“Geo” is short for Geological Inspection. Geo Inspections are done by Geologists who evaluates the risk, from a geological standpoint, of buying a home in escrow. Geologists rate risk on a scale of low, medium/average, or high.
The steeper the slope- the greater the force of Gravity
I always recommend to get a Geological Inspection for hillside properties. Hillside properties have gravity working against them, so it is important to ensure that the geological conditions of the lot are stable. A house is only as good as the foundation it is built on, and a foundation is only as good as the bedrock it rests on top of.
If the property has or has had a geological problem in the past like a Landslide, Slope Failure, Erosion, Creep, Collapsed Retaining wall, etc, these are expensive and can cost in the $100,000’s of dollars and could make the property unmarketable!
A GEO inspection protects you from buying a property with a known or observable Geological defect.
GEO inspections have two parts:
(1) Site Visit: the geologist and visual inspection of the property.
(2) Research: the geologist reviews city records and reports including building permits, previous soils tests, grading reports, historic landslide information, proximity to active faults, and geological bedrock survey maps.
At the end of the inspection, the geologist will write a report that summarizes all of their findings.
Geological Inspections do not include testing. The purpose of a GEO is to satisfy the buyer’s due diligence during escrow and not to be used for obtaining approval of building plans. No testing keeps cost down- a GEO inspection is 1/3 to 1/5 of the cost of a Soils test.
How do I tell if my property is Hillside?
You can usually tell just by looking around. Hillside properties are in the mountains, so if you see any big hills or slopes, you are probably in a hillside area.
Hillside Areas Are Shaded
Los Angeles has a special zoning designation for Hillside properties. You can look up the zoning information on the city’s zoning website ZIMAS. The main characteristic that defines a hillside property is slope.
The definition of a Slope (LABC 7003)
SLOPE. An inclined ground surface the inclination of which is expressed as a ratio of horizontal distance to vertical distance. Slope greater than 10% shall be considered as a sloping surface.
What does a GEO inspection Cover?
The GEO covers several different topics that relate to the hillside: Drainage, Grading, Soil/Bedrock, Seismicity, Landcaping, and Foundation
Controlling stormwater runoff is the most importantthing to keep your hill safe. Good drainage also protects your foundation from deterioration. Los Angeles doesn’t get much rain, but the occasional heavy rainstorm can dump 5 to 10 inches quickly, which can lead to landslides and slope failures (especially after wildfires) if your property doesn’t have proper drainage.
Soil naturally absorbs water, so having some open areas of permeable surfaces on the lot that can absorb runoff and not all concrete pavement helps drainage. For excess water, the best place to drain is in the streets that are connected to the city’s stormwater system and empty into the ocean.
Sometimes on hillside lots, especially downslope lots from the street, it is not practical to drain to the street which would require pumping the water uphill. If you can’t connect to the stormwater system, then an onsite drainage system such as a dispersion wall, sump pump, swale, or cross-lot drainage easement can be built to direct the runoff to an approved location.
It is illegal to send your stormwater runoff into the sewer system, which is a different system altogether. If everybody drained their stormwater into the sewers, the sewers would overflow! Storm surges can move 10 billion gallons of water in just 1 day. In addition, it is very costly to treat sewer water at waster water treatment plants, whereas stormwater is not treated.
Grading is shaping the land by moving topsoil. Hillsides are sloped. You need a flat pad to build on. Grading sculpts the land to prepare it for building.
When you remove soil- this is called a “cut”. When you add soil- that is called a “fill”. Depending on the soil composition, sometimes you can use your cut from the same site as fill, which can save a lot of money in hauling and materials costs.
Fill is where you sometimes run into trouble. Prior to the enactment of the Grading Code in 1963, fill was not generally well compacted, which lead to an excessive amount of settlement, landslides, and erosion. If your Geological inspection reveals that the lot has fill prior to 1963- be extra careful.
I’d also like to mention that fill should be free of large rocks or boulders and debris- Soil holds weight much better when there are no large obstructions to the compaction. I know in some neighborhoods in the hills, when the original grading was done, the developers did the grading hastily left a bunch of large rocks mixed in that has led to geological problems later on.
Just like you have setbacks for the front yard, backyard, and side yards, of your house- you have required setbacks from the hillside of your lot. There are two reasons for the hill setback- 1) the more flat land between the foundation and slope, the more bearing capacity of the soil and 2) if there is a rockfall or a mudslide you house has a better chance of being a safe distance away from it. The amount of the hill setback varies.
Geologists study rocks and dirt. When you start learning about Geology, it’s actually pretty cool! The first rocks on Earth formed about 4 billion years ago. Since that time the surface of the Earth has changed quite dramatically- and it’s still changing. Los Angeles is moving towards San Fransisco along the San Andreas Fault at the rate of a few inches each year which means that in about 15 million years these two cities will be connected!
The Geologist will visually inspect the soil conditions and estimate the composition.
Sand- Water drains quickly through sand
Silt/Loam- Just the right amount of sand and clay and organic materials, basically dirt.
Clay- Clay absorbs water, and expands and contracts. Too much clay in the soil can create expansive soils.
There are 4 main types of Bedrock in Los Angeles Area:
and estimate how far below the surface the bedrock is. The closer to the surface the bedrock is, the better.
Bedrock is what you anchor your foundation to and what gives it strength. Bedrock 5 – 10 below the surface is close to the surface, 20-30 feet below the surface is average, and 40 feet or more means the bedrock is very far from the surface and it can be very costly to anchor the foundation with caissons.
Appropriate Chimney height varies by chimney type, manufacturer, and the size of your house (two story houses require longer chimneys than single story). To function properly, a chimney should be at least 10 to 12 feet tall. In addition to this length, Los Angeles Building Code Requires that the chimney be three feet above the roofline, and be two feet higher than the roof line within a 10 foot radius of the chimney stack. This prevents backdraft and allows space for any burning embers that escape the chimney to cool off before landing on the roof.
A Spark Arrester helps prevent sparks and embers from getting out of the chimney and landing on your roof. The area around the top of the chimney should be clear of debris, tree branches and leaves, or any other building structures. Chimneys that are too short can cause smoke to get sucked back into the house because of back draft. If your chimney is ‘smokey’ talk to a chimney repair company. They can extend the chimney height.
Chimney Inspections have been around in Los Angeles for about 10 years. They are a specialized inspection that focuses solely on the Chimney. Due to the highly technical nature of Chimneys and the difficulty in inspecting them without the proper equipment (Telescoping Rods, lighting, and video camera), most General Home inspectors won’t be able to tell you much, if anything, about the condition of the chimney, and whether it is safe to use or not.
I always recommend a chimney inspection if the property has a chimney (including condos). Chimney inspections are pretty common now, so expect your future buyer to have one when it is your turn to be the seller. Most people only use a chimney a few times a year during holidays, if at all. Sellers have caught on to this, and are not giving out big credits for $10,000 or $20,000 like they use to. You might see in listing remarks “fireplace is decorative only”. Sellers are excluding chimneys from credits and selling them as is. Even if you can’t get a credit for the chimney, it is good to know what is going on with it and to make sure it is safe if you want to use it.
A Chimney inspector, will visually inspect the firebox, including the screens, gas connection (if present), the damper, and flue. They will elevate a camera through the flue chamber to check for cracks, gaps, or bad connections. Anywhere that heat can escape from the chimney into the walls is a potential fire hazard. The inspector will go on top of the roof and give a slight push to the chimney stack to see if it moves. They will also inspect the connection of the chimney at the roof line. This area needs to be properly flashed to prevent water intrusion into the house. They will inspect the chimney cap and spark arrestor, and evaluate the height of the chimney.
Mike Rees the Chimney Guy inspecting a condo fireplace
Many single family homes in Los Angeles built between 1920-1940 have masonry brick chimneys that burn wood. These Chimneys have the most problems. They are coming up on 100 years old and almost always require maintenance and chimney repairs (the mortar that creates a fire barrier between the bricks and your house starts to turn to dust at around 100 years).
1920s Masonry Chimney Diagram
Original Masonry Chimneys were constructed without flue linings which help support the weight of the chimney and prevent smoke escaping from grouting cracks within the stack.
Inside Chimney View
Masonry Brick Chimney with NO Flue Lining
Masonry Chimney with Clay Flue Liner
The chimney stacks on these chimneys are made of bricks, and are extremely heavy. This weight tends to make the chimney crack and shift or lean away and seperate from the house. A chimney that wobbles when light pressure is applied is a earthquake safety hazards- it could topple during a quake.
This Chimney Wobbled when slight pressure was applied and needed to be replaced
As part of the clean Air act, beginning in 2009 the city of Los Angeles banned wood burning fireplaces from being built in new construction. Old wood burning fireplaces are grandfathered in, so if the property has one you don’t have to worry about losing it.
Technology has improved a lot since 1920s-30s. Chimneys are built smarter today. Back then, the chimney stack was made of all bricks. There are two problems with building a chimney like this:
1) The bricks are extremely heavy, which can make the chimney sag from its own weight or separate from the house over time
2) The heavy brick chimneys had no reinforcement and may be in danger of collapsing during an earthquake
Chimney contractors nowadays build chimneys with a lightweight metal flue, and surround it in wood framing.
Metal Chimney Diagram
If you want the classic look of a brick chimney, worry not, you can have the chimney stack covered with brick veneers to give you that authentic brick look, without all the weight.
This Chimney Stack was replaced by Parkstone Construction in a 1920s home Hancock Park. It has a metal Flue, and was covered with Brick Veneers. You can’t even tell the difference!
For a more affordable option, the chimney stack can just be stuccoed.
Stucco Metal Chimney
The mortar that was used in Masonry Brick Chimneys in the 20s and 30s was a mix of lime and sand- Portland cement (also known as gypsum concrete) was added to mortar mix later for chimneys built in the 40s and 50s on and tends to weather far better. The old mortar in these chimneys turns to powder over time, and often requires a new parge coating to be sprayed within the firebox and/or a new liner, or heat shield installed to reinforce the brick chimney stack. Modern building practices no longer construct brick chimney stacks. Brick is fine for the firebox, but modern building techniques favor a much lighter prefabricated metal flue chimney stack contained within a framed chase covering. Home owners that desire a consistent brick look with a brick firebox can have brick veneers cut and stuccoed over the framed chase structure.
Inside framed chase of metal chimney
Gas fireplace systems like you find in condos tend to have much less problems and are less costly to fix. The main issues that come up with gas chimneys is improper installation.
General inspection covers all the major systems of the house: roof, plumbing, foundation, electrical, appliances, Heating and Air Conditioning, Windows, Exterior, and detached structures.
The General Inspector may also recommend a follow-up inspections by a specialist or contractor, for the Sewer line, Chimney, Geo, Mold, Asbestos, Foundations, Plumbing, Electrical, Roof etc.
Make sure the utilities are on for your inspection, because if the gas, electricity, or water isn’t turned on, they will be limited with what they can test.
The inspector will check the furnace + AC + Stove + Oven Vent + Dishwasher + Garbage disposal and a host of other things around the kitchen.
A great inspector takes their time. There are a lot of spaces and items to look at. For an average size home an inspection lasts on to two hours, although it can take three hours if the home buyer asks a lot of questions. I encourage my clients to ask the inspector any questions that they have- because inspectors are a wealth of knowledge and you can learn a lot about houses from them. They should be organized and go from one item to the next on their list. Inspectors today usually have a tablet that they write down their finds as they observe them, if they don’t write it down right away, they probably will forget about them later. Home inspectors go in the attic and crawl underneath the house. These are the tough parts of the inspection but also can be the most important. There is no drywall in either of these spaces so you can see “the guts”, in the attic you should be able to tell if the roof leaks, if there is insulation up there, and if the AC is in the attic, if it was installed properly. You will also have some electric up there for ceiling lights so you can see if the electrical wiring is cloth or Romex. Underneath the house you will be able to inspect the foundation for any cracks or other problems, check the plumbing for leaks, and whether the waterlines are copper or galvanized steel and inspect the drainlines.
After the inspection the inspector will write a detailed report. This report can be shared with contractors, the listing agent or the seller to make a request for repairs if needed.
It is important to note that there are exclusions to a home inspection. The home inspector will not check the laundry machines, because they don’t bring a load of dirty laundry with them to every inspection. The inspector does not test any low voltage wiring, this includes telephone lines, security systems, or cable. General Inspectors don’t do any destructive testing, so if there is something hidden behind a wall, they are not going to opening it.
inaccessible area, parts of this garage are blocked by objects and boxes
Inaccessible Areas are also excluded from the inspection. Examples of inaccessible areas are: Attics with less than 18″ crawl space, the space in between walls, the floor underneath the fridge or stove, places blocked or covered by furniture or cluttered by possessions. Rooms that are locked (this can happen with tenant occupied property) and areas in the exterior that are unreachable due to heavy brush, sloping terrain, or plants (like ivy).
Estimated Inspection Cost:
$400 for homes
$300 for condos
$500 for income property
The price of a general inspection increases with the property’s size , expect to pay an additional $50 for each extra 500 square feet over 1,500 square feet.
Before modern times, there was no building code or building department. As city’s population increased and technology advanced, buildings grew taller and more complicated. The Ancients learned of the need for building codes the hard way, from collapses and man made disasters. My contractor has told me, “you gain good judgement from the experiences of bad judgement”. If you are lucky enough to survive the experiences of your bad judgement, you wisen up.
The oldest surviving example of a ‘building code’ is the Code of Hammurabi (282 Laws), which dates back to 3000 BC. It was carved in cuneiform onto a basalt obelisk.
Code of Hammurabi
Excerpts from the Code about building:
#229: If a builder has built a house for a man and his work is not strong, and if the house he has built falls in and kills the householder, that builder shall be slain.
#230: If the child of the householder be killed, the child of that builder shall be slain.
#231: If the slave of the householder be killed, he shall give slave for slave to the householder.
#233: If a builder has built a house for a man, and his work is not done properly and a wall shifts, then that builder shall make that wall good with his own silver.
The Code of Hammurabi was harsh! This code is where the phrase “Eye for an Eye” originated.
What is a building Permit?
The Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety regulates construction in the city. It is their goal to make sure that all new construction projects are built to code and safe. Recode LA wrote a great article on the history of building in Los Angeles.
Building permits are two things: a process for quality control and a detailed record of construction history.
The Permit Process:
The first step in the permit process is to file a permit application. Express Permits and Over the Counter Permits are for small to medium budget projects that do not require a full set of plans. General Building Permits are for large budget projects such as changes in use, and structural alterations like moving walls, windows, and doors.
Construction History Record:
Building permits contain a lot of useful information: the property address, a site description with details of any existing structures, the proposed project, an estimated project valuation, the name of the architect or contractor who did the work, project completion date, the permit #, and in some cases a siteplan.
The city of Los Angeles has changed the design of building permits over the years, here a few examples of different permit designs.
New Building Permit, 1924
Remodel Permit 1977
Remodel Permit 2012
When are building Permits Required?
According to the Los Angeles Municipal Code a building permit is required:
For any construction work that costs $500 or more. Permits are required to build, remodel, add on, repair, demolish or change the occupancy of any building or structure. Updating or upgrading a property also requires a permit. Depending on the size of the job, several different permits might be required. (Los Angeles Municipal Code Section 91.106)
Here are some Examples of work that requires a permit: Demolition, Grading, Roofing, kitchen remodel, bathroom remodel, New pool, installing or replacing HVAC, Solar Panels, upgrading electrical, new plumbing, exterior stucco, new windows, chimney repairs, Fences above a certain height, decks, seismic retrofitting, foundation repairs.
If you follow the letter of the municipal code exactly, you are pretty much suppose to permit everything!
Los Angeles use an archaic microfiche system – not every single microfiche is going to be looked at.
I’m in Escrow, should I review the building permits?
I recommend for buyers to always review the building permit history while in escrow. I want to verify that the property has a certificate of occupancy.
When a project has permits, a buyer knows that a city building inspector monitored each phase of the construction and gave it his final approval. Permits gives you assurance that the work done is reliable and not substandard. Permitted work meets building and safety codes at the time it was completed.
What if you can’t find the permits for construction work?
If you cannot locate the permits for a construction job, then it is probably Non Permitted Work.
When does a permit expire?
You have 180 days from when the permit is issued to commence work and two years total from the permit issue date to complete the construction work. If you do not finish in that time you may have to reapply for a permit and pay the permit fee over again. You have 30 days after expiration of a permit to apply for an extension. (Los Angeles Municipal Code Section 98.0603)
New construction and Additions that add square footage absolutely must have permits. The risks are too great if you don’t. Follow the permit process for new construction and when the work is finished, you will receive a certificate of occupancy from the building department. This certificate of occupancy shows that the building is legal. Lenders require a CofO to give the additional square footage or building value on their appraisal. No CofO = no value. Aside from adding no value, a building that does not have a certificate of occupancy can be a liability to the owner, because the city could demand that it be demolished if they believe it is unsafe. Sellers might have trouble later on down the road selling their property when they disclose that the addition or building was unpermitted to buyers. Don’t have a CofO for a building or addition? You may be able to get a Retroactive Permit.