Senate Bill No. 721
On June 16, 2015, around midnight, six Berkely students fell to their death during a birthday party when the balcony they were standing on failed and fell 40 feet to the ground below. Although when it was built the balcony structure was safe, water had entered the wood structure over time causing decay of the wood and loss of strength, resulting in this catastrophic failure and six deaths. Twenty million dollars were paid to the victims.
As a result of this catastrophe and the potential danger at other projects throughout the state, the California Senate passed two bills in 2018 and 2019 that require inspections and professional reports covering all balconies at apartments and Homeowner Associations in California. The laws are referred to as Senate Bill 326 governing Homeowner Associations and Senate Bill 721 governing apartment projects. Inspections of the structure and waterproofing systems and professionally signed reports are required to be completed before January 1, 2025. This will be a major undertaking considering the estimated 3 million apartments and over 39 million Homeowner Associations in California. Owners and Associations that wait until the deadline may have difficulty coming into compliance before January 2025. Also, the cost of inspections and reports is going up.
California Balcony Inspection: Exterior Elevated Elements
What are generally called balconies are defined in the laws as Exterior Elevated Elements. Balconies that are wood frame construction, over 6 feet above the surface below, are intended for human occupancy and are outside the perimeter of the building are considered Exterior Elevated Elements. These include wood structures such as balconies, decks, porches, stairways, walkways, entry structures and their railings, whether common area or private. Associated waterproofing elements including flashing, membranes, coatings and sealants that protect the wood load-bearing components are also included in the inspections. All buildings of more than two living units are governed by both statutes.
Senate Bill No. 721 Inspection law
While the exact requirements for the inspections vary between apartments and Homeowner Associations, the goal of both is to assure the safety of the occupants. Additionally, with a carefully performed inspection and report, the owner or association gets valuable information about the condition and possible problems with water intrusion before conditions become chronic.
Inspections should be more than an overall visual look at the balconies. The best, and minimally invasive, inspections use a scope that extends through a hole drilled in the soffit, or ceiling, below the balcony structure. The lighted camera on the scope allows good viewing of the conditions and photographs to be taken of the structure. The photographs are included in the report.
Balcony Inspection Report
The report is written and signed by the qualified inspector. In the case of an HOA this must be a registered architect or structural engineer. The report includes a description of the structural elements of the project, identification of the elements inspected, their condition, an estimate of the remaining useful life of the structure and waterproofing, and, of course, any dangerous conditions.
The remaining useful life of the waterproofing and structure at each location inspected are included in the report along with other valuable information. This aids the association and apartment owner in planning for potential future expenses.
In the rare event that a dangerous condition exists, due to structural water damage, the association, or owner, is notified immediately so that the balcony can be closed off to eliminate danger and so that repairs can be made. The governing jurisdiction must be notified with the purpose of making them aware that a permit will be obtained, and repairs will be made, inspected and approved.
Apartment owners and HOA boards Deadlines
Be aware of the deadline. Failure to comply is a violation of law and may subject the owner or board members to liability exposure. Inspections and reports must be completed by the end of 2024. Apartment owners and HOA boards don’t have much time to retain a qualified company to help them get into compliance. With millions of projects in California that will need to comply, the providers can become difficult to schedule. The demand for compliance reports will cause costs to increase as the deadline approaches.