifamily apartment buildings with three or more units have until January 1, 2025, to complete the first inspection.
What is the Balcony Inspection Bill?
SB 721 aims to add a new level of public safety to decks, balconies and other external, elevated structural elements in multi-family residential units. This will be accomplished through required inspections performed every six years.
The inspections address structural integrity, flashings and waterproofing of these elements on buildings with three or more units and two or more stories in height. All initial inspections must be completed by January 1, 2025. Inspections will be performed on any external building element six feet above ground level including walkways, balconies, decks, landings, stairways and railings. On larger complexes, the law allows for 15% of the respective elements to be inspected as a representative sampling.
Who Performs Inspections?
The inspections must be performed only by a licensed architect, civil or structural engineer, or a building contractor holding specific licenses as a B General Contractor or C5 Framing.
The law requires that the inspector report hazardous conditions that pose a life safety threat to the local building official. Building owners will have anywhere from 15 to 120 days to address any necessary repairs depending on the condition of items inspected.
What Does the Inspection Involve?
The inspector will evaluate the condition, adequacy and performance of the various items that comprise the deck, balcony, landing or stairway structure with a focus on structural integrity.
The inspector will look for indications of unintended water intrusion and resulting dry rot or structural compromise. Deck metal edge, wall and transition flashings will be evaluated for rust, corrosion and adhesion of waterproofing materials. Deck traffic coatings will be evaluated for indications of cracking or other conditions that compromise the waterproof integrity and performance of the coating system. Stair and deck railings will be inspected for securement and overall condition. Wood framing such as joists, beams and posts will be inspected for any type of damage that could affect structural integrity.
The inspector will issue a report of their findings along with photos sufficient to document the conditions of the building elements as a baseline for future inspections and to create a historical record.
What About Repairs?
SB 721 requires notification to the building official (city or county building department) of any condition deemed an immediate or nearly immediate life safety issue. The owner then has a certain period to obtain a building permit and make the necessary repairs.
However, the majority of inspections would likely result in the identification of minor problems (or no problems at all) that the owner can address as a matter of routine maintenance and upkeep. This aspect of the inspection will be a benefit to owners to assist them with budgeting and planning and bringing awareness to minor items before they become larger issues.
- Contractors serving as the inspector cannot perform the report’s needed repair items for the building
- Building owners must apply for permits on non-emergency repairs within 120 days of receiving the report. When a permit is approved, the owners have 120 days to complete the repairs.
- Inspectors shall notify local enforcement if the building owner doesn’t comply with the repair requirements within 180 days. The owners can be assessed a civil penalty if the repairs aren’t completed within 30 days of the notice and could lead to a building safety lien on the property.
- Owners of properties that qualify for the inspection must call an inspector to have this completed before January of 2025.
Click the image at right to read the full text of SB 721:
SB 721 is well intentioned and will certainly result in remediation of deficient conditions. However, the law seems an overreaction to an incident that was an anomaly. Specific narrow circumstances led to the tragic balcony collapse in Berkeley, CA. It is unlikely those circumstances would repeat on the vast majority of structures now subject to inspection. It is also anticipated that a large majority of apartment buildings will not require corrective work.
- Balcony collapses during Irish students’ party in Berkeley, killing 6 : CNN.com
- 6 dead, 7 hurt in Berkeley balcony collapse : sfgate.com
- Berkeley balcony collapse : wikipedia.org
Senate Bill 721: What Apartment Owners Need to Know
In 2018, the California Senate signed Senate Bill 721 “SB 721” into law.
The bill focuses on Exterior Elevated Elements (EEE for short) and imposes stringent safety and inspection standards for decks, balconies, and walkways – all with a deadline of January 1, 2025.
This blog outlines the inspection requirements set forth by SB-721 and the penalties non-compliant building owners could face.
Let’s dive in.
Why Was Senate Bill 721 Passed?
During a post-collapse evaluation, experts discovered that the balcony had been inadequately waterproofed, and that the balcony’s load-bearing wooden frame had rotted, compromising its structural integrity.
The inspection also found that the property manager had delayed maintenance, despite clear indications of water damage.
They ruled that the balcony collapse could have been avoided if only the property owner had completed the needed maintenance.
The victims’ families won a multimillion-dollar settlement against the property management company in charge of the apartment building and the owners of the building.
The tragedy and subsequent legal battle sparked a nationwide conversation about who is responsible for residential buildings’ safety and structural integrity.
Who Is Affected by SB 721?
The law affects all buildings in California with 3 or more multi-family units.
This includes triplexes, quads, fourplexes, and larger apartment buildings.
Under the new law, these units must have all elevated exterior elements inspected.
“Exterior elevated elements” include decks, porches, stairways, walkways, and any other entry structure elevated more than 6 feet above ground level.
Currently, the law applies to structures made from wood or with a wood-based framework.
A last-minute amendment to SB-721 excluded condominiums, Common Interest Developments, and apartment projects from the bill. Condos are covered by a law that was later passed, SB-326, which is further discussed in this article.
Still, apartments converted to condos after January 2, 2019, must be inspected before the first escrow closing.
Property owners affected by SB-721 must have elevated exterior structures inspected by January 1, 2025.
After the initial inspection, structures must be inspected every six years.
What are the Requirements of SB-721?
SB-721 imposes stringent requirements for building owners, landlords, and property managers, including the following:
- Inspections are REQUIRED every six years. Buildings with exterior elements elevated more than 6” above the ground must undergo a preliminary safety inspection before January 1, 2025, and ongoing safety inspections every six years after that.
- There are limits on who can perform safety inspections. All safety inspections must be completed by safety inspectors who are qualified to conduct evaluations under the provisions of SB-721. More on this later.
- At least 15% of all elevated elements must be inspected. According to the new law, a minimum of 15% of a building’s total elevated elements must be inspected during each safety evaluation. The choice of which elevated features to examine is up to the inspector.
- Inspection reports must be kept for two cycles. According to SB-721, all safety inspection reports must be kept for two inspection cycles – 12 years. If jurisdictional officials request the reports, the building inspector must make them available.
- Reports must meet specific requirements. Under SB-721, safety inspection reports must meet three primary requirements: they must define the condition of the EEE, clarify expectations regarding the expected service life of the elevated element, and make recommendations for additional inspections if needed. Inspection companies must deliver a comprehensive report that satisfies these requirements within 45 days of the inspection.
What if a Safety Inspection Uncovers Needed Repairs?
If the inspection report uncovers required repairs, the inspector is required to classify the repairs under one of the following categories:
Immediate Action Required
Repairs classified as “immediate action required” represent a real and present risk to life and safety.
If a safety inspection reveals such issues, the inspector must notify the local building department and the building owner within 15 days of the inspection.
At that point, the building owner must inform tenants and prevent access to the area if needed.
The owner then has 120 days to obtain a building permit for the required repairs and an additional 120 days to complete the necessary repairs.
These issues include anything that cannot be resolved through maintenance but do not represent an immediate threat to life and safety.
When repairs are required, the building owner has 120 days to obtain a building permit and an additional 120 days to complete the needed repairs.
4 Penalties You Could Face for Noncompliance
To enforce the provisions of SB-721, lawmakers included harsh penalties for non-compliant facilities.
These penalties include the following:
- Fines of up to $500 per day. Non-compliant facilities could face penalties of $100-$500 per day for every day they are not in compliance with the requirements of SB-721.
- Assessment of safety liens. If a civil fine or penalty is assessed, the local jurisdiction can choose to issue a safety lien against the facility. If a building owner refuses to pay non-compliance fines, the local jurisdiction can satisfy the lien through foreclosure.
- Recovery of enforcement costs. Under SB-721, local enforcement agencies can recover enforcement costs from landlords, property owners, and property managers.
- Impacts on a landlord’s insurance eligibility. If a facility does not comply with SB-721, it may impact the landlord’s insurance eligibility and make it more difficult (or impossible) to secure adequate insurance coverage.
Who Can Perform an SB-721 Inspection?
One of the most challenging aspects of SB-721 for landlords and property owners is that it limits who can perform the mandatory safety inspections the law requires.
Under the provisions of SB-721, qualified parties include general contractors with “A” “B” or “C-5” license classifications in the state of California and at least five years of experience, certified building inspectors, and architects or engineers.
Additionally, the person who conducts the safety inspection cannot be the same person who performs needed repairs.
If you need SB-721 safety inspections for your residential building, it may be tempting to see the deadline of January 1, 2025, and assume you’ve got plenty of time to make arrangements.
Unfortunately, that might not be true!
There are almost 500,000 apartment facilities in California, but only 200 building inspectors qualified to perform SB-721 inspections.
That means each inspector would need to complete more than 800 inspections annually to meet the needs of California property owners, which isn’t possible.
Because of this, we recommend moving quickly.
Lock in your inspection dates sooner rather than later and ensure you have the qualified safety inspector you need for your SB-721 evaluations.
What Happens During the SB-721 Inspection Process?
Wondering what to expect from your SB-721 inspection?
Here’s the process our team follows:
1. Free consultation and estimate
We believe in making estimates as easy as possible.
When you contact us for an SB-721 inspection, our team will work with you to schedule a free consultation.
During the consultation, we’ll review your needs, provide you with an estimate, and make a plan for the next steps.
2. The safety inspection
The next step is the actual safety inspection.
Our SB-721 safety inspections are performed by licensed general contractors and engineers qualified to perform the evaluations under the new law’s provisions.
Our inspections are non-invasive, quick, and thorough.
3. Delivery of your detailed report
During each inspection, we’ll generate a detailed report that outlines the conditions of your property, its elevated exterior elements, and all relevant waterproofing systems.
This report also includes an evaluation of the expected service life of your elevated elements and a color-coded guide to needed emergency and non-emergency repairs.
The reports are broken down as follows:
- Red: Immediate action required.
- Yellow: All repairs should be addressed as soon as possible.
- Blue: Maintenance is needed, but the issue is not presently a threat to health or safety.
- Green: No problems identified in the target area.
Our reports are available in PDF format or as digital, interactive reports.
The digital reports can be updated to reflect completed repairs and provide a real-time picture of your property.
This convenient feature saves you from paying for a new report every six years and allows us to provide better service to you.
What Methods and Tools are Used During an SB-721 Inspection?
When we perform HC Structural Engineering, we prioritize thorough, precise, and non-invasive service.
Here are a few of the methods we use during SB-721 inspections:
1. Visual Inspections
Our property inspectors evaluate all the exposed surfaces of an elevated feature’s load-bearing elements, attachment points, and guardrails during a visual inspection.
The inspector will assess how the components integrate and identify any apparent issues.
2. Endoscopic Tests
We avoid destructive testing by using endoscopes to evaluate the internal structure of your EEE – without damaging your building and creating additional expenses for you.
Instead, we bore a small hole into the underside of your elevated exterior element and use an endoscopic camera to inspect the condition of the interior wood elements.
This quick, accurate inspection tactic will not weaken or compromise your elevated elements.
3. Moisture Sensors
Moisture is one of the leading problems for wood decks, balconies, and other elevated exterior elements.
To check for moisture intrusion, we use advanced moisture sensors to pinpoint and identify dry rot and assess the level of maintenance and repairs needed.
4. Infrared Cameras
We use infrared cameras to assess the wood’s structural integrity and identify early signs of dry rot and moisture intrusion in uncovered wood elements.
Why Choose Us as Your SB-721 Inspector?
Here at HC Structural Engineering, Inc., helping our clients comply with the requirements of SB-721 is our top priority.
We’re committed to keeping people safe and using advanced technology to provide comprehensive, streamlined, accurate inspection services.
Here are a few of the reasons clients choose us:
- Industry experience. The owner of HC Structural Engineering, Inc., Dan Cronk, has over 40 years of experience in the construction industry. He has worked as a certified structural inspector and a general contractor, and he brings that expertise to every inspection we perform.
- A commitment to non-invasive inspections. We believe that HC Structural Engineering shouldn’t cause more damage to your property. Our non-invasive inspection tactics allow us to evaluate your elevated elements’ internal structure without creating damage and expenses for you to deal with.
- Peace of mind. As a property owner, your priority is to keep everyone in your building safe. With our comprehensive safety inspection services, you can rest easy at night, knowing that your facilities are compliant and secure.
We Provide HC Structural Engineering Services You Can Count on
SB-721 created many new requirements for building owners, landlords, and property managers. Fortunately, you’re not alone in the effort to comply with them.
At HC Structural Engineering, Inc., we conduct safety inspections for decks, balconies, walkways, and entries in apartment facilities in California.