Permit Fees May Discourage Earthquake Retrofits
The Mercury News, January 31, 2010
With the recent devastation in Haiti and the big quake that shook Northern California this month, some local homeowners are considering expensive retrofits.
But, depending on where they live, the price can vary by hundreds of dollars, as local governments — including San Jose and San Mateo County — charge far more for permits than some of their counterparts.
For instance, a San Jose resident considering a $5,000 retrofit to secure a house to its foundation would have to fork over an additional $404 to City Hall. But neighboring Santa Clara would charge about half that for the same work. And Palo Alto doesn't even require permits for home seismic retrofits.
Contractors say high government fees may discourage people from strengthening their homes. And with the cleanup cost in Haiti swelling into the billions, some are questioning why Bay Area cities aren't offering incentives for retrofits instead of charging for them.
Arbie Fuentez, a co-owner of AA Handyman Builders in San Jose, said that for about half his potential customers considering quake retrofits, the city's high fees are a deal-breaker. When he tells them he can't do the work without a permit, they walk.
"Permit fees are just way too high," Fuentez said.
San Jose's fees for a sample project — a foundation reinforcement on a 1,500-square-foot home — were among the highest of Bay Area cities and counties the Mercury News surveyed. The city's basic permit fees, which apply to any kind of home alteration and cover the cost of a public inspector, are based on the home's size and other specifics of the project. Most other local communities charge a percentage of the project's cost.
Still, that can quickly add up, as Heather McEneany of Oakland found two years ago when she and her husband decided to have the frame of their 1940s split-level bolted to its foundation.
The couple priced three contractors and selected one who charged between $6,000 and $8,000 for the work. City fees added hundreds to the final bill. "It was definitely pricey," McEneany says, "but it was something we just had to do." Her home straddles the Hayward Fault.
But experts say too few local homes remain adequately strengthened to weather significant shaking.
"Not enough homes have been retrofitted," said Jeanne Perkins, an earthquake consultant for the Association of Bay Area Governments, or ABAG. "And there are a lot of inadequately retrofitted structures."
The only gauge of the extent of residential retrofits comes from 1998 ABAG surveys, which indicated fewer than half of San Jose's single-family homes had any retrofitting work done — and that only about one in 20 had been adequately reinforced.
On the high end, more than 80 percent of homes in Berkeley, which at the time offered some of the area's biggest retrofit incentives to homeowners, had some reinforcement work done.
According to ABAG, a magnitude 6.9 quake — the same size as 1989's Loma Prieta shaker, and slightly smaller than the Haiti quake — could leave as many as 155,000 Bay Area homes uninhabitable and more than twice that number of people without safe shelter, depending on where it hit.
"If you own a home built prior to 1960 and haven't done a retrofit, you need to do it," Perkins said. "Every part of the Bay Area is in plenty of earthquake risk."
Perkins and some other local quake experts aren't convinced government permit fees are a big barrier for homeowners, given that they add only about 5 percent to 10 percent to the cost of projects that typically range from $2,000 to $10,000.
Perkins argues it's a worthwhile investment to have a government official look over the work.
But contractors say the fees don't guarantee the work is done properly.
"What's really distressing is to pay that much, and the inspector comes out, sticks his head a little down a hole and says, 'Looks good,' " said Sherry Niswander, co-owner of Anderson Niswander Construction in La Honda.
Palo Alto Chief Building Official Larry Perlin said the city doesn't require permits "because there are no codes or standards that govern this type of voluntary strengthening work." The city recommends that homeowners use standardized plans promoted by ABAG and hire their own construction inspector to check out the work.
John Brennan, building permit coordinator in San Mateo County, which has some of the area's highest fees, said no one has indicated that the costs scare homeowners away from quake retrofits.
San Jose Planning Director Joe Horwedel, too, said he hasn't heard complaints about the city's fees being a stumbling block. But he also said the city processes few seismic retrofit permits.
Some cities have cut back on incentive programs because of shrinking budgets. Oakland has stopped offering homebuyers up to $5,000 off their property transfer tax if they do a seismic retrofit. Berkeley no longer waives permit fees for such work.
In San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom recently called for fee waivers.
"The thought behind this is to provide some encouragement for people," said William Strawn, spokesman for the city's Building Inspection Department. "There could be an earthquake tomorrow, so retrofit now."
Mercury News staff writer Peter Delevett contributed to this report. Contact John Woolfolk at 408-975-9346.