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Home Inspection Ordinance Proposal Gets Heated Response

How far do you think the fire department should go in checking the safety of homes before they're sold?

Wednesday evening city council chambers were packed with community members concerned about a proposed ordinance that would dictate the type of home inspection residents must go through before selling a home. 

At a special meeting of the City Council, dozens of local homeowners, real estate agents from the San Mateo Realtors Association (SAMCAR), and officials from the South City Fire Department showed up to voice contradictory concerns.

The Realtors and fire officials both said that, if passed, the ordinance would simply uphold inspection practices that are already occurring. But some real estate agents and homeowners said that the current practice of extensive home inspections began only a few years ago.

Whether the current practices should be allowed in the first place, was also a point of contention. 

“We’re really not doing anything new,” one fire official said at the meeting.

Yet Gary Smith, a pastor and resident of South San Francisco said “there’s been a change in attitude." Smith said his properties have been inspected about a dozen times, but only recently has he taken issue with them. “I’ve found that it’s quite subjective," he said, calling the practices "abusive."

At the meeting, one fire official described an incident in which South City fire fighters tried to find residents in a burning home, but were initially thwarted when they realized there was unpermitted construction that blocked access to the bedroom.

If one life can be saved by fixing code violations at point of sale, fire officials said, it’s worth the extensive inspection process.

Attendants who spoke at the meeting also disagreed on what exactly happens during fire department point of sale inspections. 

Fire officials said the inspections stick to blatent or obvious code violations that could be life-threatening. 

Yet one homeowner recounted a fire departement home inspection in which inspectors told him he had to repaint part of his house, which the homeowner said was not a life-threatening violation and cost him thousands of dollars. 

Documents that Government Affairs Director for SAMCAR Paul Stewart distributed at the meeting showed expenses of tens of thousands of dollars residents were required to pay as a result of inspections.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting, speakers from both the group of Realtors and the fire department accused the opposing group of being motivated by financial profit.

“The real issue has to do with money,” said Russ Lee, a former South City Fire Chief. “Obviously that’s going to cut into the realtor’s commission.”

Paul Stewart of SAMCAR said that fees and fines make the fire department’s inspection program “a revenue producer” that just happens to be for public safety. 

According to fire officials, their inspections cost home sellers $125, but the department spends about $132, which means they actually lose some money in the process. The department also provides one free pre-inspection. 

Realtors said that buyers and sellers are already required by law to conduct home safety inspections in order to make a sale, and that the fire department inspection is redundant.

SAMCAR attorney Michelle Zaccone also said that the type of extensive home inspections that have been occurring in South City are an infringement on the Fourth Amendment, and that they are illegal without a proper warrant to enter the home.

South San Francisco is the only city in San Mateo County that conducts such extensive home inspections. When city councilmember Kevin Mullin asked what the reasoning was for this, a fire official said other cities’ departments may have been moving toward a similar process, but scaled back because of recent budget cuts.

 “This is a difficult one,” Mullin said following the public comment period. “We’re trying to sift our way through all of this information.” He said the council would not take action immediately on the issue. 

The topic has not yet been scheduled for a future meeting. Council may ask for an introduction of the ordinance at a regular meeting, if councilmembers decide to move forwrad with it, or they may hold a second study session. Check back for updates.

The proposed ordinance states that the inspections would be limited to checking the following: 

  1. smoke detector
  2. carbon monoxide detector
  3. secured water heater
  4. electrical wiring
  5. no apparent fuel sources that would cause or spread fore or explosion
  6. no accumulation of debris, junk or garbage (according to code)
  7. improper building or maintenance (according to code)
  8. fire-resistive construction, fire-extinguishing systems (according to code)
  9. rooms used for sleeping, living, cooking or dining are designed or intended to be used for those purposes

The following would not be part of the full home inspection if the ordinance passed: 

  1. climb on roof or in attic
  2. look behind furniture of wall hangings
  3. look in chimney or cabinets
  4. inspect under house
  5. operate appliances
  6. measure square footage of improvements, identify boundary lines, easements or encroachments

Tell us our exerience as a homeowner, seller, buyer, or inspector. How should the city act on this ordinance? 

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Juan Bustos October 19, 2012 at 06:25 PM
Unfortunately, the fishing expedition that is requested “under the guise of “safety” is possibly a violation of our Constitution. Can the police enter our homes every time we turn off the light to make sure we are safe? I don’t think so! They need probable cause and would need a warrant. However, we citizens are always ready to give up another notch of our rights to government under the premise of "safety." If we the People allow this "safety check" to be implemented then where will it stop? While it may cost the City $132 per house-hold, the funds they will receive from the required "safety" permits will greatly turn into a big money making machine. I believe this “safety check” is only a mask to cover up the real intention of looking for ways to make the Permit Bureau more profits. Along with once this plan is implemented, who is to say that the cost is not going to increase? By the way, how come our parks are full of safety violations and the city is not inspecting them for safety concerns? Bring honesty back to government. STOP gauging the citizens!
Jim C October 20, 2012 at 05:15 PM
I don't understand why this is such a big deal. If I was buying a home, I would want assurances that the home hasn't been made unsafe by construction that was not up to code. I see this as a big problem in South San Francisco where the number of illegally built "in-law" units is very high. On my street - Longford, in case anyone wants to check it out - there are at least two houses that have cottages in back and multiple families living there.
frank October 20, 2012 at 07:27 PM
yeah, I've seen this stuff too, incidentially, houses that are sold doesn't require home inspections, thats a bunch of balony, my nephew tried to buy a place and the "real estate pro" said the home was sold as is, and no exceptions, there was 4 offers and i'm glad he didn't get it. my nephew rents a house in ssf, and it is a safety hazard time bomb, somebody added a bathroom in the hall closit, or should i say added a toilet bowl, ya, that's all.
Steve Rush October 27, 2012 at 05:01 PM
As a professional private home inspector for over 24 years and a resident of South San Francisco, I perform pre listing and pre-sale inspections on a daily basis for informational purposes whether it be for a buyer or seller. We as professional home inspectors are required to perform report conditions to our clients that may affect the value, desirability, function and safety as required under California Business and Professions Code 7195-7199 and belong to professional associations that set the standards of practice. We have tremendous liability to our clients for civil action. We are insured for those reasons. Jurisdictional inspectors have little or no liability. Why have the city perform these inspections when there are private inspectors such as myself that perform a service that is much more detailed and less threatening to the clients and are almost always performed during a real estate sale. City Inspectors have always been utilized as code inspectors for new construction, remodeling and renovation after plans are submitted and approved. Why use the guise of smoke alarm inspection to now perform a " home inspection" that is not a home inspection as defined under California Bus. and Professions Code 7195-7199. If they are going to perform these types of inspections, they should held under the same criteria as a private company and be responsible for items for errors and omissions and not set their own rules as they are already defined.
Tina C. Wong January 17, 2013 at 05:22 AM
Victory on defecting the proposed private home inspection point of sale ordinance, thanks to our competent city council members making the right decision and San Mateo County Association of Realtors (SAMCAR) and their sub-committee putting endless hours fighting for our home ownership rights. I salute them with my deepest gratitude as a South San Francisco homeowner. We could have been spending tens of thousands before we can sell our homes and delaying to sell our homes.

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