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Permits and Seismic Retrofit Building Codes

The Truth about Retrofit Building Codes: A permit does not mean a retrofit was done right

There is no such thing as a seismic retrofit building code, no special licensing, and no special training for building departments. For this reason building departments will approve both plans and designs regardless of whether or not the work will resist an earthquake.   As a consequence engineers and contractors literally make things up .  This is also why homeowners are often faced with proposals that have very different approaches at wildly different costs.  There is a report about this in The New York Times and KPIX channel 5 produced an article that demonstrated homeowners spend thousands of dollars each week on retrofits that will not protect them.  You can’t rely on anyone to protect you,  your only protection is to educate yourself.

When you sell your home

The only time the permit issue comes up is upon time of sale.  At that point you must disclose whether or not work was done with or without a permit.

Private home inspectors are invariably hired when a house is sold.  What they discover in their inspection is the only thing that is important to a buyer.  Home inspectors know full well that permitting makes no difference in terms of the quality of a retrofit; they look to see what is actually there and unlike city inspectors will also evaluate the effectiveness of what they actually see.

Special Inspections  

Even though the building departments don’t care if you bother to put in bolts in a cripple wall retrofit, leave out the plywood, use the wrong plywood, use hardware that is meant for hurricanes rather than earthquakes, or install a retrofit that has no ability to resist an earthquake, some building departments, require something called a “special inspection”.  One never knows if it will be required or not, it just depends who is at the permit counter.

Special inspectors are used because City inspectors usually have 15 inspections to do a day, including necessary paperwork, and simply don’t have time.  Nor are they properly dressed to crawl under a house.   Special inspectors usually charge $650 which, along with the $400 we charge for taking time out of our day to meet him,  will add another $1,000 per inspection.  Usually only one is required, but sometimes two.

Even though building building departments don’t care if you put in bolts,  if you happen to put some in some cities will require that a special inspector be hired to see if the nuts are tight.  This is true even though retrofit bolts are used to resist lateral forces pushing against the side of the bolt where it does not matter if the bolts are tight in the first place.   We use impact wrenches as a matter of policy so that we exceed code requirements in any case.  In any event, you can check this yourself with a crescent wrench and save $1,000 or more.

Special Inspections for Plywood

Table showing strength of plywood depends on spacing of nails

 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.  We have never understood why this 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?

If you pay for a special inspection we can go ahead and put the nails less than 4″ apart but you will need to pay another $1000 for our time and the Special Inspector’s fee.  Or give a second thought to getting a permit at all.

This will save you the expense of a special inspection and let us provide you with the best retrofit possible.  When you sign your proposal let us know if this is something you want us to do.


You might ask: If a building permit does not mean anything in terms of my retrofit’s effectiveness, how can I keep records so future buyers and home inspectors know what my retrofit consists of, if much of the work is covered with plywood?

What we will do is fully documented in the plans and narrative report we provided you with your proposal.  We also make sure and install inspection holes at bolt locations in case the bolts are covered with plywood.  If you want to take photos along the way that will be further documentation.   All of these things are far more important to a buyer than a permit.

Making sure you are legal

It is important to make sure the contractor has workers’ compensation and liability insurance so that you are protected.  You can find out if he has workers’ compensation insurance by going to this website.  It is not illegal for you to hire a contractor who does not get a permit.  That is his choice and he, not you, can be fined.  Building departments receive a lot of revenue from building permits and want people to get a permit for practically everything.  Given they do not check to see if the work will resist an earthquake, some clients prefer to fully document the work themselves and invest this money into the retrofit itself.

 Why isn’t there a seismic retrofit building code?

Seismic retrofitting is an unregulated industry.  Neither contractors nor engineers need any special licensing or education, nor do they have a code to follow.  Retrofit guidelines such as Standard Plan A, and Appendix Chapter A3 of the International Existing Building Code have proven to be hopelessly outdated, impractical, and needlessly expensive.  As a result contractors and engineers often, and quite literally, “make things up” when designing a seismic retrofit.

This is primarily due to the fact they are not familiar with the vast array of knowledge required to properly retrofit a home.  The author of this article has been studying the subject for 21 years and is still learning.

Building department notice not to enter a house damage by earthquake

This House was Condemned even though it had been Retrofitted


Examples of this Policy in the Real World

We did a seismic retrofit on an apartment building in Oakland. On one final inspection of an Oakland building, 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 and I have no code 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 or even me.  It is up to you to learn all you can just as you would if you were getting ready to buy a new car.


Cripple Wall Failure in House Built without a retrofit building code.

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

The life of a city building inspector

The effectiveness of your retrofit has nothing to do with whether or not you got a permit.   Building departments will keep a record of what the contractor said he was going to do when the permit was applied for, but it is very unlikely even that will be checked.  Most inspectors need to do 15+ inspections a day and simply do not have the time.   They have no code to implement, therefore they only document the presences of something rather than what it will do.

The building inspector can’t offer you much in terms of evaluating your retrofit, but he may cite you for code violations or work done without permits he sees elsewhere in or around you house.

Building departments don’t even allow a permit to say “seismic retrofit”, only things like “voluntary seismic upgrade” or “install hardware and plywood”, they do this because if after the earthquake you come to them and say “Hey, I thought you said my house was retrofitted!”  They can say, look at the permit.  It says nothing about the house being retrofitting, you cannot blame us.

Limited Building Department Resources

Inspectors only have ten minutes to do an inspection including their paperwork, and normally have 15-20 inspections to do a day.  This means they often do not even have time to see if something was done beyond  shining a flashlight into the crawl space to see that there is some plywood or metal.

Our number one complaint from customers about building inspectors is “I gave them a ton of money and he didn’t even look.” Why should he when he can’t tell you if it was done properly?

A company that insists on the higher quality of their work because they get a permit is just as likely to install hardware that has absolutely no value to resist earthquakes.  Without a seismic retrofit building code, building departments cannot evaluate your retrofit or determine if what was done was a waste of money.

Building departments won’t even issue permits that mention “seismic retrofit” or “earthquake retrofit” because such wording presumes that there are standards to be followed.

They also 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.”  They can simply say “Look at the permit record.  It says you were allowed to install hardware for hurricanes. Who are we to interfere with your desire to do this?”  This shields them from liability.

In Palo Alto they won’t even issue a permit for a seismic retrofit because they understand to do so is simply wasting money.

Santa Rosa tells its inspectors not to crawl under houses.

Defective Seismic Retrofit Work Approved by Building Department

Seismic Retrofit Work Approved by Building Department

Ineffective Straps used in a Seismic Resist against Earthquakes

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, and maybe some bolts, and perhaps some plywood but then again, I think I will leave the bolts out” and they will still issue a permit.  They, along with the rest of the building departments, will approve anything.

For the highly engineered soft story retrofits we do in San Francisco, which include engineering calculations that cost the client $5,000, the building department only allows us to say “Install Steel Pole” on the permit because to say anything else exposes them to liability.

Before You Hire A Contractor

You cannot rely on the building department that grants the permit. You cannot rely on the Contractor’s State License Board because there is no licensing for retrofit contractors. You cannot rely on the building code because there isn’t one.  You can only rely on the professionalism of the individual contractor and your ability to evaluate their professionalism.  It is hoped that this website will help you with this.  Please remember that seismic retrofitting is simple, in our opinion, once it is broken down into its 3 main components.

  1. Educate Yourself!  As a layperson, it is hard to know if your retrofit will be done right.  Many “experts” in retrofitting are not experts at all.  This is a field where no special licensing or training is required so experts in this field are all self-certified.  Recommendations from other customers might only tell you if the contractor was friendly and cleaned up.   Your only choice is to do your own research and make sure that, based on this research, you understand what your contractor is planning to do and why.
  2. You should also have the contractor explain to you what he is doing and why while he is doing the job.  It should make sense to you.  If not, have him keep explaining it until it does make sense.  Howard says, “In spite of all the debate about ‘seismic engineering’, ‘tributary and uplift loads’, and ‘base shear and overturning formulas,’ retrofitting is simply figuring out a way to make sure a box (your house) does not slide on the table (the ground) when you shake the table back and forth.”
  3. Document each phase of your earthquake retrofit

Since there is no retrofit building code for your contractor to follow, the best approach is to take documentary photographs of the work being done as it progresses in addition to educating yourself.

Areas Served

San Jose,Sunnyvale, Fremont,Oakland,Berkeley
And Surrounding Areas


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License Info

Works' Comp RWCC64393236
Contractors Lic #558462
Bond #SC6334450
Liability Ins PCA 1045011
Link to Contractor's License Board