Buyers or Sellers: Who’s Responsible for Prepping a Home For Wildfire Season?
And why you should find out if a home is in compliance before you close
While Bay Area home sales continue to sizzle, one important detail is getting lost in the rush to buy and sell: New fire codes and the cost of ignoring them.
Consecutive years of catastrophic wildfires in California have pushed the state and counties to reevaluate how we “harden” our properties against wildfire. Updated regulations are more specific than ever about the size of defensible space, which tree species must be removed, compliance deadlines, and penalties.
Yet, in our frenzied real estate market, some buyers and sellers aren’t slowing down to consider who is responsible for the landscaping bill – or the hefty noncompliance fine – before going into contract.
We’re here to help you with some FAQs.
Who is responsible for fire code compliance?
Fire code compliance is typically the seller’s responsibility.
But, because our market is so competitive right now, it often gets passed off to the buyers who are taking homes as-is.
“It’s really a ‘buyer beware’ situation. You think you have lovely landscaping all around the house, but you may have to tear it all out,” Abio Properties co-founder Linnette Edwards recently told the San Francisco Business Journal in an article about new fire restrictions.
Linnette shared examples of buyers who spent loads of money on a beautiful property only to learn it was noncompliant. They had to shell out thousands of dollars to remove large numbers of eucalyptus and sycamore trees.
What are the new state rules affecting home sales?
Starting Jan. 1, 2021 – The seller of a house in a designated high fire area that was built before 2010 must disclose the property conditions that make it vulnerable to wildfires.
Home sellers are responsible for knowing if their property sits in a high fire hazard zone. Not sure? Visit the Cal Fire website to view an interactive map of Fire Hazard Severity Zones.
Starting July 1, 2021 – Sellers are required to provide documentation to buyers stating the property complies with California’s defensible space laws. California requires up to 100 feet of defensible space around a home or to the property line. (See the following graphic and Cal Fire link for details.)
In certain cases, the buyer and seller can agree that the buyer obtains the documentation after close. But some municipalities will require proof before close of escrow. Make sure you and your real estate agent understand the different local requirements.
What is defensible space?
According to Cal Fire, defensible space is the buffer you create between a building on your property and the grass, trees, shrubs, or any wildland area surrounding it. This space helps protect your home from catching fire – either from embers, direct flame, or radiant heat. It also gives firefighters a safe area to work in to defend your home.
Defensible space requirements include clearing grasses taller than 4 inches, fallen leaves, dead vegetation, and tree branches within 10 feet from your chimney and other trees. Get more details at Cal Fire.
Note that some local ordinances may be more detailed than these state rules. Check with your fire department for any additional requirements.
What’s up with Moraga and Orinda? I hear their rules are different…
Like we said, some local ordinances are more detailed and stringent than the state regulations.
The Moraga-Orinda Fire District, for example, adopted new rules and has been determined to enforce them before the height of fire season hits. Most notable is the new annual compliance deadline of May 31.
Moraga-Orinda Fire Chief Dave Winnacker told us his staff is regularly pulling records of homes sold and crosschecking them against a list of homes that are certified compliant. The recent housing boom has been a good opportunity to get that compliance.
He shared with us some cautionary tales involving buyers and sellers who didn’t check compliance before their sales closed. One property was sold with 30 dead or dying Monterey pines. When MOFD noted noncompliance, the buyer and seller had to go back and untangle which of them would pay for the removals.
Abio Properties Associate Broker Elisabeth Watson said she recently experienced a similar mess during a transaction in Orinda, where the sellers failed to disclose they’d been cited for noncompliance.
“We got the seller to pay for removing the cited trees, but it was not fun and a lot of work,” she said.
The new requirements in Moraga-Orinda also include:
- Remove all combustible ground cover within 2 feet of a structure, including mulch and bark. Acceptable alternatives include soil, rock, ivy, creeping green ground cover, and succulents. Get the complete list of approved ground cover here.
- Create at least a 1-foot air gap between the ground and lower portion of bushes, privets, and other decorative plants within 2 feet of structures.
- Create 6 feet of vertical clearance between tree canopy and roofs (increased from the previous 5-foot rule).
- Remove eucalyptus and Monterey pine within 6 feet of structures.
- Remove juniper and bamboo within 10 feet of a road by the end of 2023.
- See the full list of requirements here.
How do I find the local rules for my area?
Check your local fire department’s website or call. Here are some links to get you started:
- Berkeley Fire Department
- Contra Costa County Fire Prevention District
- Moraga Orinda Fire District
- Oakland Fire Department
- Piedmont Fire Department
>> Are You Ready for Wildfire Season? Download our free fire evacuation checklist