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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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Soft story construction

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 and there’s living space above. 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

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.

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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 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…)

Coronavirus impact on real estate sales

Graphic of a house under quarantineThis 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…)

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.

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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Where are the high voltage power lines in Cupertino, Saratoga, Los Gatos, and Almaden Valley?

High Voltage Power Lines Collage

High Voltage Power Lines from around the West Valley.

“Location, Location, Location!” The most important element when buying or selling a home is the one thing you can’t change – it’s location. Because of that, you’ll need to know some location-specific things, naturally occurring and man-made. Like high voltage power lines.

What about this location?

If you own or are thinking of buying a home in Silicon Valley, here are a few location-specific things you want to know upfront so that you can make informed decisions:

  • where are the earthquake fault lines?
  • where are the geologic hazard zones, such as liquefaction areas?
  • where are the flood plains?
  • where are man-made things that will negatively or positively impact a home’s value? Things such as
    • train lines
    • freeways
    • electrical transmission
    • school district boundaries
    • zip code boundaries
    • proximity to entertainment venues

When looking at maps, sometimes these items show up and sometimes they don’t. Realtors and other real estate professionals in the San Jose area often use a Barclay’s Locaide and various online resources to locate the natural hazard areas. There are other tools to help locate school districts and zoning restrictions.

Google maps can help uncover some other areas, like distance to shops and freeways, but sometimes it raises more questions than it answers. For instance, a years ago a Realtor who didn’t know the Belwood of Los Gatos area too well phoned me to ask what a large object showing up on satellite view in the hills of Belgatos Park was. It is just a covered reservoir, but since it was not identified on the map it concerned some buyers. Local knowledge is still extremely helpful.

Mapping the Grid: High Voltage Power Lines

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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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NEW California Disclosure – Home Fire Hardening Disclosure and Advisory

Fire Hardening and Defensible Space Advisory Disclosure and AddendumJust about every year California amends what sellers are required to disclose, and one change that I think we’ll be seeing a lot of is about home fire hardening. Many agents, including myself, will begin to use the fire hardening disclosure / document (which has already changed once in six months). The current one, as of June 2021, is the C.A.R. Form FHDS, 5/21 Fire Hardening and Defensible Space Advisory, Disclosure, and Addendum.

So what is in this document, who will have to use it, and how can it help buyers and current home owners?

The CAR Fire Hardening and Defensible Space form is a two page document completed by the seller of a residential non-commercial property to notify the buyer of fire hazard zoning, code compliance, and possible vulnerabilities and/or defensible features. Both the buyer(s) and seller(s) sign to acknowledge receipt and consent to comply with the appropriate terms in paragraph 4B.

Who Will Use This Form? Paragraphs 1 and 2: Prerequisites

This disclosure is required for homes (1-4 unit residential properties) in high or very high fire hazard severity zones when the seller must complete a Transfer Disclosure Statement (TDS form). Sellers for California real estate transactions falling within those criteria are obligated to provide specific information contained in this form to the buyer. If these properties were improved or were built before January 1, 2010 there are additional stipulations. However, use is not restricted to properties in these zones.

Owners of residences where the zone is unknown, or those outside of the designated fire hazard zones which are “in, upon, or adjoining a mountainous area, forest-covered land, brush-covered land, grass-covered land, or land that is covered with flammable material,” (Gov’t Code 51182 and 1C in CAR FHDS 5/21 – basically, homes in or near ample kindling) should also make these disclosures if they might be considered materially important. Even when it’s not legally necessary, any homeowner might voluntarily disclose using sections of this form. To show that a home is not in a designated high or very high fire hazard severity zone, sellers simply check the box indicating so in paragraph 2B.

Is the address in a high or very high fire hazard severity zone?

Not all homeowners know if their property is in one of these zones, but it’s the seller’s responsibility to find out! In paragraph 1B the form suggests that a natural hazard zone disclosure company could determine this information (and if you’re selling you may have already ordered a report that would contain those details), but it certainly isn’t the only resource.

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Mulches and Fire Danger

Tanbark or mulch in front of a San Jose home

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…)

Asbestos in homes

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.

Santa Clara County - naturally occuring asbestos

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?

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