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Some basics to know before you build

by Steve McKee on January 30, 2005

The good news is that you, as homeowner, will do just fine if you don’t want to learn any construction jargon. Homes have been built and remodeled for years when the homeowner didn’t know the difference between a rafter tail and a grade beam.

If your builder needs to explain to you why it will be difficult to add an extra window after your drawings have been approved (because the wall in question is a “shear wall”, or because your “Title 24” compliance will be thrown off) he can take an extra fifteen seconds to explain what it all means, and you’ll be fine.

On the other hand, if you are someone who believes that having “the big picture” helps you make better decisions, then read on. Here are few terms and concepts that may come up during your design and construction process.

Shear walls:
Certain walls at key places around the house will be designated by your architect or engineer to become “shear walls” designed to help the house resist earthquake forces. Plywood is nailed to the studs very securely at these walls (with extra nails at the edges) turning them into shear walls. Later in the construction process they are covered with sheet rock just like other walls, and, as such, blend in as normal walls. We’re very happy to have them there in our homes.

Their placement is carefully considered and analyzed with pages of structural analysis. These walls are much stiffer against forces parallel to the wall than walls with only sheet rock on them and make a house much more able to resist strong sideway forces such as earthquakes and major wind storms.

Here’s the thing you need to remember about shear walls: you don’t get to later decide to add a window or door in a designated shear wall, at least not without making up for the lost strength somewhere else in that area of the house.

Hold-downs:
A companion of the above mentioned shear wall, hold-downs are the special steel connectors hidden in the wall framing at the ends of shear walls that secure these walls to the foundation or other framing. They are either strong metal straps, or bolts with special brackets at each end. They come in different strengths and sizes to meet the forces of the different shear walls. When the house is swaying during a quake, these hold-downs help prevent cracking at corners. When the house is finished you can’t see them, but they’re a big part of the builder’s duties when the house is being framed.

Pre-lien notice:
After your project has begun construction you may receive small but ominous sounding “pre-lien notices” in the mail from material suppliers like concrete companies or lumber yards. They are routine and don’t mean anything bad is happening. It just means your builder has done business with these companies and ordered material for your job, or has subcontracted some of the work to them. Because they have contracted with the builder and not directly with you they must send these pre-lien notices to you the property owner in order to maintain their mechanics lien rights if indeed your builder turns out to be a flake and doesn’t pay them.

Mechanics lien:
This is a legal encumbrance recorded against a property to ensure payment to a wronged party. Recording a lien is a fairly huge step to take by subcontractors, material suppliers, or general contractors and is supposed to be their last resort if payment is not forthcoming. It’s only rarely used and is a fairly hostile gesture. Luckily this word usually just comes up in stories about something that happened to a “friend of a friend of a guy I know.”

The wronged party fills out the blanks on a lien certificate (available at stationary stores, and also downloadable online) and pays a small fee at the county recorders. With that, the amount of money owed him is shown as a debt on the property. Before the house is ever sold (or even re-financed) that debt will have to be paid and the title to the house cleared up of this little nasty. If this happens to you, make sure to get it cleared up soon, certainly before much time passes and the subcontractor in question moves away and becomes unreachable. As opposed to the harmless “pre-lien notice,” the “mechanics lien” is the genuine item, and worthy of some dread. Your best defense is to get a good builder and pay him fairly.

School impact fees:
In addition to paying for a building permit, a homeowner building in Benicia gets to write a check to the Benicia Unified School District for any project 500 square feet or larger. You actually pay it at the school district office on East K Street and not at city hall. These sorts of “impact fees” sprang up after the passing of proposition 13 in 1978 to offset the loss of property tax income. Every school district in California charges building projects for their presumed impact on the local school district, but they do so at different rates.

For those of you rooting for the financial health of the local school district, you’ll be glad to know that Benicia is not overlooking this as a revenue source. BUSD’s current rate of $3.35 for every new square foot of new building is not the highest around, but is above average, I do believe.

Title 24:
California has a law requiring building projects to have a certain level of energy efficiency. When your project is submitted for a building permit, a set of forms must also be submitted showing how your project meets this energy requirement (through a combination of insulation, limits to the amount of windows, efficiency rating of your furnace, etc.)

This Title 24 compliance report is not exciting reading and you can largely ignore it . . . unless you later decide to add more windows. Then you’ll have to have the Title 24 redone to show the new window totals. It’s not that big of a deal.

Permit card:
When the building department issues your building permit they give you a colored piece of paper with your permit number written on it, as well as a list of the various inspections charted on it, from the foundation inspection to the final. This important document is usually stored by your builder on the job site (an environment notoriously unfriendly to paper work) and is brought out during each inspection to be initialed by the building inspector when each inspection is passed.

Approved plan set:
A companion to the building permit card is the officially approved plans that are stamped by both your architect and the local building department, rendering this set extra special. They are the only plans the building inspector is willing to refer to during inspections. They must survive the rigors of the job site, hopefully with a minimum of tearing and sun bleaching.

There you have it. These are just some of the basics that will help you feel in-the-know while you stand in your driveway holding forth with your builder or architect.

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