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M|O Perspectives

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What property owners & managers should know about SB721 balcony inspections as deadline nears

Feb 02, 2024

These days, there is a mounting urgency for real estate owners and property managers to consider and comply with new levels of safety for balconies. And in California specifically, if they haven’t gotten the ball rolling on evaluation, then now is the time.

In Marx|Okubo’s experience with condition assessment work, we often find multifamily residential and commercial buildings with balconies that have critical condition issues requiring repair ranging in severity. The deterioration can be serious enough that we may warn an owner or property manager to limit or restrict access or provide other temporary supports until a balcony problem is corrected.

How critical is the timing for your balconies?

Legislation such as California Senate Bill 721, signed in 2018, reinforces (and requires) building and property maintenance and safety. This law requires the inspection of decks and balconies in wood-framed multifamily dwellings and mandate repairs as necessary. The state of California requires that the first round of deck and balcony inspections be completed by January 1, 2025, and then every six years thereafter. In addition, certain cities such as Berkeley have their own codes—Exterior Elevated Elements (E3) Inspection Program, timelines, and requirements.

Remember a year ago—doesn’t it seem like yesterday?

This deadline, a little less than a year from now, may seem like a while, but with the kinds of risks associated with balconies, the problem only compounds over time, and takes more resources to resolve. As this will be an increasingly important focus this year, resources to evaluate and solve any issues may get accordingly limited.

Does this apply to your property?

  • Your multifamily property has three or more dwelling units
  • Your building has elevated exterior walking surfaces exposed to weather
  • Elevated exterior walking surfaces are more than 6' above ground level
  • Elevated exterior walking surfaces are supported by wood or wood-based products

What should you expect during a balcony inspection?

Since our last blog on balcony safety, we have performed many inspections and understand in detail what is involved and how to set expectations about the process. In addition, we realize more than ever how important it is for owners and property managers be on the same page so they, too, can set expectations for all stakeholders, especially for their tenants. From our experience, our team at Marx|Okubo has found:

1/ Wise buyers will soon ask for a SB 721 report for a purchase (for properties that qualify).

2/ The timeframe can range from 2 to 6 weeks. For a typical inspection, this will range depending on the balcony soffit material, access requirements, and contractor availability. We perform these inspections in two steps: the first is a scouting visit, which is helpful to see if there are specific areas or units that should be included in the investigation and the second is the actual investigation.

3/ When an assessment is complete, it may trigger a repair timeline. This is 120 days to obtain a permit for non-emergency repairs and another 120 days to perform the repairs. In the senate bill language, there is a certain timeline for the repair of more significant items, which will need permitting as well as architectural or structural design. Where there are life safety concerns, it’s necessary to notify the city immediately and the owner has 120 days to complete the emergency repairs.

4/ In Berkeley and San Francisco, there are extra ordinances that are more stringent or they look at different (more) types of structures. In fact, these were the originals that predate SB 721. Our team has worked on projects that need to comply with both Berkeley’s E3 and SB721 in order to meet state and local requirements. The senate bill doesn’t say that if you perform an evaluation for the Berkeley code that you don’t need to do SB721.

5/ Vital to note! There is a good chance residents will be temporarily inconvenienced during the investigation. In fact, to be comprehensive and most cautious, our team typically asks to have access to the unit above and below the specific balcony. (Yes, unfortunately, that means one extra resident may be inconvenienced for an inspection of one balcony, but it ultimately helps all of them.)

6/ Know that when the underside of the balcony is concealed with stucco or wood paneling, the balcony soffit will need to be opened up. The reason this is so critical is moisture could be migrating into the soffit and causing deterioration of the framing that is hidden. For concealed balcony structures, a contractor has to cut into the finish to provide inspection access. The inspectors can then review the condition of the balcony. After that, the contractor will go back to repair and patch the access points.

7/ Have a short-list of contractors handy. In the course of conducting balcony inspections, we have also been engaged to design the repair, manage the project, and provide construction oversight during the repair work. We have seen how important it is for owners and property managers to have contractors ready for this type of work, or at the very least, have a short list of contractors they like to work with.

8/ Be mindful of low-cost inspectors—if it seems too good to be true, it just might be. Marx|Okubo was recently asked to review a SB721 report. The property had soffitted cantilever balconies. The inspector only assessed the visible framing members and neglected to make openings in the soffit to view the interior framing members. Those are the critical members to review, and they represent the intent of the senate bill. So, be sure to have a correct and comprehensive review.

9/ Once the inspection is fully completed, owners should keep a copy of the certification letter for two inspection cycles (one is six years). That said, as of the publishing of this piece, local jurisdictions are not requesting the letters or filing with them other than in Berkeley and San Francisco.

Due to all of these aspects within balcony inspections, owners, property management, maintenance staff, and the qualified professionals performing the evaluation need to be on same page and in constant proactive communication to accommodate tenants well and set proper expectations on timing and access.

January 1, 2025, will be here before you know it. Delaying these inspections can often mean result in heightened problems, though embracing them will both ensure you’re in compliance and provide everyone peace of mind for their balcony safety and enjoyment.

Please know that Marx|Okubo can not only perform balcony inspections, but also, we can help navigate the entire process and ensure best outcomes for all stakeholders. For more information or if you have any questions, please let us know here, or contact Sandy_Blair@marxokubo.com.

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Marx|Okubo is a national architecture/engineering/construction consulting firm that works with real estate owners, investors and lenders—at every point of the property lifecycle—to evaluate their building projects, solve complex challenges and implement tailored solutions. We help clients understand their projects’ complexities, so they can make more informed decisions and, ultimately, mitigate their risk.