Home Improvement

Home Improvements

Hand holding lightbulb against pink and blue sky with the words Homebuyers love lightHomes which are dark inside, or 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 buyers as possible.  In many cases, that means it needs to be lightened and brightened to sell for top dollar.

How to make a darker 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).
  • 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 are sparkling clean!

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Creek behind a houseSilicon 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 creekside location.  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.

Creeks: 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

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.  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.

Crime?

As for crime, I would have to say that you want to always check a site like CrimeReports.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.

 

 

 

 

 

If you are buying or selling a home built before 1960 in California, you’ll likely have to get or complete a form regarding earthquake hazards at the home (some people / situations are exempt) called the Residential Earthquake Hazards Report. The is written and mandated by the State of California. Question # 7 asks about homes with a living space over a garage – this is referencing soft story construction. Many home buyers and sellers would benefit from understanding all of these questions and why the responses matter for earthquake safety. Today we’ll focus on the seventh one.

 

Residential Earthquake Hazard Report for pre 1960 construction

 

Residential Earthquake Hazard Report for pre-1960 construction

 

Soft story construction - condominium units

Soft story construction – condominium units

 

Soft story construction can also related to office buildings or store fronts on the first floor with large windows or doors rather than solid walls and more floors above it.

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?

 

 

Related reading:
What is a cripple wall? (on my popehandy.com site)

 

 

 

In Santa Clara County, as in much of California, we have adobe clay soil and it’s expansive.  That is, when the dirt gets wet, it expands, and when it dries out, it contracts. Hence it’s sometimes referred to as “shrink-swell” soils.  (Every state in the union has areas with this problem – a color-coded map on geology.com shows areas with more and less expansive soils.)

Why is expansive soil an issue for homeowners and would-be homeowners in Silicon Valley?

The trouble is that the expanding and contracting soil is far stronger than concrete and the foundations upon which a home sits. A well written and illustrated six page paper can be found online explaining the mechanics involved for those interested in more detail on the hows and whys of expansive soils. (It states that the ground can life as much as 5,500 pounds per square inch!)

What I’d like to focus on here is mitigating the risks and preventing the problems associated with expansive soils.

The trouble is not so much that the soil is wet or dry.  The problem is in the back and forth, the movement. When the soil is kept at an even amount of moisture, it does not expand and contract.

Obviously, rain is seasonal and we cannot control all moisture on or near the house. We can, though, work to move water away from the house and away from the foundation.

Keep rain away from foundations on adobe clay soil!

Winter storms can bring an enormous amount of water onto a home’s roof, and when it channels down gutters and downspouts, there can be a large amount of water exiting in just a few places.  Where does that water go?

 

downspout no extender near foundation

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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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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.  What is that all about?

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.

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.

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.

 

Next is a ranch style house in which the windows have been replaced, but they are fairly high off the ground and the openings are not big enough for a firefighter to get in.

 

Bedroom windows have been replaced, but do not have large openings

Bedroom windows have been replaced, but do not have large openings

 

And a ranch style house with newer and enlarged bedroom windows – low to the ground and bigger openings for fire escape or rescue.

 

Bedroom windows have been replaced and enlarged for safety.

Bedroom windows have been replaced and enlarged for safety.

 

I found many related articles on line with the particulars about size.  This one seemed especially good, so I’m including the link here alongside info from Los Gatos and San Jose on replacement windows (each town or city may have slightly different requirements):

Common Building-Code Violations: Emergency-Egress Windows Too Small

Town of Los Gatos required bedroom window sizes

City of San Jose: Window Replacement Requirements

 

 

 

Buying or selling a Silicon Valley home with stairs? The building code has a lot to say about what is and what isn’t legal or ideal. Older homes may have staircases or rails which don’t match today’s code, but were acceptable when they were constructed (they are legal!).  Newer homes are built to a higher standard, and are safer for that reason. Sometimes, the issue isn’t how they were built, but rather that home owners personalize their stairs or guard rails in a way which is unsafe (and that’s not legal).

What are some of the things you want to look for in a staircase?

Contemporary staircase with narrower baluster spacing

Contemporary staircase with narrower baluster spacing on the guard rail

There are many elements that the code addresses, such as

  • when you can have just one hand rail and when you need one on both sides of the stairs
  • what the riser height needs to be (whether it is a tall or shallow step)
  • the width of the hand rail, where it’s placed, how much clearance it has (so you can wrap your hand around it)
  • how the hand rail should terminate
  • how long or deep the step should be
  • the amount of head room needed
  • different requirements for exit routes, indoor and outdoor stairs
  • and many more – you can check out the list here on the Inspectapedia website

Guard rails and balusters

Today I want to focus on the staircase railing and guard rail, specifically the distance between the balusters (the balusters are the vertical rails under the hand rail).

The guard rail is what keeps you from falling off the staircase on the open side, if there is one. The hand rail is the part you hold onto as you ascend or descend the stairs.

This first photo shows a newer staircase with a wooden hand rail and wrought iron balusters which include decorative adornments. Notice how close they are, and how impossible it would be for the little dog in the image to somehow fall through the gaps between the balusters. It is a very effective guard rail, even for the smallest member of the family!

The building code today, for new construction and staircase remodels, insists that the gap between the balusters be no more than 4 inches to create a safe guard rail. This particular home’s staircase lines up with that standard perfectly.

Older properties, built in the 60s or 70s, may have stair cases with larger gaps between the balusters, such as this:

 

Stair rail wide spacing

Stair rail wide spacing

 

The image above represents the spacing sometimes seen in older properties. It is an effective guard rail for adults and larger children, but may not be safe for babies, toddlers, and small children. Parents of toddlers may want to get some sort of safety mesh or other barrier to make sure their kids are safe on stairs with such a big distance (more like 6″ rather than 4″). There are many child safety products available to address this issue.

And not too long ago, I saw a staircase that was modified in a scary way – nearly all of the balusters had been removed!

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Mary Pope-Handy
Realtor
ABR, CIPS, CRS, SRES
Sereno Group Real Estate
214 Los Gatos-Saratoga Rd
Los Gatos, CA 95030
408 204-7673
Mary (at) PopeHandy.com
License# 01153805


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