On September 17, 2018 California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law SB 721 – “The Balcony Inspection Bill”. The bill arises in response to the tragic deaths of six UC Berkeley students in 2015 at a downtown apartment complex due to the collapse of a balcony. Owners of multifamily apartment buildings with three or more units have until January 1, 2025 to complete the first inspection. This law took effect January 1, 2019.
What is the Balcony Inspection Bill?
SB 721 aims to add a new level of public safety to decks, balconies and other external, elevated structural elements in multi-family residential units. This will be accomplished through required inspections performed every six years.
The inspections address structural integrity, flashings and waterproofing of these elements on buildings with three or more units and two or more stories in height. All initial inspections must be completed by January 1, 2025. Inspections will be performed on any external building element six feet above ground level including walkways, balconies, decks, landings, stairways and railings. On larger complexes, the law allows for 15% of the respective elements to be inspected as a representative sampling.
Who Performs Inspections?
The inspections must be performed only by a licensed architect, civil or structural engineer, or a building contractor holding specific licenses as a B General Contractor or a C5 Framing Contractor.
The law requires that the inspector report hazardous conditions that pose a life safety threat to the local building official. Building owners will have anywhere from 15 to 120 days to address any necessary repairs depending on the condition of items inspected.
What Does the Inspection Involve?
The inspector will evaluate the condition, adequacy and performance of the various items that comprise the deck, balcony, landing or stairway structure with a focus on structural integrity. The inspector will look for indications of unintended water intrusion and resulting dry rot or structural compromise. Deck metal edge, wall and transition flashings will be evaluated for rust, corrosion and adhesion of waterproofing materials. Deck traffic coatings will be evaluated for indications of cracking or other conditions that compromise the waterproof integrity and performance of the coating system. Stair and deck railings will be inspected for securement and overall condition. Wood framing such as joists, beams and posts will be inspected for any type of damage that could affect structural integrity. The inspector will issue a report of their findings along with photos sufficient to document the conditions of the building elements as a baseline for future inspections and to create a historical record.
What About Repairs?
SB721 requires notification to the building official (city or county building department) of any condition deemed an immediate or nearly immediate life safety issue. The owner then has a certain period to obtain a building permit and make the necessary repairs.
However, the majority of inspections would likely result in the identification of minor problems (or no problems at all) that the owner can address as a matter of routine maintenance and upkeep. This aspect of the inspection will be a benefit to owners to assist them with budgeting and planning and bringing awareness to minor items before they become larger issues.
- Contractors serving as the inspector cannot perform the report’s needed repair items for the building
- Building owners must apply for permits on non-emergency repairs within 120 days of receiving the report. When a permit is approved, they have 120 days to complete the repairs.
- Inspectors shall notify local enforcement if the building owner doesn’t comply with the repair requirements within 180 days. The owners can be assessed a civil penalty if the repairs aren’t completed within 30 days of the notice and could lead to a building safety lien on the property.
- Owners of properties that qualify for the inspection must call an inspector to have this completed before January of 2025.
SB 721 is well intentioned and will certainly result in remediation of deficient conditions. However, the law seems an overreaction to an incident that was an anomaly. Specific narrow circumstances lead to the tragic balcony collapse in Berkley,CA. It is unlikely those circumstances would repeat on the vast majority of structures now subject to inspection. It is also anticipated that a large majority of apartment buildings will not require corrective work.
More details about SB 721 can be found at www.californiadeckinspection.com.
Jim Schlagel has been a licensed contractor since 1982 and is a recognized expert in the field of waterproofing. Jim has been retained on hundreds of litigated and non-litigated matters related to damage arising from water intrusion issues. He also works as an industry expert for the Contractors State License Board.
For more information about deck and facility inspections, contact California Deck Inspection at (909) 260-1536 or (805) 471-9418.