Retrofitting – A Confusing Term

A person confused by the term retrofitting

Retrofitting is a very overused term in home sales. A basic dictionary definition of “retrofit” to “to add something that was not there when it was made.” Hence, retrofitting as a term means different things to different aspects of the home. It is unfortunate that the term is used to mean so many different things, as it can cause great confusion in a conversation between home buyers, sellers, and real estate agents.

In short, it can mean state compliance issues, city compliance issues, or foundation issues. The city and State of California compliance issues are usually closely related, while the foundation-related issues have nothing to do with them. And even with foundation issues, there are multiple meanings. Yet the term “retrofitting” is still widely used for all these very different situations.

State Meaning of Retrofitting

The State of California has specific rules that every home must be upgraded or “retrofitted” before the transfer of property from a buyer to a seller. These are:

  1. Smoke detectors
  2. Carbon monoxide detectors
  3. Water heater strapping
  4. Water conservation devices

Smoke detectors must be in every sleeping room, outside of a sleeping room, and one per floor. Carbon monoxide detectors must be one per floor and in the vicinity of sleeping rooms. We previously went into much more detail in a previous article here.

IM Home Inspections will check to see if such detectors are readily visible and available and installed in areas required. We do not push the test button to save our hearing. We will advise on upgrades when the inspector feels it’s appropriate.

Water heater straps are always noted if present or missing on a tanked water heater. They are not required on a tankless water heater. We previously wrote much more detail about water heater strapping here. 

Water conservation devices include low-flow toilets and low-flow shower heads. At IM Home Inspections, we don’t worry about low-flow toilets, because it has been impossible to buy a toilet that does not automatically comply with these rules for several decades. Low-flow toilets have been federal law since 1994, and older high-flow toilets already started getting phased out in the early 1980s. Even in a much older home, chances are the toilet was replaced at least once in the last 40 years. Water-saving shower heads are also a rule, however, the state has never said how anyone is to accurately measure these. And similar to toilets, you can’t buy a shower fixture that doesn’t comply anyway

smoke and carbon monoxide detector combo
smoke and carbon monoxide detector combo

City Meaning of Retrofitting

In addition to the above State of California rules, the City of Los Angeles has additional upgrades or “retrofitting” that must be done before the transfer of property from a buyer to a seller.

Specifically, all gas meters in the City of Los Angeles must have a seismic (earthquake) shut-off on the gas meter. These are intended to shut off gas service to a house in event of an earthquake that measures 5.4 or more. We previously discussed gas shut-off here.

As of this writing, seismic shut-offs are also required in Culver City, Malibu, Santa Monica, and West Hollywood. At IM Home Inspections we recommend shut-offs being installed regardless if they are required or not as earthquakes do not know how to stop at city borders.

The City of Los Angeles also requires that sliding glass doors have either tempered glass or be retrofitted with “impact hazard glazing or an approved film.” This is an important safety feature that reduces the chance of serious cuts when a window breaks. IM Home Inspections will attempt to identify any sliding glass doors that do not meet such requirements. However, the marks indicating compliance are often small and hard to see, and it is not always possible to find the markings.

House Foundation Meaning of Retrofitting

In the late 1930s, California began adopting the requirement to bolt the wood frame of the house to the concrete foundation. Without bolts, a home can simply slide off the foundation in the event of an earthquake. In Los Angeles country, there are still thousands of homes that were built before foundation bolting was required. Over the decades, the size of the bolts, and recommended minimum of bolts have changed significantly.

Retrofitting the foundation of a home refers to adding braces and bolts to a foundation that either has no bolts or where the bolts are not up to the most current standards. Upgrading a home’s bolting is not law, and is not required at the time of sale. At IM Home Inspections, if the home is on a raised foundation, we will attempt to identify if there is evidence of any bolting, or retrofitting. If the home is on a slab, the bolts are in the walls, and not visible. We can not guarantee the bolting is up to the most current standards. If you need a referral to upgrade your foundation bolting, we work closely with a foundation bolting and repair company. Call the office at 818-298-3405 for their information.

For more information, see the California Earthquake Authority website.

A foundation after an earthquake retrofit
A foundation after an earthquake retrofit. Photo courtesy of YC Builders.

Apartment and Condo Foundations’ Meaning of Retrofitting

Apartments and Condo buildings that are built with garages or parking spaces under the building itself may be referred to as a “soft story” building.

A soft story is where the parking structure or garages under the building create wide spaces with fewer supports than a building built at ground level. While such buildings have been engineered so that the garage section can withstand the weight of the building, it has been discovered that many such buildings were not engineered to withstand the building moving side to side in the event of an earthquake. The City of Los Angeles has identified buildings through the city built before 1978 that may not meet such requirements, and are being required to be retrofitted to meet more stringent earthquake standards.

How to identify a soft-story building requires a licensed structural engineer to evaluate the plans and construction of the building. It is far beyond the scope of a home inspection. Which buildings the city has targeted for retrofitting is also beyond the scope of a home inspection. We suggest contacting the City of Los Angeles for more information.

Book your home inspection now by calling 818-298-3405 or book online here.