Triggered by the failure of a wood-framed apartment balcony that killed six and injured seven, California’s “balcony inspection law”, Senate Bill 721 (SB721), was signed into law in 2019; however, most properties have not done the inspections required, yet. The deadline for the first round of inspections is January 1, 2025, and every six years after that. The law places all significant responsibility onto the building owner including engaging with inspectors directly for this work. Demand and prices will keep increasing as the deadline approaches. Property owners who wait risk paying higher fees and potentially missing the deadline. Here are some guidelines that will help you plan for balcony inspections.
All multifamily properties in California of three or more units with any exterior, wood-framed elements must comply. The law requires the inspection of 15 percent of all “exterior elevated elements” (EEE) that are either wood-framed or connected to the wood. Balconies, walkways, or decks that extend beyond exterior walls must comply with this law, as well as attachments of steel guardrails or steel stairs to them. Some owners may go so far as to inspect any horizontal surface with waterproofing to avoid potential risk. It is up to the inspector to determine which 15 percent to inspect, but it must be a sample of all types of conditions in each building. Wood members can often rot from the top and inside, so inspections from the underside may not show any problems.
The law requires a direct visual examination of wood framing and waterproofing elements. As many balconies and walkways are completely covered in waterproof finishes, there are a few ways inspectors can see the framing. For areas with a lot of moisture, such as The Bay Area, owners/inspectors may want to strip all finish off these elements to get a thorough inspection. Other ways might include opening small areas of finishes to visually inspect or drilling holes in the finish and using borescope cameras. Inspectors will typically access balconies through tenant spaces to save costs.
Inspectors are looking for anything that could affect the safety of anyone walking on the elevated element. They are looking at finishes to see if the waterproofing system is intact. They look for signs of rot or damage to wood members. Steel connections to wood are checked for corrosion or damage.
The law specifically includes newer properties since new buildings have also suffered fatal balcony failures. Buildings with a permit application on or after January 1, 2019, are exempt from the 2025 deadline, but must still be inspected no more than six years from obtaining the final certificate of occupancy.
A licensed architect, engineer, contractor, or certified building inspector/official with a minimum of five years’ experience can perform balcony inspections. Contractors who perform inspections can also perform repairs, but keep in mind that this can result in a conflict of interest.
Reports must contain photos, test results (if any), current condition, future performance, projected service life, recommendations for further inspection (if necessary), and a narrative to easily compare findings on subsequent inspections. Owners who follow the recommendations and conduct needed repair work will reduce liability and risks.
“One-stop” firms are a part of any mandated work, from vehicle smog checks to soft story retrofits. These firms promote convenience to the owners by offering end-to-end scopes of services. It is a good practice to hire a separate entity for balcony inspections from the subsequent repair work. Keep in mind, when using a one-stop shop for balcony inspections, the entity would have monetary incentives to require repairs where independent inspectors would not.