hills-sunset-watercolorHave you always dreamed of buying a home close to, or in, the western foothills in Santa Clara County, such as Almaden, Los Gatos, Monte Sereno and Saratoga? Some of the prettiest parts of Silicon Valley are snuggled into the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains. With views of downtown San Jose and the southern San Francisco Bay Area on one side, and rolling, grassy and redwood & oak filled hills on the other, its certainly scenic. Additionally, these areas all tend to have very low crime and good schools.

As a saavy foothill-area buyer, you will want to understand some of the unique issues that this geography may present. The most important of these may well be the issue of water control and drainage.

The Santa Clara Valley, and most of the neighboring Silicon Valley areas, is composed of mostly clay soil. This is an extremely strong substance – so much so that settlers used it, mixed only with a little straw and water, to form adobe bricks for building.

The caveat with clay soil is that when it becomes wet, it expands, and when dry, it contracts. In fact, we call this condition ˜expansive. The amazing thing is that the clay is more powerful than concrete. And that is the problem for houses and other buildings if the ground is expanding, contracting, or alternating between the two.

What can a homeowner do? Its imperative to try to control the amount of water near (or under) the home as much as possible.

For homes all over Silicon Valley, its important, my home inspector tells me, to use downspout extenders so that the water from rain collecting on the roof dont all dump out right next to the house. Ideally the water would run to a gutter in the street or to some other drainage system. Additionally, it is important that soil (or walkways) be graded such that any water would run away from the house rather than toward it. Frequently, though, we see homes with ˜reverse grading and any rainwater, pool splashing etc. may run toward the house rather than away from it. Thats a problem that needs correcting.

For homes near or in the foothills, things are further complicated because runoff from the hills may be aimed straight a neighborhood or home. Your home may be in the path of the runoff, for that matter.

Geotech engineers (they are the specialists for this issue) will assist the homeowner (or buyer) in determining how to limit the amount of water moving toward the house. Sometimes that will be a combination of work with the downspouts, grading, and drainage systems. Other times its much more involved and costly. There are some areas in Los Gatos and Almaden Valley, for instance, where the water table is very high. During an El Nino year, with lots of rain, the water table may get pushed beyond the brink and a spring may pop up near or under your house. Capping the spring is not going to be a cheap fix. But be aware, if youre home buying in some of these areas, that you may run into this issue. If so, plan to call an expert, a Geotechnical Engineer, to assess the situation and provide suggestions to remedy it.

What are some of the symptoms, or red flags, to watch for if youre buying a home near the hills, that there may be a drainage problem? Heres a list of possible clues – they could also signal other issues too, so this is not a diagnosis, just a clue that something needs to be investigated:

  • floors out of level
  • interior doors that dont close or stick
  • cracks in walls
  • cupped hardwood floors
  • musty smell in the house
  • cracked or lifted concrete outside, in the garage, or anywhere visible

Many homes in the foothill areas are sold with pre-sale inspections already done. Before writing an offer, review these carefully. The property or home inspection may also flag drainage issues that could be causing (or cause in the future) significant structural damage. Here are a few to look for:

  • cracks in the foundation
  • stains on the foundation or effusion (mineral desposits), indicating water in the crawl space
  • cracked, buckled, or lifted cement (which you may or may not have noticed)
  • mildew or mold in the attic (indicating a high amount of evaporation in or through the home)
  • reverse grading conditions

By carefully viewing hillside homes and reading the pre-sale inspection thoroughly, you should have a sense of whether or not there are any potential issues with water and drainage. You may also be surprised that the homeowner or seller has addressed these dilligently. When the issue of drainage has been well handled, you may see these features at the property:

  • the concrete around the home and in the driveway is in good condition (and is not brand new – sometimes home sellers will replace the driveway or walkways but not address the cause, so sometimes a brand new bunch of paving is a red flag)
  • the grading appears correct
  • the downspouts are tied to an underground system that moves the water away from the house
  • there are drains at points around the home to carry water away
  • you see no cracks in the garage floor (if you cannot see the floor due to rugs or storage, make sure you do see it!)
  • doors and windows all open easily
  • the crawl space is dry and appears to have a history of being dry

Finding a property in which the owner has aggressively addressed the issue of water around the house, particularly before there are any structural problems to fix, is a real boon to a homebuyer. We live in a region where many sellers simply slap granite onto the kitchen counter and call the home improved or well maintained. The structural stuff isnt very sexy, and most buyers dont appreciate if drainage work is there or not, but ultimately it is one of the most important aspects of homebuying to be evaluated. The right improvements and care will make the property more functional and in need of fewer repairs in the long haul, and will give saavy buyers peace of mine when they purchase it.

For further reading:

What about the living in the Los Gatos Mountains (Santa Cruz Mountains)? post on Move2Silicon Valley relocation blog

Cracked Foundations, Adobe Clay Soils and Water in Silicon Valley (this blog)


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

Selling homes in
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