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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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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Building Permits Are Online and Easy to View in San Jose

Building permits search page at SJPermits.org - click to go to that siteBuilding permits are not hard to research online in San Jose.

Why would you want to check building permits?

Whether you are checking on your own home to make sure the records for the building permits and finals are accurate or if you are considering a property to buy that has had renovations, it’s a good idea to check the permits if possible. (You might also be surprised at what need a permit, such as replacing a water heater or a furnace.)

Most towns and cities now make building permit files available to view online and at no cost. (Exceptions that I know about are the county and the City of Monte Sereno.) That doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily be able to understand everything in the file or that what’s online is complete. But it is a help!

Here’s the link for the city of San Jose’s site SJPermits.org, which takes you to https://sjpermits.org/permits/online-permits.html

That said, navigating through the site will take time. In my experience, when I locate a property with multiple records, which is typical, I’ll click through to view a PDF or image of the permit. When done, I usually end up having to do the majority of the search over. It’s a lot of clicking through. It’s not hard, but it’s not efficient, either.

Online permits may be viewed in many other Silicon Valley areas too. Just do a web search for your city or town!

Related reading

How important are permits and finals?

Los Gatos: View permits online (Live in Los Gatos blog)

Monte Sereno building permit nightmare (from 2009, Live in Los Gatos blog, a warning story to always keep copies of all of your home’s permits!)

Should You Move Out Before You Sell?

Should You Move Out or Vacate Before You Sell?A decade ago, it was the norm for Silicon Valley homeowners to occupy the home they were selling – today a majority of homes are being sold unoccupied or vacant. Why is that? And should you move out before you sell?

A few years ago, around the mid- to late-2010s, we began to see an increasing number of vacant and professionally staged properties for sale. Last year, most sellers simply felt safer moving out before selling due to the pandemic. Today that continues to be the case.

Over time, the reasons for homeowners to move out before marketing a primary residence have increased. While sellers can certainly still occupy a home on the market and sell it successfully, it’s not our recommendation for most people and here’s why.

Seller Stress

First things first, if you are able to move out before you sell it can reduce a lot of stress. And this has almost always been the case.

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Is Your Refrigerator Flooding?

Refrigerator with water dispenserRefrigerator floods are no laughing matter! Last month, my sister in-law’s fridge leaked causing the hardwood floors to pucker and swell, pushing cabinets and even lifting countertops! They’ve had to move out while their kitchen undergoes a massive overhaul. When my refrigerator line broke back in 2012, it was a similar story. The damage was extensive, and repairs were time consuming and expensive! So what can cause leaks and flooding and how can homeowners prevent it?

Causes for Refrigerator Floods and Leaks

Does your refrigerator have an automatic icemaker or a cold-water dispenser? If so, that plumbing is all capable of breaking. What if you don’t have a water line to your fridge? You can still have a leak. Humidity from the air and produce becomes ice or water when cooled. Modern refrigerators have been designed to automatically defrost: ice is melted, flows down a drain, and collects in a drip pan where it is heated (usually via waste heat from the refrigeration system) to evaporate the moisture. If the condensate is not taken care of properly it can become water damage!

Looking a little more closely, here are a few common causes:

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Over improving a house for the neighborhood

Beware over improving a house or yard for the neighborhoodOver improving a house for the neighborhood is not a terribly uncommon happening. If you’re going to live somewhere for 30 years, you may not be worried about return on investment or overspending for the neighborhood so much as enjoyment of your property.

How do you know if you’re spending too much on your house, condo or townhouse?  How much is too much?

Over improving a house – some basic concepts

There are no hard and fast rules, but overall, it is best to not have the most expensive home on the street or in the area, either from added square footage, extreme remodeling or  using materials that are too expensive for the neighborhood. It is even worse if yours is the most expensive real estate by a wide margin – the wider it is, the worse!

There are two real estate principles which are helpful to know about and understand. The smaller, less improved or generally lower priced homes will pull down the value of a better home (that is the principle of regression).  Conversely, if your house or condo is less expensive than nearby homes, those more prices properties will raise your home’s value (the principle of progression).  In terms of getting the most back on your improvements, then, it’s best to make sure you can catch the tail wind of better properties and get pulled up by them, rather than have your improvements’ value pulled down by lesser properties.

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How Important are Parking Spaces and Garages in Silicon Valley?

Cambrian Park Home, built by LeepMost homes in Silicon Valley come with some type of parking space for cars beyond street parking.  Home buyers want to know that there will be a place for their vehicles (and often their “stuff” too).   Garages and parking are sometimes under-appreciated aspects of evaluating real estate, and sometimes there are parking surprises after the close of escrow, so it will be the focus of today’s topic.

Parking and resale value

Because a real estate purchase is a big ticket item, it is always important to consider the ability to sell it later.  (Always buy with selling in mind!)  Will the property you have or are considering buying be hard to sell  in the future if it is not a red-hot sellers market?  Parking can greatly impact “resale value and overall desirability to a large portion of consumers, who may look at that space as protection for a beloved vehicle, a safety feature, a future hobby room, or many other possibilities.

If you are evaluating a Common Interest Development (CID) condominium, townhouse, or planned unit development home with private roads and parking, there will be some special concerns that may be a little different than if you were purchasing a single family home. We’ll consider both.

General principle:  In all types of housing in the San Jose area, usually the most highly desired type of parking arrangement is an attached garage with direct access into the home and with side by side parking provided (not tandem).  This is not true in all cases but is generally true.  You would not find home buyers interested in historic homes (Victorian, Spanish, Craftsman) wanting a prominent two car garage at the front of the house, commanding the lion’s share of the view from the street. (So don’t expect to see that in Japantown, Naglee Park, or the the Rose Garden areas of San Jose.) But for the typical buyer of the more common ranch style house, the attached garage is expected and appreciated, and if it’s missing it may be a challenge to sell the property later because the property will be appealing to a smaller pool of buyers.

Regarding direct access: garages are not allowed to have a door entering into a bedroom. This is for safety reasons since bedrooms are where residents are most vulnerable, and garages are an area of increased safety risk.
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Residential Wood Burning: What You Can and Cannot Do

Fireplace with Lone Hill Quarry Stone.pngMore likely than not, you either own or have shopped for Silicon Valley homes with fireplaces. In that case, you’ve likely also heard tale about the new law that would force homeowners to replace older fireplaces with new gas only ones or decommission them entirely before selling. Let me quash those rumors now – homeowners with wood-burning fireplaces do not automatically need to replace them at the sale of the property at this time. But what’s behind the rumor anyway?

History

A few years ago, there were proposed regulations in place that were going to make stipulations for home sellers with older fireplace in the San Francisco Bay Area. Amendments have since been made to the ordinance, removing this requirement. These were part of Regulation 6, Rule 3: Wood-Burning Devices, which was adopted in July 2008 to regulate and improve air pollution levels for the health of the Bay Area community (Wood Burning Regulation). Its immediate effect was to enforce Winter Spare the Air Alerts and Mandatory Burn Bans.

The regulation also stated numerous rules that would be effective at future dates (mostly beginning November 1, 2015/6), including many that will be passed this year and in the future, up to 2020. So, while you don’t need to worry about replacing your fireplace before you sell, there’s plenty to be aware of when you use, replace, repair, and install your fireplace – and you may still need to replace it.

Pollution

Smokey sky from fire June 2008With 1.4 million woodstoves and fireplaces around the Bay Area, it’s no surprise they make up a major part in the region’s air pollution – approximately one third of winter pollution! That’s greater than the amount of pollution caused by vehicles. Burning solid fuels produces what is known as soot, or more scientifically, PM2.5, which stands for Particulate Matter with diameter of 2.5 microns or less (Ordinance). These particles in the air are a form of pollution which is so fine that when breathed in it can penetrate deep into the lungs and even enter the blood stream.

Wood smoke contains a group of compounds that are similar to second-hand cigarette smoke and are likewise hazardous (2012 flier). Studies show that this type of pollution can cause a variety of health conditions which can put undue stress on individuals with weak respiratory or cardiovascular systems.

Apparently 1 in 7 Bay Area residents has a respiratory condition, and these folks of course are more vulnerable to problems from pollution. Immediate effects might be watery eyes and coughing, while long-term exposure to polluted air can permanently harm lung function, capacity, and development – possibly instigating diseases like asthma and bronchitis. “Eliminating residential wood burning during a Winter Spare the Air Alert can reduce soot in the Bay Area by 35 tons each day” (Wood Burning Regulations Flier). On top of the particulate pollution, wood smoke also contains a variety of gases, including toxins like dioxin (Wood Burning Regulations Flier).

But why winter? What about summer barbeques? Weather is important in regard to the displacement of these polluters. Spare the Air Alerts are hardly ever called when it’s been raining. Cold, still weather conditions cause the smoky air to become trapped near the ground, allowing pollution to build up to unsafe levels (Flier). When a Spare the Air alert is not called but data indicates worsening conditions there may be an optional compliance health advisory in the form of a Recommended No-Burn Day. And as for summer barbeques – the weather conditions in summer are more prone to heightening levels of ozone than soot, so Summer Spare the Air Alerts are placed based on very different weather and pollution concerns.

Other than pollution, there are still plenty of reasons to not burn. Fires are not a very efficient form of heating, and many fireplaces actually rob your home of heat, sending hot air up the chimney and out of your home. Prevent heat loss (and the need to burn more fuel or crank the thermostat) by keeping your home well insulated and weatherized. Get more efficient heating with an EPA certified device or alternative natural gas or electric heater. (more…)

Is that bathroom or kitchen old, classic or antique? Should I remodel it?

Bathroom 1960s styleKeeping up with the latest trends in home decor and remodeling is a bit like painting the Golden Gate Bridge: by the time you’re done, you need to do it all over again. Styles change, tastes change. How often do you really want to remodel and update your hardware, light fixtures, floor coverings – to say nothing of kitchens and bathrooms? If these items are functional and you like them, there’s no reason to change. Then again, if you’re going to sell your home and want to maximize the return, it might be worth it to do some updating.

The average American kitchen is remodeled about every 17 years – that’s long enough to jump from one trend to the next, one set of materials or colors to the next. If you wait long enough, certain themes actually come “full circle,” not unlike clothes!

To make a point: in the mid 70s, brushed brass was in, and many if not most homes built then in the San Jose, Silicon Valley area were made with brushed brass doorknobs, hinges, drawer pulls, doorbells, you name it. That trend moved to gold, brushed stainless steel and now – full circle – back to brass! Ditto that with colors. “Earth tones” were all the rage in the 70s (olive green, deep brown, tan) and as things moved through the cycles (with a whole lot of white in between), the earth tones have come back again.

Some colors make more infrequent appearances, such as lemon yellow, lime green, bubble gum pink, baby blue….

Let’s just take a look at bathrooms and kitchens for this discussion about colors, materials and being in style. (more…)

Why is it so hard to buy Silicon Valley real estate right now?

Severe Inventory Shortage

Why is it so hard to buy a home in Silicon Valley?  Most of it has to do with our ongoing and severe inventory shortage.

I initially wrote the article below on Feb 9, 2012.  I thought it was bad then – and I suppose that relatively speaking, it was. But it’s much worse now!

Today is May 1, 2017, and I ran the numbers of available single family homes in Santa Clara County in a chart comparing since January of 2012.  Have a look, and please note the year over year numbers:

 

2017-05-01 Santa Clara County Inventory of Single Family Homes

 

The situation has only intensified since I first wrote this article in early 2012.  There are many reasons for the problem: older people won’t sell for tax reasons (mostly capital gains). move up buyers who elect to stay and add on rather than deal with hugely increased property taxes.  In general, home owners are opting to “buy and hold”.

Is it hard to buy a house in the San Jose area? You bet.  And unfortunately, I don’t see an end in sight anytime soon.

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Original article: Feb 9, 2012

Right now I’m working with a number of very frustrated home buyers.  Silicon Valley real estate inventory is painfully low, and in the lower price ranges especially, that means multiple offers are fairly common.  FHA home buyers, in particular, are getting out bid and out negotiated by all cash buyers, many of whom are investors.

How low is the inventory?  Let’s have a look at January’s inventory for houses & duet homes (“class 1” or single family homes) over the last ten years in Santa Clara County (San Jose, Los Gatos, Campbell, etc.):

2012  1,382
2011  2,007
2010  2,426
2009  4,759
2008  4,872
2007  2,698
2006  2,202
2005  1,285
2004  1,612
2003  3,119

The average January inventory of available houses over the last 10 years is 2,636.  At 1,382, January 2012’s available inventory of houses for sale in the San Jose area was just 52% of normal(more…)