Soft story construction may be a concern for anyone living in earthquake country. After the Loma Prieta and Northridge temblors, some apartments, condos, and another buildings got pancaked due to lack of structural strength on the first floor. What is it?
What is soft story construction?
This type of building is when the ground floor is largely pane glass windows, garage doors, carports, or other large openings. Rather than being mostly a wall, it’s largely openings in the wall.
Soft story construction is not limited to homes. It can also relate to office buildings or store fronts on the first floor with large windows or doors rather than solid walls and more floors above it. Think of an automobile showroom as an example.
The danger arises from the lack of sheer wall in case of a quake. The all glass windows on the first floor, or big carports or garages, are simply not as strong as a wall, and may give way in the case of shaking. For that reason, many are bolstered or reinforced. I wrote about it earlier this week in my Move Move2SiliconValley blog, please read more there: Is your home safe in an earthquake?
Soft story construction – condominium units
The less obvious housing includes houses with living space over a garage. It’s very common. And it can be retrofitted by strengthening the sides of the garage door opening.
The 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 quake, or the 1989 quake – 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. There was liquefaction from both of these events, but it could’ve been much worse.
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…)
Home sellers know that certain fixes will give a good return on investment when selling. The risk, though, is in over improving your property.
Reasonable home sale prep will not over improve the home, but will include:
- decluttering so that the home, garage, and yard all appear to offer enough comfortable space
- deep cleaning, including the windows and tracks
- repairs to whatever is broken or not working properly, such as windows that don’t open and close smoothly, doorbells on the fritz, faucets that drip
- often fresh paint and carpet are a good idea – case by case basis
- frequently new light fixtures are helpful
- sometimes removing window coverings to let more natural light in can be a good idea
- sprucing up the yard, trimming bushes, planting something colorful near the front door
Strategic upgrades such as these prior to putting the home on the market will result in a faster sale at a better price in most markets. Some sellers don’t want to do enough, whether it’s as basic as cleaning and decluttering or if it’s repairs that are imperative due to health or safety conditions.
Sometimes, though, we meet property owners with a bent toward the other extreme. When possible, we’ll do our best to get them to minimize their to do list since deep remodeling may cause a diminishing return, particularly when the market is soften and prices may be falling.
Over improving your property: how much is too much?
When the market is appreciating sharply, it may be possible to do a tremendous amount of work and get a fantastic return on it.
Have you noticed that there now seems to be a porta potty on every block? It’s a proliferation of porta potties! One might be tempted to call it a pandemic of bottomless proportions.
This panoply of modern day outhouses appeared en masse over the last couple of years. Of course, their appearance is the hallmark of home improvement or updating, at least most of the time.
Once in awhile it’s instead the hallmark of a stalled project. It can be a real challenge to get contractors to work on our homes and yards right now. The demand is tremendous and the waits can be long. Sometimes the lengthy stay of the temporary structure isn’t anyone’s fault.
That said, there do seem to be better and worse porta potty placement, and some really do overstay their welcome and become a problem – a neighborhood eyesore or blight. It might be said that like houseguests, portable toilets have a limited shelf life for desirability as far as the neighbors are concerned.
In this post we’ll touch on half bathrooms (created to serve a similar purpose), CCRs, and regulations regarding these portable toilets and where and how long they can adorn front yards.
Building 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!
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!)
As 2021 comes to a close, it’s time to start looking forward to 2022. What are your real estate related goals and resolutions for this new year? Do you plan to buy, sell, or remodel your Silicon Valley home? If so, this is a great time to sketch out your objectives and start early preparations to get the wheels in motion.
For South Bay home owners who want to make 2022 the year to sell and move, it’s wise to plan ahead so you can maximize your return on investment of time and money. A clean, well-prepared listing gives buyers greater confidence, and confident buyers tend to make higher offers! Take the time to do it right and you will reap the rewards of your effort.
Quick Tips for Planning to Sell a Home in 2022
- Hire your real estate professional early in the process so that she or he may provide additional guidance from the beginning. It won’t cost more to hire early and you get more help. You may even save money by avoiding costly mistakes. A good agent will help you prepare your listing and determine a timeline to sell, whether you plan on selling this spring, next year, or next month.
- Decluttering is one of the biggest task for home sellers and it can be where you get the most bang for your buck. Presenting a property to buyers in a way that feels like home, but not your home is a balancing act. Some homeowners choose to move out and stage their home to sell, which has been increasing in popularity and is certainly a successful way to declutter! Sellers occupying a listing should commit to depersonalizing the house and creating a marketable space. Some sellers will discover this is a much bigger undertaking than expected, and requires more time and energy than originally planned. This can be particularly challenging for long-term residents, sellers who are downsizing, and seniors. Talk to your Realtor before embarking, as some items may be helpful for staging and you don’t want to totally empty the house! Completely empty homes do not sell as well as those which are thoughtfully furnished.
- Fix everything that is broken or in disrepair. No home is perfect, and buyers will not expect it to be (unless it’s brand new, of course), but everything you can repair is one less thing the buyers will worry about when writing an offer. That lightbulb that’s burnt out? Replace it now so that it doesn’t wind up in inspections or worrying buyers about the electrical system! Low cost repairs are often an excellent investment, but so can some more expensive fixes. I have had sellers who willingly go above and beyond preparing their home, from repiping to reroofing, see a clear return on investment for their efforts! However most sellers don’t want or need to do that much work. A bid with a price for the work from a reputable company is usually enough. Speak with your listing agent before tackling any major projects.
- Clean everything: windows, window tracks, hardware, lamps, mossy patios, etc. A clean home is inviting and feels well cared for. Professional cleaning can make lightly used carpets look new again. Areas that easily show wear, like grout, caulk, and kitchen appliances, can give that “new home” feel when they are looking fresh!
- Plan to have pre-sale inspections, but hire inspectors with your real estate salesperson.
Tips for Silicon Valley Home Buyers This Year
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.
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.
This post on the coronavirus impact on real estate sales here in Silicon Valley is updated periodically, depending on unfolding events, so please check back often.
The market for houses is hot (still)
The coronavirus pandemic caused a worldwide surge of buyers rushing to purchase homes with more square footage, more rooms (home office, room for elderly parents to move in), and more outside space.
Locally, single family home prices rose about 20% over one year, despite the initial lockdown and restrictions on showings. Pools had not been so desirable pre-Covid, but now they are more sought after as buyers want to vacation at home.
Initially, it was challenging to sell a condo or townhouse, particularly if there was no patio, balcony, yard, etc. Those homes did start appreciating, but have not performed nearly as well as detached housing has.
Now, in September 2021, many of the requirements have been lifted. Buyers are still interested, but the steep appreciation has priced some buyers out of the market.
Quick overview of what is and isn’t allowed with real estate listings and sales
The landscape for home sales is complicated and more restricted than pre-pandemic times, but easier than it was in March – May 2020. The market is strange in many ways, but it is possible to buy and sell now and actually is not so hard at this point.
What’s changed with Covid: (more…)
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.
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.
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 (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.
What needs updating if you are buying an older house, townhome, or condo? Most of the homes for sale in Silicon Valley are more than 25 years old, and with our already very restricted inventory, that makes the odds of purchasing an older house, townhouse or condo fairly high if you’re in the market to buy real estate here.
- The older the property (think 100 years versus 60 or 70 years), the more likely it is that the home would benefit from expensive updates.
- Typical home buyers find that an 18 year old remodel is in need of updating
- See the list below of components that may need updating in an older home
If you are buying an historic home (more than 50 years of age is technically historic, but most consumers think of houses or units which are 100+ years old), the question of what needs updating will be significantly longer than if we are thinking of homes 25 to 60 or 70 years of age. The older the structure, the more you may need to consider safety improvements, or changes for better comfort or style.
Don’t despair – the older homes do tend to offer good locations, often there are beautifully established neighborhoods with large trees and bigger yards – which you may not see in newer developments.
How recent should that remodel be?
Something to note is that how often rooms or homes need to be refreshed is a matter of personal taste. If a kitchen is built well and done in a more timeless fashion, perhaps only the appliances or countertop or lighting may need a redo from time to time. But some home buyers will find that if a house was last remodeled 18 years ago, it’s time to do it again. If you’re selling, it’s important to appreciate that the 18 year old whole house remodel you had done may feel like yesterday to you, but it won’t to a large number of buyers.
Buyers, once you purchase a home, if you are like most home owners you won’t be doing a total remodel every 15 – 20 years. It’s too much expense, work, and inconvenience. My usual advice is to try to pick timeless elements that won’t go out of style (and put a more personal touch into things like paint or floor coverings, which are relatively inexpensive to change in many cases).
What needs updating in an “all original” home?