Tanbark wood mulch separated by a dry creek bed, cement path, & brick retaining wall in a low-water San Jose yard.
May Day is a celebration of spring, but “April showers” were few and far between and it’s already starting to feel like summer! With another record-breaking hot year and the Bay Area in severe to extreme drought conditions homeowners concerned about water use and fire prevention are turning to gardening and landscaping for the solution. But a word of warning! Since updating my surprisingly popular post on mulch vs tanbark and the risk of termite infestation, I came across another reason to be cautious when applying it to your perimeter: fire.
Organic Mulches and Fire Hazard
Mulch can work wonders in a garden – it helps soil retain moisture, protects roots, reduces weeds, insulates the ground, can add nutrients and enrich the earth, adds visual appeal, and it’s affordable. It’s on every guide for landscaping water conservation (including Valley Water’s recommendations and San Jose Water’s tips)! Do a search and you’ll find it comes in a broad variety of materials. These can be divided into two groups: organic and inorganic. And organic matter can burn.
The University of Nevada Cooperative Extension has published their (easy to read) findings from a study comparing the combustibility of various organic landscape mulches. I recommend reading the booklet, but here are some of the key points I found most interesting: (more…)
Twelve Silicon Valley Doors, shown as black & white (photos by Mary Pope-Handy)
Thinking of selling your Silicon Valley home? When your house or condo is for sale, curb appeal is crucial because if buyers don’t like what they see on the outside, they will not bother to see what’s on the inside!
It’s hackneyed but true: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression“.
This is no where more true than with front doors! Staging begins on the front porch.
In my real estate practice, I usually see at least 10 or 15 San Jose, Los Gatos or Saratoga area homes per week – usually many more than that too. A good, clean front door with nice paint or varnish, no dust, clear glass and sparkling hardware gives a good welcome to your home’s visitors, whether they are coming as prospective buyers or simply as guests. Amazingly, though, not every home seller gets this basic principle quite right. Very often, front doors are dusty, dirty, in need of paint or perhaps even in need of replacement.
And we’re just scratching the surface!
A home’s front door sends a message. What message does yours give off? Photos by Mary Pope-Handy
Here (to the right) are some doors I’ve encountered in my work as a Silicon Valley Realtor. What do you think of each of these?
Some homes have a “security screen door” in front of the regular front door, which is mostly obscured. What message does this kind of strong grill give? If it’s the only one on the street, it might imply that one person nearby has concerns about safety. But if there are several doors like this on the same street or nearby, it can give buyers concerns about the safety of the area.
The black door with the white trim in the center is a typical or average San Jose or Santa Clara County door. It has a painted exterior and a fan light window on top, which allows some light into the home. It’s a little more inviting than something without any windows, but there’s no cover for rain or an inviting front porch, either. This type of door is not super expensive, but it does come across as at least fine, if not “good”.
Some of these doors are not the front door. I once viewed a listing which had access through a scratched up door facing the backyard, and when I shared the photo several people asked if it was a short sale or bank owned property. To everyone’s amazement, no, it’s a “regular sale!” This kind of introduction to the property, is anything but regular and left far from a good first impression! It is a discredit to the agent and the seller to put a home on the market with such a terrible first exposure to a property.
Most of Silicon Valley has pre-1978 homes, and most of them contain some amount of asbestos, commonly on the HVAC ducts and, more visibly, in some popcorn or acoustic ceilings. It can also be in less known areas, such as vinyl flooring or perhaps the glue under the flooring. Homes built after 1978 are far less likely to be effected. Asbestos can be found in almost any product, especially in older parts of the home where fire retardancy would be beneficial.
Very few people test their for asbestos in homes. Seeing that a seller has “no reports” on items like asbestos or lead on their home is not uncommon, but it does not mean it is not there, particularly in older properties.
Undisturbed asbestos is not supposed to pose a health risk. I know for a fact that my 1977 built home has asbestos on the boots, where the ducts come up to the heat register. Since it is on the external part of the ducting, not the inside, the air in our house should be clean and free from asbestos.
What is it?
Like mold, asbestos is a naturally occurring substance found in some soils, and sometimes mined. (Click on the image below to see a map of sites in California in which there is or is suspected to have asbestos present.) In the San Jose area, it’s known that asbestos was found or mined at the New Almaden Mine and also in the area near Communications Hill where KB Homes built a large subdivision.
Asbestos is the common name for a group of silicate minerals made of thin, strong fibers, best known for their use as excellent fire retardants. Not many realize that it occurs naturally in certain areas, including California. The most common naturally occurring Asbestos is Chrysotile, often found in serpentine, common to the Sierra foothills and the Coast Ranges.
What does that mean? Since Asbestos are minerals, that means they are generally stable and will not evaporate. However, the mineral can be crushed into a fine dust which will float in air – this is referred to as friable asbestos. Friable asbestos, suspended in air and breathed by humans is a carcinogen linked to the development of lung cancer.
What are the risks of asbestos in homes?
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?
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?
It’s the end of the year and many people are making New Years Resolutions or New Years Goals. Instead of directly focusing on your own health, how about looking into making a more healthy house? Indoor air quality contributes to the health of residents just as much as that extra serving of vegetables or extra thousand steps per day.
When the summer and autumn fires are raging in California, we are all keenly aware of pollutants. We check PurpleAir.com and replace our filthy air filters faster than usual. Some of us even found ourselves buying air quality monitors for the first time, all in hopes of having a healthy house. When the fires get put out, we may not think much about having a healthy home until another “Spare the Air” day is called.
Healthy House Challenges
This last summer, we were one of many families purchasing an air quality monitor (seen in photo, it was around $120 online). We were surprised at the amount of indoor air pollution caused by frying foods. That was info we tripped into – the monitor was on because of the smoky skies, but it was the friend chicken that sent the PM2.5 score soaring into the 400s. And it took hours for it to come back down to normal (in large part certainly because we could not open our doors and windows to air it out). That was a lesson!
One of the least known but perhaps one of the biggest risks involves gas cooking, as well as the use of other gas appliances, in the home. What many cooking aficionados do not realize is that every single time you cook with gas, you also should be using the vent to clear the gas fumes lest you contribute to a buildup of carbon monoxide (and other pollutants) indoors. (Venting is also crucial with other gas appliances such as the furnace and water heater.)
Carbon monoxide detectors are now mandatory in California homes if there are gas appliances, not just at the point of resale but in all houses, condos, town homes etc. – but even the best devices can fail or have the batteries die, so best to avoid relying on them alone and make sure to use care in venting all gas devices whenever in use. There are some studies indicating that gas cooking and the use of other gas appliances indoors may aggravate respiratory conditions such as asthma and increase pulmonary (lung) risk, too. Carbon monoxide is the best known, but not only pollutant, that may come with gas appliances.
Along the same lines, home inspectors suggest that fireplaces with gas logs or jets never fully close, but instead have a small block to keep the damper from sealing completely. This is also so that the carbon monoxide can vent out.
Radon is thought to be a non-issue in California, but Silicon Valley is generally a moderate radon area. Care should be taken particularly in properties with basements and in homes where occupants smoke indoors.
Other issues include mold and dust, which are especially hard on people with allergies or lung disease, but can also irritate eyes. For structures built prior to about 1978, lead may be present too.
When buying or selling residential property in California, the Residential Environmental Hazards booklet is provided. It can be found online via a variety of sources, including the State of California’s website. If you haven’t seen or read this booklet recently, I would like to suggest that you have a look and consider incorporating some of the suggestions and tips in the coming year to make your own home a healthier one:
A last point about this fabulous booklet: do not read right before going to bed!!
Additional information from the World Health Organization can be found here:
WHO Guidelines for Indoor Air Quality: Selected Pollutants (book, 2010)
Here’s to a happy and healthy 2021!
A few years back I attended a property inspection in San Jose and we found an unwanted resident in the garage: a black widow spider. Needless to say, did not stick around after she was found!
In case you haven’t seen one, I thought I’d share the pic here (click to see more below). Sadly she wasn’t my last encounter with these spooky locals. In fact, I’ve been seeing all too much of them over the last three years! At least this time, we always found her outside.
Example of a Santa Clara Valley home with a creek behind the house. Not every waterway is scenic.
Silicon Valley has a bad case of “urban sprawl”, unfortunately, but there are places in San Jose and nearby where creeks meander through neighborhoods, offering a little extra space between back neighbors. This extra breathing room is valued by homeowners with a creek behind the house. They often cite the pleasantly rural sounds of frogs and birds as an added bonus.
But some home buyers are a little spooked. Are there risks with buying real estate next to a waterway? Would the home flood in heavy rains? Is there an excess of unpleasant wildlife to worry about? One of my buyer clients was concerned that burglers would use the creek’s access path to steal things and get away unseen. Another was afraid of cougars or bobcats or other unwelcome visitors coming in from a creek or tributary.
When Jim and I were newlyweds, we lived in a townhouse on Neary’s Lagoon in Santa Cruz (a bird sanctuary) and I have sold several homes along creeks or ponds, so will make some comments based on my experience.
Creek behind the house: scenic or not?
In general, I would say that being next to or near a creek most often will improve the value of the home because creeks are scenic and also provide a space buffer between rear neighbors. They frequently have beautiful old trees framing their banks and are slightly curved, too, so these are usually quite pretty. I won’t say that living next to a waterway which looks like a Los Angeles flood control channel would be beautiful or enhance a home’s value much, though the space between neighbors would still be appreciated. Each case must be judged on its own merits.
Wildlife at the water’s edge
It is true that there will be more wildlife near water, whether it’s a creek, river, reservoir, pond, or percolation pond. Birds, reptiles and animals need water and will seek it out. If you love nature, you may welcome the sound of frogs and geese, and perhaps secretly hope to see a wayward deer! If you decide to live near water, it is very important to make sure that wildlife cannot enter your home (chimney, attic and crawlspace included) and it will require some ongoing diligence to keep them out because they will be drawn to the water over and over again. I’ve known people adjacent to water to have some challenges with birds, bats, mice, rats, and other creatures trying to make their way in. But that can happen anywhere. At our current home, which is not next to or near a creek, we had a squirrel try to claw its way through flashing on our roof to get into the attic. Another time we had a possum or raccoon get into the attic. Be clear that being away from the water doesn’t mean “no wildlife issues” – but if you are next to water, you will probably face them a little more often.
Floods and flood plains – what is the risk if there’s a creek behind the house?
Creekside locations do not all flood; this is perhaps the biggest misconception. When buying a home, you can check the flood plain status via the Natural Hazards Disclosure Report, which the seller provides. You can also check online at the CAL My Hazards Awareness site. And please know that there are different types and levels of flood plains – they are not all the same! The one which requires flood insurance is called a 100 Year Flood Plain and in those locations, water of up to 1 foot may be expected once every 100 years (so not that often). There are 500 year flood plains and areas which are “dam failure inundation” zones (if a dam were to break, water downhill would flood, of course).
Protected species that depend on the waterways
We have a number of protected species in California, including certain frogs and salamanders. If your home (or the one you want to buy) is in the habitat area of those animals, birds, or reptiles, you may have some constraints on landscaping near the creek or water. Most of the time it involves not placing a fence within so many feet of the creek and using only native landscaping in that area close to the creek too. Just know that having a creek behind the house may carry extra responsibilities and restrictions.
As for crime, I would have to say that you want to always check a site like CityProtect.com or similar sources to know what’s happening. We do have crime everywhere, and all kinds, to varying degrees. Most creeks do not have easy access to people’s homes or yards, and often the service road along the creek is a rough gravel, so I have a hard time picturing burglers trying to get in and walk their stolen loot a ways down that path. But check the reports. Realtors are not crime experts and we cannot make promises about any area or location.
Post-tension slab foundations are found in newer homes. Here in the Bay Area, a structure’s foundation needs to withstand not only the load of the building, but expansive soils, and the ubiquitous earthquake. Certain foundations are better at handling these conditions, and are seen more frequently here. One of these which is gaining popularity in new construction is the post-tension slab foundation.
What is a Post Tension Foundation?
Post-tensioning is a technique that was developed and first put to regular use in the 1970s, and approved methods have been published by the Post-Tensioning Institute (PTI), a nonprofit organization, since 1976. Sometimes called post tensioning, or simply PT, this is a type of slab foundation with added reinforcement.
In essence, a slab foundation, aka a slab on grade foundation, is a concrete base only a few inches deep, sitting directly on earth. You might see this for a small shed or playhouse, but larger structures are almost always reinforced, usually with rebar, and a fabric water barrier is lain out before the concrete is poured.
A post-tension slab is reinforced with grids of steel cables cased in plastic sheathes instead of rebar. After the concrete has hardened around them, the cables are pulled taut with hydraulic stressing jacks. This pre-stressing of the concrete creates added compressive strength to the foundation.
Sometimes things seem to come in waves, and awhile back the waves that found me seemed to all be about unsafe electrical panels in homes which are either risky or potentially risky. I read a home inspection report for a house with a Federal Pacific Electric Company (FPE) panel that encouraged home owners to replace that type because of the risk of fire. Then I met with a potential seller client who was aware of a fire on his block due to a panel failure and was experiencing issues with his Zinsco electrical panel which seemed dangerous. Having two of these red flags thrown down at once did get my attention.
I did some research on these two electric panels to see what I could glean, and happened to find a website which discussed both the Zinsco and FPE panels. This site includes photos of what happens if an electrical panel fails. I found it exceedingly helpful, and think it’s worth sharing widely.
Is my panel safe – FPE
Is my panel safe – Zinsco
For safety’s sake, please go check the type of electrical panel you have, and sub panel too, if there is one. DO NOT attempt to pull off the dead front (the part which is gray in the image to the right) – only a licensed, qualified electrician should do that.
All of that said, SOME home inspectors will flag that there’s a FPE or Zinsco panel at the property, but will not directly say that it should be removed, but will instead suggest that sellers or buyers contact a licensed electrician about it. Most home inspectors, though, now go farther and do recommend changing these out. Some won’t comment at all, though, so it helps to be an informed consumer.
One more area to investigate is Sylvania or GTE-Sylvania panels. Some of them are designed similarly to Zinsco, and may consequently have the same risks. Not all of them, though, are in this category. A licensed electrician will need to inspect and inform you on this issue.
If you have an older panel, or Federal Pacific Electric Company or Zinsco panel, you may want to investigate replacing it. Please do some research on this topic if you have one of these panels in your home, especially. It may not be universally believed that they should be replaced but this is something to check out, at the very least, if you have one of these in your home. Buying a home? Ask your property inspector about the reputation of the panel. Sometimes home inspectors won’t mention it one way or the other unless they see symptoms of overheating or something similar. Perhaps it’s fine now, but should be on your list of things to replace over time for an added measure of peace of mind.
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 perimeter 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 Perimeter Foundation?
A raised, perimeter, 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.)
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 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.
Post and pier 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.