Seismic Retrofit Building Codes, Permits, and Licensing

The Truth about Building Permits

The seismic retrofit industry has no retrofit building codes, no special licensing, and no special training for building departments.  The industry is completely unregulated.  Building departments approve both plans and work without considering if the work will resist earthquakes. As a consequence both engineers and contractors literally make things up .  Homeowners cannot rely on a building code or special licensing by contractors to protect them.

Proposal with wildly different approaches with extremely variations in price are the rule.  You need to know how to evaluate them because the building department will not protect you.   The New York Times and KPIX Channel 5 produced two documentaries describing how homeowners spend thousands of dollars on retrofits that will not protect them.  You don’t want to be one more.  The key to a good retrofit enough education so you understand EVERYTHING found in a proposal.

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.  In the retrofit world a permit does not mean anything.

The buyer will hire a Private home inspector.  The results 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 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 city building departments, will also evaluate the effectiveness of what they actually see.

Special Inspections  

There are no retrofit building codes for building departments to follow.   They don’t care if you bother with bolts, leave out the plywood, or use the wrong plywood.  You can use hardware that is meant for hurricanes rather than earthquakes.  You can install a retrofit that has no ability to resist an earthquake.  In spite of this, some building departments require  “special inspection” for retrofit work.

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 even though they don’t care what you do.  Nor are they properly dressed to crawl under a house.   Special inspectors usually charge $650 which, along with the $450 we charge for taking time out of our day to meet him,  will add another $1100 to the cost of your job.  Usually only one is required, but sometimes two.

For example: even though building departments don’t care if you put in bolts,  if you show bolts on the plans many cities require that you hire a special inspector to make sure all the bolts are tight.  Which is ridiculous give new bolts in new houses become loose within a month as  moisture in the bolted wood evaporates and the mudsill shrinks.  Loose nuts on bolts don’t matter because they are used to resist lateral forces pushing against the side of the bolt and it does not matter if the bolts are tight to do this.   We use impact wrenches on the nuts because it is faster and we never know when a special inspection will be required.

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?

Putting nails 4″ apart creates a plywood connection only half as strong as if they were 2″ apart.  In other words, the building department is making sure your retrofit is half as strong as it could be!  Any rational building codes developed in the future will require plywood be nailed 2″ apart.  This creates retrofits that are both stronger and cheaper.

If you pay for a special inspection we can go ahead and put the nails less than 4″ apart.  If you want a better retrofit you will need to pay another $800 for our time to properly nail it at 2″ apart after  the inspectors are gone.  This will be paid along with the Special Inspector’s fee.  You might want to think it over and not get a permit at all.


Building permits do not mean anything.  However, you do need some kind of documentation.  Future home buyers will want this.

Upon request we provide photographs 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.  This 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.

Making sure you are legal

It is impossible to get in trouble for not following non-existent retrofit building codes.  It is however important to make sure retrofit contractors have workers’ compensation and liability insurance .  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.  Any fines will fall on the contractor, not on you.

 Seismic Retrofit Guidelines

Seismic retrofitting is an unregulated industry.  Contractors and engineers do not need any special licensing or education.   Retrofit guidelines, which are purely voluntary and not codes,  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.

Building department notice not to enter a house damage by earthquake


Real World Consequence 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.


Cripple wall collapse because the retrofit contractor and the building department had no retrofit building codes to follow

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 the permit.  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”.  The building department only accepts wording like “voluntary seismic upgrade” or “install hardware and plywood”.  Outraged citizens will want to know why their house fell down. The building department said it had a seismic retrofit.  The building department will simply point out the permit says upgraded, not retrofitted.

 Limited Building Department Resources

Inspectors only have ten minutes to do an inspection including their paperwork.  Along with this they normally have 15-20 inspections to do a day.  Inspectors don’t have time beyond  shining a flashlight into the crawl space.  Let alone spend a few hours checking for quality work.  Given no code there is not much reason to do that anyway.

Customers complain building departments don’t do their job.  Customers say “I gave them a ton of money and he didn’t even look!” The building inspector answers “Why should I?”  I cannot tell you anything no matter what I see.

A company that claims their work is superior because they get a permit is just as likely to install hardware that has absolutely no value.

Building departments won’t even issue permits that mention “seismic retrofit” or “earthquake retrofit”.  Such wording might make people think the building department check to see if the work would resist earthquakes.

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.” The City will say “Look at the permit record.  It says you wanted to install hardware for hurricanes. Who are we to interfere with your desire to do this?”  This shields them from liability.

Some Cities know how Stupid Permit for Seismic Retrofit Work it

In Palo Alto they 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. Palo Alto has enough money so they don’t 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. 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 the want to tell buyers about the 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 care if the work resists earthquakes. The Contractor’s State License Board has no special licensing for retrofit contractors. Building departments will let anyone do it.  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.  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.

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. 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 him keep explaining it until it does make sense.
  3. Document each phase of your earthquake retrofit
  4. You also need a floor plan that shows what he did and where.

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