Are you wondering about the balconies in your community?  Well if you missed the presentation by ADAMS | STIRLING PLC regarding HOA balcony repairs and updates, here’s a follow-up Q&A by the Davis-Stirling.com Newsletter that may help.

RAILINGS. In your presentation, you said that the current railing code requires railings to be 36” tall. But when searching current California building codes, they say that in California and Washington the minimum height is 42” tall. Which is correct?

RESPONSE: You’re right. Most U.S. guidelines require railings be at least 36 inches tall between the decking and top rail. In California, decks higher than 30 inches off the ground require 42 inches or taller railings.

GRANDFATHERED? I was talking with a contractor who said that even if our 1982 railings are in perfect condition, they have to be replaced to satisfy civil code 5551, which requires them to be “generally safe.”

RESPONSE: That is not my interpretation of the statute. it states, “the inspection shall determine whether the exterior elevated elements are in a generally safe condition and performing in accordance with applicable standards.” (Civ. Code § 5551(b)(2).)

I believe the applicable standards are those in effect at the time the balconies were built. If your balconies do not require any repairs, the railings are grandfathered. If the the supporting wood is dry rotted, which requires replacement of the railings, they need to be brought up to code. Maybe some contractors can chime in about what the Building Code requires.

CANTILEVERED ONLY? Our contractor said that Civil Code 5551 is only for cantilevered decks. He said that decks that have vertical supporting posts are excluded. Is that true?

RESPONSE: No, it is not true. nowhere does the statute mention cantilevered decks. It states, “load-bearing components” means those components that extend beyond the exterior walls of the building…that are supported in whole or in substantial part by wood or wood-based products.” The deck on the right is supported by wood posts. That means it must be inspected.

WHEN TO MAKE REPAIRS? Is there a mandate for how much time you have to make repairs? Can it take several years if we can’t afford it this year?

RESPONSE: If the repairs are routine, they can be scheduled as money becomes available. If the inspector identifies elements that pose an immediate threat to the safety of occupants, he is required to provide a copy of his report to code enforcement. Local enforcement has the ability to force immediate repairs, even if that requires an emergency special assessment. (Civ. Code § 5551(g))

AMEND CC&Rs Is it reasonable to amend our cc&rs to make balconies the responsibility of owners?

RESPONSE: It would get the association out of the inspection and repair requirement since it would no longer be responsible for the maintenance, repair, and replacement of balconies. (Civ. Code § 5551(b)(1).)

However, in the long term, it would likely lead to injuries and deaths. Since the statute does not obligate individual owners to inspect their own balconies for structural damage, they won’t spend the money. As a result, balconies will become unsafe and no one will know until one collapses.

Associations have the ability to reserve for major repairs and can get economies of scale for inspections and repairs. i recommend against amending your CC&Rs.

RAILINGS ONLY? If I have a deck that has a solid internal structure underneath (like a garage), but the deck has a railing, will the inspector need to inspect the railing if the deck doesn’t need inspection?

RESPONSE: Your normal 3-year reserve study inspection should be sufficient. Civil Code 5551 states, “load-bearing components” means those components that extend beyond the exterior walls of the building…” Since your deck and railing do not extend beyond the exterior walls of the building, they do not fall under the inspection requirements of 5551. However, if you lean against your railing and it moves, I would immediately have it inspected.

SMALL ASSOCIATIONS. Is there any form of funding available for small associations?

RESPONSE: If you mean free money, not that I am aware of. small associations, like large ones, are obligated to build reserves for major repairs. If needed, you can special assess your membership. You should be able to find a lender if you need to borrow money.

INSPECT HOW MANY? If we find a lot of damage on any of the 15 examined balconies, do we have to examine the other 85?

RESPONSE: If most or all 15 are found to have significant damage, it would be prudent to inspect the remaining 85. If only one or two are found to have significant damage, it will be up to the architect or structural engineer to decide how many to inspect. the statute requires inspection of a statistically significant sample to determine if exterior elevated elements are in a generally safe condition and performing in accordance with applicable standards. (Civ. Code § 5551(b))

WHO GETS A REPORT? What if a member’s balcony is identified as unsafe; shouldn’t they be given a copy of the report?

RESPONSE: If the balcony is identified as unsafe, the association must immediately prevent the occupants from accessing their balcony until repairs have been inspected and approved by the local enforcement agency. (Civ. Code § 5551(g).) If the owner requests a copy of the report, it should be given to him/her.

CERTIFICATE OF INSPECTION. Once we get our inspection report who do we bring it to or where do we record it?

RESPONSE: The inspection report is not recorded. It becomes part of the association’s records and must be kept for at least two inspection cycles (18 years). (Civ. Code § 5551(i).)

WHEN DOES THE 9-YEAR CYCLE BEGIN? Our inspections were completed in 2020 and critical repairs completed in 2021. Does the 9-year inspection cycle start then, or does it start on January 1, 2025?

RESPONSE: Your 9-year cycle begins when you completed your inspection. For those who wait until the last minute, their cycle will begin this year. January 1, 2025 is the deadline for completing the first inspection, not the start of the inspection cycle. (Civ. Code § 5551(i).)

DISCLAIMER. The Davis-Stirling.com Newsletter by ADAMS | STIRLING PLC provides commentary only, not legal advice. For legal advice, you’ll need to hire legal counsel.  You can hire ADAMS | STIRLING PLC; Keep in mind they are considered corporate counsel to associations only.