The New York Times and Building Permits

One should always get a building permit so there is a record of the work that was done on your house, but it is equally important to understand what it is that you are getting for your money. In the retrofit world a permit does not mean much because building departments do not have a code to enforce.  The only way you can be sure you are getting something that will be effective is to use one of these retrofit guidelines.  There is no special licensing for retrofit contractors and no special training for building departments.  The industry is completely unregulated so best to follow some kind of standard.

Without this building departments allow seismic retrofits but they do not review plans to see if the work will improve earthquake resistance. They do not even allow the words “Seismic Retrofit” to be mentioned on the plans.  At the most one can say “voluntary seismic upgrade” some cities won’t even allow that.  The safest thing to do is write on the permit “install  plywood and shiny hardware.”

They don’t want anyone coming to them later and saying “Hey, my house fell down! You issued a permit for a seismic retrofit and you obviously did not do your job.” The city will say “Look at the permit record. It says you wanted to install hardware for earthquakes. Who are we to interfere with your desire to do this?” This shields them from liability.

The City of Berkeley spent millions of its own money and oversaw the squandering of it’s citizen’s money as described in this article. 

As a consequence both engineers and contractors literally make things up, and there are no protections for homeowners to ensure they get a retrofit that works. At a minimum you want the contractor to use Standard Plan A, which is taught in the City of San Leandro retrofit training class and is used in numerous cities such as San Mateo and Hayward.

Proposals with wildly different approaches and extreme variations in price are the rule.  You need to know how to evaluate them, because your city’s building department will not.   The City of Berkeley learned the hard way.

The key to a good retrofit is enough education so you understand everything in your proposal and do your own inspections.  The overworked, well-dressed inspector is not going to give you what you need. No one will do a better job than you will.

When You Sell Your Home

The only time the permit issue comes up is upon time of sale.  You must disclose all work done without a permit.

The buyer will hire a private home inspector.  The result of this inspection is important to a buyer.  Home inspectors know full well that permitting makes no difference in terms of the quality of a retrofit.  They know that with or without a permit, contractors and engineers do whatever they want.  Home inspectors look to see if the work will protect the house.  Unlike most city building departments (the City of San Leandro being the one exception), private inspectors will have the time and hopefully the expertise to evaluate the effectiveness of what they actually see.  If you have a permit that confirms you followed a particular standard that will be a big help.

Special Inspections

In spite of this, some building departments require “special inspection” for voluntary seismic retrofits. Special inspectors are used because city inspectors often have 15 inspections to do a day, excluding necessary paperwork, and simply don’t have time to do an adequate inspection, Special inspectors usually charge $650 which, along with the $350 we charge for taking time out of our day to meet them, will add another $1000 to the cost of your job. Usually only one inspection is required, but sometimes two.

Special Inspections for Plywood

Table showing strength of plywood depends on spacing of nails. This should be part of any future retrofit building codes.

 Nails 4″ apart can resist 430 pounds of earthquake force per foot, whereas nails spaced 2″ apart can resist 870 pounds of earthquake force, making the retrofit twice as strong.

In Oakland and some other other cities, if nails are spaced less than 4″ apart as shown by the blue arrow, a special inspection is required. Plywood nailed in this way can resist 400 pounds of earthquake force per linear foot.  We have never understood why a special inspection is needed when the only thing the inspector does is stare at the nails and report that the nails look O.K.  Really, what would a nail look like that was not OK?


While building permits do not mean anything, you do need some kind of documentation of retrofit work you have done.  Future home buyers will want this.

Upon request we provide photographs of our work.  This, along with the plans and narrative report we provided you with your proposal, is far better than any documentation a building department will give you.  The private home inspector will want to see this. We also make sure and install inspection holes at bolt locations so bolts are visible behind the plywood.  All of these things are far more important to a buyer than a permit so best to do both.

Legal Protections

It is important to make sure retrofit contractors have workers’ compensation and liability insurance.  You can find out if a contractor has workers’ compensation insurance by going to this website.

Real World Consequences of No Seismic Retrofit Building Codes

We did a seismic retrofit on an apartment building in Oakland.  At the final inspection an inspector with 20 years experience simply signed the permit card and jumped in his truck saying “Crawling under there is a waste of time because there are no retrofit building codes for me to follow.”  This was in spite of the fact that the apartment owner paid the City of Oakland $1100 for a building permit.

In another incident in Berkeley, we forgot to do a bolt inspection and had covered them up with plywood.  The inspector would not sign off on the permit because we needed a bolt inspection.  We asked her what we should do.  She said “Go back to the building department and take them off the plans. When I see that, I will sign off on the permit.”  So you can’t count on the contractor, the code, or the building department that have no retrofit building codes to follow.  It is up to you to learn all you can, just as you would if you were getting ready to buy a new car.


Collapsed cripple wall at the base of a leaning house

A retrofit using a retrofit building code would have prevented this cripple wall failure.


Some Cities Do Not Require Permits for Seismic Retrofit Work

Last we checked,  Palo Alto won’t even issue a permit for a seismic retrofit.  They don’t want to charge their citizens for work that they have no way of evaluating. I guess Palo Alto has enough money not to need the income permits bring in.

Santa Rosa tells its inspectors not to crawl under houses, period.

Ineffective steel straps attaching floor to foundation because no retrofit building codes

Seismic retrofit work approved by building department.

Ineffective Strap used in a in the crawl space attaching 2 by 4 stud to foundation. Another consequence of no retrofit building codes.

No one knows how these straps resist earthquakes.

San Francisco does not even require plans.  You can just say “I am going to put in some shiny hardware.”  They are happy if you leave out the bolts and don’t care if you put them in.  Just don’t call it a “seismic retrofit.”  No matter what you do or not do they will still issue a permit.

We install highly engineered soft story retrofits in San Francisco.  These include engineering calculations that cost the client $5,000. Even then, the building department only allows us to say “Install Steel Pole” on the permit.  This is how the building department avoids responsibility. When homeowners sell the home they want to tell buyers about the retrofit. Instead all they can do is show them a permit for the installation of a steel pole.

Before You Hire a Contractor

Remember, the building department that issues the permit does not assess whether the work resists earthquakes. The Contractor’s State License Board has no special licensing for retrofit contractors. You could get anything if you choose the “voluntary seismic retrofit route” so best to use one of the existing retrofit guidelines

Follow These Three Simple Rules and You Can’t go Wrong

1). Educate Yourself!  Many “experts” in retrofitting are not experts at all.  Retrofit “professionals” require no special licensing or training and are all self-certified “experts.”  Prior customers will tell you if the contractor was friendly and cleaned up.  They do not know if they did it right.  You must research the subject yourself.  You will then understand what your contractor is planning to do and why.

2). Ask questions. The contractor needs to explain to you the reason for each part of the retrofit as the job progresses.  It should make sense to you.  If not, have them keep explaining it until it does make sense.

3). Document each phase of your earthquake retrofit. Make sure you get a floor plan that shows what they did and where and show it to a wood frame structural engineer or knowledgeable contractor.