Handrails and guardrails

Staircases often have handrails and guardrails. They are related, but not the same thing.

Handrails are what a person grasps while ascending or descending the stairs or ramp. Guardrails aim to keep people and pets from falling off of the them.

These elements of a home come up in property inspections frequently in older homes as there are safety concerns if they have not been updated. If you are in the market for a 2 or more story home, or own one,  these are important safety topics for you!

Handrails and safety

The building code changes periodically, and elements of a home that were to code when built may not be today. Homeowners aren’t required to update them, unless there’s other remodeling happening and the city or town inspector requires it for the permit and final. There are a number of requirements for the current code in California. It may be different elsewhere.

We cannot quote all of the staircase and rail code here, but here are a few salient points (there are links below for more info):

  • The handrails must be 34-38 inches over the stair or walking surface (such as a ramp).
  • They are required when there are 4 or more stairs and / or 30″ of height.
  • They must go the whole length of the ramp or staircase.
  • They must be on at least one side of the steps or ramp.
  • They need to return to the wall for safety reasons, but at the bottom they may return to itself (often in a circular pattern). The main point here is that if someone is walking along the rail, a bag, purse, or other object cannot get caught on an open rail.
  • There are many more regulations for the size of the handrail (so that it’s graspable), how far it may be from the wall, and so on. The City of Gilroy has a nice PDF that lays out the 2019 California code regulations that you can find at this link.

Something we see frequently are banisters that do not return to the wall. Home inspectors will (or should) note it in inspections when seen.

Handrails and returns

 

Guardrails and safety

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Concrete tile roofs: pros and cons

Concrete tile roofs - collage and collection of various stylesConcrete tile roofs have a long lifespan and an elegant look. Like every type of roofing material, there are pros and cons to them. If Spanish, Mexican, or Mediterranean style architecture are your favorites, there’s a good chance that some sort of tile roof may be part of the home you love.

Concrete roof considerations – pros and cons

  • concrete tiles are often rated as 50 year roofs
  • they are more fire resistant than many other types of roofing materials
  • today they come in standard and light weights
  • they are expensive (but more affordable and hearty compared to clay tile roofs)
  • they may be rounded and look Spanish – Mediterranean, or they may be flat (there are many colors and styles)
  • there was a time when they were allowed to be installed without solid underlayment – there can be issues with that (do read this part below)
  • additional costs beyond the obvious (including permits and finals)

 

Long lasting materials, great fire rating

Concrete roofs may be expected to last up to 50 years (though I have seen some sites quote 30 – 50).  My experience, though, is that many homeowners won’t wait that long to replace their roofs as problems creep up with age. Concrete tile roofs enjoy a Class A fire rating.

Regular and lightweight options now

Concrete roofs are heavy, and the home needs to be engineered to carry that load. In some cases, homes are constructed with a lighter material, such as wood shake or composition shingle, and the homeowners later want tile. A good option for them may be the lighter weight concrete title roof. I had not heard of this at all until we were preparing to reroof our house.

Something to consider, though, is whether or not you want to add solar panels to your roof. When I looked into it (out of curiosity), I found that some solar panels cannot be placed on a lighter weight tile roof. (Please do your own research – you may find something different.)

Cost (in brief)

We reroofed in 2023 and it seemed like the cost to put on concrete tile was 3 or more times as much as if we’d put on a comp shingle roof. Ours did need more than just new tiles, but we decided to continue with tile as our Spanish style house would not have looked right with composition shingle. On the plus side, it will last far longer than the less expensive alternative!

 

Older concrete tile roofs and the underlayment issue

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Concrete tile roof 48 years old - townhouse complex in San Jose - view from underneath

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Why does it matter if the bedroom windows are small or high?

Younger home with large bedroom window, low to the ground

Younger home with large bedroom window, low to the ground

If you are buying or selling an older ranch style house or historic home in Silicon Valley, there’s a good chance that original bedroom windows may be smaller or higher than your home inspector might like.  What is the big deal with the height or size of the windows?  The inspection report may mention ingress and egress.

On this site and others of ours, we bring up health and safety topics from time to time. For example, we shared info on unsafe electrical panels here. In the case of fire or other emergency, children and adults may need to get out and rescue personnel may need to get in. If bedroom windows are poorly configurated, the room could end up being a death trap.

For fire safety, it’s important that:

  • bedroom windows be an escape route for persons in the home (egress) – for this, they must be low enough to the ground and big enough so that children and adults can both get out in case of an emergency
  • emergency responders such as fire fighters, with their large backpacks on their backs, can get in through the same openings (ingress)

When windows are too high, kids, and perhaps adults, cannot get out through them.  And no matter how low or high, if the windows are too small, emergency personnel cannot enter through them.

Bedroom windows and safety: how big and how low do the windows need to be?

There are varied requirements, and exceptions, depending on whether the home is new construction or a remodel. Additionally, there are different rules for basements and 2nd story bedroom windows. Cities and towns each have their own codes, too.  Your best bet is to check with your particular town or city to see what you must do if remodeling or replacing your windows.

In Los Gatos, ground floor windows must be

  • no more than 44″ off the ground
  • at least 20″ wide
  • at least 24″ tall
  • There are additional requirements, though – please see the link at the bottom of this article to view the details.

San Jose’s requirements are similar.

City of San Jose: Window Replacement Requirements

All sleeping rooms and basements – Must meet these specifications:
– Minimum 5.7 square feet opening*
– Minimum height of 24 inches
– Minimum width of 20 inches
– Maximum height to bottom of clear opening of 44 inches
* In order to meet the required 5.7 square-foot opening, either the width or height or both must
exceed the minimum dimensions shown. If bottom of clear opening is le

When remodeling your home and switching from single pane to dual pane windows, many people will be tempted to use the same sized windows with the new replacement set in order to save money, and in many areas, skip the need for permits and finals by not disturbing the stucco.  But rather than target the least expensive way to upgrade your windows, I’d like to suggest making safety a priority.  Upgrade not just your home’s energy efficiency, but its safety too.

 

Ranch style house with original casement windows

Ranch style house with original casement windows – impossible for ingress by emergency personnel.

 

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What Can You Learn from a Frosty Roof?

Viewing a frosty roof, or a one without frost on an icy morning, can provide useful information about the home’s insulation.

Frosty roof photos (and why it matters)

Here are some homes in Los Gatos viewed early one winter morning when the sun had barely risen.   The home on the left shows some ice over and near the eaves, but not higher up on that roof.  The house on the right  has frost all nearly all of its roof except over the garage where it connects to the 2nd story.   What is happening?

 

Two homes on an icy morning - one with more frost than the other

 

In the left house, the roof is warm and the frost is melting or gone, while on the right the roof is not warm except in one spot.

Frost is a good indicator that the insulation in the attic is keeping the heat in the home and that it’s not being lost to the attic and roof. The house on the right is very well insulated. The one warm spot may be close to the furnace, water heater, washer, or dryer – something in the garage is heating up that corner of the roof.

This has nothing to do with the roof type, by the way. The one on the left is metal and the one next to it is composition shingle. In the photos below, at the left is another comp shingle and to the right of it has a concrete tile roof.

Let’s look at another example:

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Silicon Valley liquefaction zones

Silicon Valley Liquefaction Zones shown in greenish color on this mapThe Silicon Valley liquefaction zones cover much of the Bay Area and Santa Clara County, but the risks are often not well understood or investigated. We know that this is earthquake country and tremblers are to be expected. But what difference does it make where you live or work – won’t the whole valley be shaking equally?

Well, we’re Realtors, not geologists or geotechnical engineers, but we can share some resources that may help answer these questions and provide avenues for further research on this topic.

What is liquefaction?

Liquefaction refers to the ground becoming liquified, or fluid. It takes 3 ingredients to liquefy land: loose sediment, water, and strong shaking. This loose, saturated soils when shaken to a certain point no longer behave like a solid and can slide, open, and swallow anything above it.

In 2010 and 2011, New Zealand experienced this and it made worldwide news. The Science Learning Hub website states that “During the Canterbury earthquakes of September 2010 and February 2011, liquefaction caused silt and fine sand to boil up and bury streets and gardens and caused buildings and vehicles to sink.”

But I never heard about that happening during the 1906 San Francisco quake, or the 1989 Loma Prieta quake in Santa Clara County – that means it’s not a risk here, right? Wrong. The USGS Liquefaction and Sea Level Rise explains that a relatively dry rainy season in 1906 lowered the liquefaction risk, and the 1989 quake happened near the end of the dry season when groundwater levels were at their low point.

Silty, sandy soil will respond very differently to bedrock and clay in the case of extreme shaking. So no, the valley won’t all be shaking equally in the case of a large tremor. Liquefaction hazard zones will likely get the worst of it. That’s why this designation matters so much.

 

What is a liquefaction zone?

After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, the Department of Conservation, California Geological Survey created maps to make residents aware of areas in which there are increased risks from earthquake shaking due to landslides or liquefaction and to make sure that construction in those zones have extra investigational requirements to build safely. The liquefaction zones are noted by the state to be more susceptible to dangerous liquefaction in the event of an earthquake. You can learn more about these and related issues at the California Department of Conservation’s website. (more…)

Raised Perimeter and Post and Pier Foundations

I recently published a piece on post-tension slabs, which is more used in new construction, however it’s not the most common type across existing homes in the South Bay. While basements are not often found in the South Bay, crawlspaces are. You’re most likely to encounter raised foundation, known as perimeter or raised perimeter, also called post and pier, foundations.

 

Raised Perimeter and Post and Pier Foundation Compilation 1960s

Still images from historic reels shared by History San Jose showing one of the city’s suburban developments of the 1960s and the installation of this type of foundation. Click to go to the original video on Youtube. Edit: Unfortunately the video appears to have been removed. I’m leaving the link in case it is re-uploaded.

An Introduction to Raised Perimiter Foundations

What is a Raised Foundation, or a Perimeter Foundation?

A raised foundation, perimeter foundation, or raised perimeter foundation is one that supports a structure while lifting it a few feet above the ground level, as the name implies. It is called a perimeter foundation because the exterior walls are held up by a reinforced concrete stem wall, while the body of the house is supported by a post and pier construct. (In earthquake-free parts of the world, the stem wall may be brick or cinder block.) These are all names for the same thing.

This type of foundation is usually only raised around 1-1/2’ – 2’ high, one or two stair steps above ground level. Much taller would make a top-heaviness that becomes less stable against seismic force.

Alternatively, some floors might be set quite low. Two rooms in my single-story house are a step below the rest. They are still raised on posts and piers, but they are distinctly lower than the rest. This is called a sleeper floor. In the crawlspace, this translates to very tight quarters, and I have met professionals who will, and who will not, be able to work in that space.

What about perimeter and slab both in the same house?

If a home is described as having both a perimeter and a slab foundation, most of that time it means that the majority of the house has a raised foundation, but the family room or other room directly behind the garage is on slab. This is very common in Silicon Valley

What is a Post and Pier Foundation?

Post and Pier section of blueprint plus lowered subfloor for tile

Post and pier (or girder) foundation blueprint, including crawlspace access point and lowered subfloor and sleeper floor.

Post and pier, or beam and post foundation, supports a structure by raising it on individual posts distributed evenly beneath a structure. Each pillar of support consists of three parts: the pier, the post, and the beam.

The pier is a vertical anchor set deep in the ground, usually made of concrete (but occasionally other resistant material like steel). The pier rises a few inches above ground level and is attached to a vertical post. The post, or column, is generally foundation-grade treated wood. This post attaches to a horizontal beam, or girder, which directly supports the floor joists. Occasionally, the pier may act as a post and connects directly to the beam, but that is very uncommon in my experience.

These type of foundations can be built without the perimeter wall, but functionally it is very different. You will often see decks built this way, including decks that are attached to homes with a raised perimeter foundation. Without the continuous stem wall the cost to construct is significantly less, but the resulting structure is more vulnerable to the forces of nature, to lateral seismic force, and to pests and wildlife. It also has greater airflow beneath, which is good in places with regular flooding, but provides less insulation from below.

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Landscaping with tanbark or mulch? Use caution!

Some Silicon Valley homeowners spruce up their yards and gardens in spring and summer with tanbark or mulch. While this is a very common practice, and often encouraged as a drought-friendly gardening option, it can be a bad idea if it is too close to the structure, especially the home’s foundation.

Tanbark is simply small bits of wood, and most common mulch is often no more than shredded wood. Why is that bad? Wood is food for termites and piles of tanbark or mulch can invite and hide them as well!

 

Tanbark or Mulch?

Beware Tanbark or Mulch by the foundation!Mulch is the more widely used term and it can cover a broad scope of materials, but the most common type you will find in stores (and in Bay Area gardens) is the woodchip mulch. If you ask for mulch at a hardware store, this is most likely what they will show you. In the local vernacular, we often refer to mulch as the fine, thin, or decomposed stuff – we have a different name for the larger bark and wood chips.

I learned only recently that tanbark is something of a local term that people from other parts of the state or country may not be familiar with. Here in the Bay Area we call the stuff you commonly see underfoot at playgrounds or piled thick on the planted berms around a shopping mall parking lot by the name of tanbark. Some people may reserve the name for the large chunky bark chips while others will call just about any wood chip substrate by that name. So tanbark is, in fact, a mulch.

Homeowners and sellers wanting their home to make a good first impression are often tempted to apply mulch or tanbark in otherwise bare patches around their yard, but you can wind up with far bigger (and more costly) problems if it’s too close to the foundation!

What Was That About Termites & tanbark or mulch?

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Fire Season and Silicon Valley: Caution Needed to Prevent Disaster

Edit: this post was originally published July 17, 2010, but the concerns are still as real as ever. Broken links have been updated, but the body of this article is, for the most part, left as it originally was over a decade ago.

 Danger!

Fire sign at main entrance to Belgatos SmallerSince early July, fire danger signs have been out at Belgatos Park in Los Gatos (and I suspect at other parks throughout Santa Clara County too). To the right is the sign at the park’s main entrance.  It admonishes the visitors:

High Fire Danger  No Smoking No BBQs

To anyone who’s lived in Silicon Valley long, this is understood – the fire danger is quite high here in summer.  Unlike most of the east coast, it does not rain here in summer (at least not often and not much), and our green grasses and plants of spring turn to kindling very quickly.  One stray match, hot cigarette butt or one illegal firework can smolder into a flame which grows fast with the smallest amount of wind to destroy property, animal life and potentially human life, make breathing bad for days and leave a scar on the land.

Fire Danger at Belgatos side entrance smallerThis sign at the entrance may not feel very compelling to some as the lush green grass in the background would seem to contraindicate restraint.  But venture to the park’s side entrance on Bacigalupi Drive (or hike up the trails) and you’ll understand immediately why this is nothing to take lightly.

Except for one little tuft of partially green grass, “cardboard hill” is entirely dry. So is the rest of this beautiful open space.

Preventatative Action

If you live close to or have open space in San Jose’s Alum Rock, Almaden, or other east foothill areas or the west valley places like Los Gatos, Monte Sereno, Sartoga, Cupertino or anywhere the foothills, your property is likely considered to be in a high risk fire hazard zone. If so, each year you are mailed information from Cal Fire reminding you of your obligation to provide clearance around your home and to cut down the dead brush.

 

 

Just outside of the main entrance to the park there’s a large and open lot which has a few trees, some prickly pear, and a lot of grasses and weeds in winter and spring.  (It also had a rattlesnake it in by the prickly pear when my daughter walked past with our dog one day a month or two ago.) Below is a pan of two pics I took with my Blackberry and later stitched together – the park entrance is out of sight but is a little to the left of this photo.

 

Lot at Westhill and Belgatos Lane next to entrance to Belgatos Park in Los Gatos July 2010

 

These owners have done as needed and disked the field to help prevent fires or the spread of fires.

There are things you can do to “harden” your own home and create defensible space if you live near open space to make it more resistant to fire. Check out the whole list on the Cal Fire site, “Prepare for Wildfire“.

 

 

 

Gas cooking

Gas cooktop with words Gas cooking and indoor air pollution - orangeGas cooking is highly in demand, sought after for the quick response time and precision with heating and cooling. The vast majority of our clients have a strong preference for gas cooking over either induction or regular electric cooking.

In recent years, studies have shown that gas stoves can be a significant source of indoor air pollution. When in use, the hood should always be in use to foster healthy ventilation. That part alone is often forgotten, but it turns out that gas ovens and cooktops may be polluting even when no one is cooking.

Health hazards of gas cooking

Last week, the New York Times published the findings of a Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and PSE Healthy Energy, a non-profit), study which found that in the 87 homes with gas stoves tested in Colorado and California, benzene was detected in every home, both in the kitchen and beyond, after just 45 minutes of using either the oven at 350 degrees or a single stove burner.

Benzene is a cancer causing agent and no safe levels of exposure to it are known. It is worth saying again: benzene was produced by gas cooking in every tested case.

In about a third of the tested homes, the benzene level exceeded what would be found with second hand smoke. The study also suggests that the smaller the home, the worse the results.

And it lingered for hours.

You can find the New York Times article on it here. You can see the results on this site, too: Environmental Health News.

This isn’t the only place we can find warnings about gas cooking and air pollution. From the State of California, Indoor air pollution from cooking:

  • “Natural gas stoves can release carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and other harmful pollutants into the air, which can be toxic to people and pets.”
  • “If you have a gas stove, a qualified technician should inspect it every year for gas leaks and carbon monoxide.”

It’s not just gas cooking that produces indoor air pollution

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Lighten up your dark home and sell for more!

Hand holding lightbulb against pink and blue sky with the words Homebuyers love light - help for home sellers with a dark homeDark homes, or those which feel dark to potential homebuyers, are much more difficult to sell, and virtually always sell for less money than those which are perceived as “light, bright and airy”.

While a property’s owner might love the cozy feeling of dark paneling, deep overhangs and low lighting, it’s not what most buyers want today.  To maximize the amount a house, condo or townhouse in Silicon Valley will sell for, it’s imperative to make it as attractive to the widest audience of buyers as possible.

In many cases, that means the dark home needs to be transformed into a light one.

How to make a dark home a little more light: start with the windows

How can a home owner make a house or home be – or seem – more bright?  One of the biggest “offenders” in this area involves windows! Here are a few window-related problems that can make a home feel significantly darker than necessary, together with some potential solutions:

  • Tinted windows, such as yellow or other colored glass at the front door or entry way:  replace with clear or translucent, colorless glass. If there’s a darkening film (for instance, for privacy), remove it and replace with a clear or translucent but uncolored film instead.
  • Curtains/blinds which obstruct part of the window: get tie backs to pull them further back and let more light in (goal is to not obscure windows at all). Easiest of all are those which use magnetic clasps and do not require any hardware be attached to the wall.
  • Furniture blocking windows should be moved or swapped out for lower items that do not cover up any of the windows. I see tall headboards often situated right in front of the glass panes – they are counter productive. Perhaps remove the headboard, or place the bed in another location?
  • Shrubs and trees covering some of the window: trim back so the window’s glass panes are 100% visible, if at all possible, to let maximum light in.
  • And of course, do make sure your windows and tracks are sparkling clean!

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