I had an email waiting for me one morning last week from a prospective client who had received notice from City Council that his apartment block required earthquake retrofitting. He confessed that he was unsure about his property’s future and was at a bit of a loss. It would be the first piece of major construction he’d been required to undertake since acquiring the property.
His apartment is just one of 13,500 “soft-story buildings” that legally require earthquake retrofitting as a result of a new law introduced in 2015 to strengthen several building types that pose serious threats to life in the event of an earthquake.
As a result, many apartment owners now need to find a construction company fast. We understand that choosing a contractor isn’t easy. Especially when they’re going to carry out the most significant renovation you are likely to complete on your multifamily.
What Even Is an Earthquake Retrofit and What Will It Entail?
Unfortunately, many pre-1960 Los Angeles properties weren’t built with adequate structural reinforcement. If you live on one of the most notorious fault lines in the world, this is problematic. Also known as seismic retrofitting, an earthquake retrofit will see your contractor install a number of structural reinforcements to strengthen the building and stop the roof from pulling apart in an earthquake. A structural engineer or architect will need to be employed first to draw a set of engineering plans for the building. Based on these plans, the following reinforcements may be installed:
- Roof-to-wall anchors to strengthen weak connections
- Continuity ties to provide tension and compression resistance against external movement
- Roof nailing to repair and prevent damage caused by condensation
- Drag lines if the part of the building extends or recedes from the plane of the structure
- Cord plates if the walls are weak
- Exterior steel to strengthen weak walls
As an added inconvenience, much of this work will likely take place inside residents’ homes. Along with inspections by the Department of Building and Safety—a requirement throughout the construction period—your tenants may face some disturbance. The cost for all this? For a multifamily apartment, you could be looking anywhere in the region of $50,000 to $150,000 depending on the size of your building.
It’s no small job, but we have some guidelines to help you through the process.
Considerations When Comparing Earthquake Retrofit Contractors
Are they licensed and insured?
Thanks to the public release of all 13,500 addresses requiring retrofitting, this story hasn’t been out of the headlines. Unfortunately, that means that some less reputable contractors may be licking their lips at the thought of making a quick buck at your expense. So before moving forward with any contractor, please, please, please verify that they are licensed and insured. It takes only a moment to look them up on the Contractors State License Board website, and it could save you hundreds of thousands of dollars should the worst happen.
Do they have references?
Unfortunately, there aren’t any specific certifications or qualifications that companies need to carry out this kind of work. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t take the initiative and ask for references. Due to the highly specialized nature of this project, it is safest to proceed with a contractor who has completed this kind of work before.
Ask for two or three references and make sure you get the nitty gritty from each client. Did the project take longer than expected? Was it delivered on budget? Were workers clean and tidy? Did they show up on time? Here’s your opportunity to get a first-hand account of what the company is like. Don’t miss it.
What’s your timeline?
The serious nature of the safety risks that unstable structures pose leaves no time to waste, and The Department of Buildings and Safety has mandated several time limits which you must follow:
- Within two years: You must submit proof of a previous retrofit, or plans to retrofit or demolish.
- Within 3.5 years: You must obtain a permit to start construction or demolition.
- Within 7 years: Construction on wooden apartments must be complete.
- Within 25 years: Construction on concrete apartments must be complete.
So, while you need to submit plans within two years, you don’t need to finish the project for seven years—or 25 years if you have a concrete building. Regardless, unless your apartment has units that number in the hundreds, retrofitting shouldn’t take more than two years.
We advise that you get quotes that include timescales, decide when you want construction to start as a result, and then choose a contractor who is happy with work to your timeline.
It goes without saying that cost will be a major factor when choosing a contractor. But it shouldn’t be the only factor. Ultimately, this isn’t a cosmetic renovation. It’s a legal requirement to keep your tenants safe, and a lot of the work won’t be optional. Ask for each quote to be clearly broken down so that you know how much you are paying for each service. If you hired a structural engineer independently, consult them and make sure you’re only paying for what you need.
You may also find that you can afford more than you thought. In January, it was agreed that landlords and tenants would share the financial burden of a retrofit. As a property owner, you can pass half the costs of retrofitting—and any interest accrued on funding loans—onto tenants in the form of rent increases over a 10-year period. Monthly increases are capped at $38 but this agreement, with the potential introduction of low-interest loans, permit fee waivers and tax breaks, gives even more credence to our belief that price should not be your only determining factor when it comes to quotes.
Minimizing tenant disturbance
Perhaps even more crucial than cost is considering how a potential contractor will handle your current tenants. Repairs can be substantial and will almost certainly need to take place within residents’ homes. As the beating heart of your business, you’ll want to make sure contractors are considerate to residents and disturb them as little as possible.
Consult with your tenants to identify their concerns and then ask potential contractors to outline how they will deal with each and every one. Any multi-family construction firm worth their salt will already be aware of some of these issues and will have policies in place to deal with them.
Be clear in communication
Make no bones about it: This is a substantial work project. As with all construction work that carries a permit, this retrofitting will be subject to several inspections. Make sure you and the contractor both know who is responsible for scheduling the inspection with the Department of Building and Safety. Yes, that does mean you can register for inspection yourself. In fact, LADBS has an online tool you can use to request inspections as necessary.
Choosing a contractor requires significant time and research, but for a project like a retrofit, careful planning is crucial to successful completion. We hope that these guidelines help you move forward more confidently with organizing retrofitting for your building.
For more information on the retrofit program in general, you can find a list of frequently asked questions on the websites of the Department of Building and Safety and the Structural Engineers Association of Southern California. And don’t forget, REIG can help you with your retrofit, from planning all the way through completion. Contact us today with any questions you have or to request a quote.