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How to Prepare for a Code Enforcement Inspection 2008

By Zoran Windrich

As the Systematic Code Enforcement of multi-unit buildings in Los Angeles continues, it is important for owners to be informed of the process. All multi-unit buildings are scheduled for routine inspection once every "four years" with the first round of inspections completed in 2006.

The city inspection staff have become more critical and informed; having almost ten years under their belt of experience inspecting the city. The inspection process is revealing more of the bootleg units, unapproved construction, non-permitted use and so forth. What this means is that there are more things being discovered with the second round of inspections than the first go around. With maintenance still following its due course, the big challenge is to resolve the issues related to the unapproved use. As it is stated in the Housing Department's Code Enforcement Division Mission Statement:

"It is the mission of the Los Angeles Housing Department Code Enforcement Division to identify and facilitate the abatement of physical conditions and characteristics of substandard and unsanitary residential buildings and dwelling units which render them unfit or unsafe for human occupancy and habitation and which conditions and characteristics are such as to be detrimental to or jeopardize the health safety and welfare of their occupants and of the public."

Besides the systematic inspection process that takes place in order for your property to get inspected, there is a growing department within the LAHD called the Complaint Department. They are getting literally hundreds of calls a day with complaints about various conditions at the property that tenants live in. All of these complaints must be answered and have a response from the city inspection staff within 72 hours.

It is at the discretion of the inspector or staff member who picks up the complaint that directs one of the inspection staff to visit the property. If you are one of those owners who have had a complaint filed against you and the inspection staff comes to your property, you will have a member of the Housing Department Code Enforcement inspectors going to the unit that made the complaint. Typically, the unit complaining will invite the inspector inside their unit. A tenant can invite an inspector on the property without you even knowing about it.

If during the course of that inspection the inspector finds three or more violations in the building, including common area with the particular unit in question, the inspector has the discretion and the responsibility to file this particular property to the systematic inspection side. That means if your property was not scheduled to be inspected for another four years, your property will be inspected in the next available opening that the Inspector assigned to that area has.

If you are being inspected on the scheduled Systematic side, you will be notified in writing. There will be posting in the common area of the building either in the front of the lobby that an inspection is being scheduled in two to three weeks time. This gives tenants the opportunity to stay home on the date of the inspection to tell the Inspector everything that is wrong with their unit...and they do. The tenants will then walk him to the areas they have problems with.

The following section will briefly describe those areas that are typically found in units that go wrong. It is recommended that you have periodic visits to every apartment in your complex. It is your responsibility and your tenant's benefit. Yes, we know it's a disruption and an inconvenience, but it is part of this business. You need to make at minimum, two inspections a year. My recommendation is to make it during Fall and Spring. Each one is particular to its weather conditions on the outside and you want to prepare for various things, in addition to responding to phone calls and complaints from tenants as things occur on a regular basis without fail. During your bi-annual inspections, these are the things I recommend you look at as they are the most frequent found violations:

COMMON AREAS

Make sure common areas (that means common hallways, courtyards, pool area, lobbies) are free from graffiti and trash. This should be a daily inspection made by your manager or yourself to make sure you don not have any accumulation of debris. If you do have trash / debris / graffiti present, remove it. If it repeats, you place notices on doors and make visits to suspects units. It is best that you make generic advisements, letting people know that the issue at hand will be closely watched.

MISSING AND TORN WINDOW SCREENS

If you see any window screen for flies and insects missing or torn, you must fix or replace it.

DAMAGE CEILING WALLS AND FLOORS

If there are stains in the ceiling or wall, it could be due to poor maintenance inside or tenant created, but more than likely, it is coming from the outside. Somehow there is water coming from the other side, either from a bad shower pan, leaky pipe or a drain or a breach in the outside vapor area. During the wet season, water is coming in and around windows or just in the middle of a wall around penetrations.

EVIDENCE OF VERMIN, RODENT OR INSECT INFESTATION

You may find evidence of each of those nuisances anywhere. A good hint would be the way a unit is maintained which brings to mind citing or identifying poorly maintained units that need to be kept up better. During your visit, that is another thing you want to look for.

MISSING SCREEN VENTS

Missing vent screen are those that are in above the stoves. Whether or not it is a permanently mounted hole in the ceiling that does not have any motorized ventilation system, it still needs a screen. Even if it is automated with a fan and motor or it's manual by gravity, it still needs a screen intact. If the screen is full of grease, dust and is blocked, it needs to be cleaned. Steam-cleaning or removing is the best way. Those in the ceiling have to be removed and put back. Try to put it in the way you can continue to take it out and put it back rather than rip it out and build another one.

REQUIREMENT FOR EXITING

Again, in these common areas where you have exit doors leading to the back alley or the side of a building, you cannot have stored goods (bicycles, tires, car parts, furniture, etc.). It all has to be cleared of these common areas that lead to an exiting passage way. This has to be the responsibility of the tenants. You as the manager or owner need to notify them and ask them to move it immediately.

FIRE EQUIPMENT AND EXIT DOORS

You also have to make sure the fire equipment in the building is maintained. If you have hoses, they need to be properly tucked and folded, locked in the storage cabinet. If you have fire extinguishers, be sure that they are accessible and that the needle is in the green zone of the dial.

You also need to make sure if your building has hall doors, they have the closure on them and there is no magnet behind the door (a disc behind the door that keeps the door propped by a magnet). If an alarm is sounded then the magnet releases and the doors close. If you have such a door with a magnet that keeps the door propped up and only activates when an alarm is rung, you need to make sure when you release it - the door closes. To test this, open the door from the closed position roughly 18 inches and let it go. If the door closes, the latch fits in and you hear it click, that door is operational. If the latch does not click, meaning that the door did not close all the way or you have to nudge it with your hand to make it click, the door is not operational and will not pass. The reason for this is a fire of magnitude creates a lot of air turbulence opening doors through pressure. If the doors are not latched, fire will spread from one section of the building to another. That is why these latches need to be maintained operational.

You cannot have exit doors that lead to the side yard or the rear of a building. The gate that keeps people from outside of the building keeps them from coming in is locked. They can be locked from the outside, but once inside and you are one of those people who escaped from the outside, but once inside and you are one of those people who escaped from the side of a building, you need to get on the outside. Locked exit doors have to be accessible to those to unlock and accessible to those who are on the inside of the building to get out.

MISSING, BROKEN OR INOPERATIVE SMOKE DETECTORS

Every apartment building in the city has to have a hard-wired smoke detector. If your smoke detector is hard-wired (meaning it's connected to the electrical system), it has to be connected and it has to operate. If your smoke detector was installed in any given time or if it is bad, my recommendation is that you replace it with a smoke detector with battery back-up. By doing this, if there is a power outage in your building, you are putting forth protection into your investment and providing safety for your tenants.

CABINETS, DOORS & WINDOWS

The general rule is if a cabinet, door or window is maintained in the state that it was designed when the building was built and approved, it is satisfactory today. If they do not close or latch, fix the issue.

DAMAGED COUNTERTOPS (A.K.A. DRAIN BOARDS)

You cannot have any cuts, tears, voids or gaps on any sort of countertop. They have to be consistently tight, so moisture cannot get inside the cabinet. Countertops must also be smooth and sealed to prevent any germs and bacteria to excessively build up on the area. If your countertops are tile and grout, cracked grout must be repaired and broken tile must be replaced. If you have particle board Formica countertops used like a butcher block table, that Formica top will have a lot of cuts that will needs to be replaced.

PLUMBING FIXTURES

All fixtures need to be maintained without dripping or leaks, tightly sealed to sink to be operational.

DAMAGED ELECTRICAL FIXTURES

Fixtures are those things in the ceiling and wall that illuminate a room. They all need to have a cover over them. An exposed light bulb in a fixture is not to code and will need to be protected by a plastic or glass housing, securely and intact. If you have loose switches or outlets that have covers or are missing covers, they need to be replaced. This very inexpensive fix can save a life. If you see extension cords in apartments that become a trip hazard or excessive extension cords for the use of running a microwave, toaster oven, fridge or any big appliance, is not allowed. It is against the law, because the building was not designed for the additional electrical usage.

HEATERS

An important thing to inspect in the autumn is heaters. Heaters are either wall heating or approved electrical heating. Any heating device - it could be radiant heating in the ceiling or floors. Whichever heating device is being used, make sure that it works. If you have a gas-heating appliance, wall mounted or floor mounted, and you are not sure of it's operating status because it has not been n all summer, you can call the gas company and they will come out for no charge, look at the unit, test the operation and give you a list of things that need to be done, if anything at all. During the summer, if you have heaters with pilots, they need to be turned off with the knowledge of the tenant. Typically, the tenant will turn them off on their own without letting you know.

ABS PIPING

ABS pipe is a black plastic piping for drainage purposes or vent for a newly installed vent pipe in the ceiling and the roof of your building. Any exposed portion of an ABS pipe, exposed to the elements, needs to be coated with a protective paint. That paint helps keep the pipe intact. They typically do not fair well in the sun and the elements over time.

Some jurisdictions do not allow drain pipes in your apartments to be PVC, white plastic pipe. They require the drain pipes to be black pip (ABS) or brass. My recommendation is to have an experienced plumber make those installations if you are replacing them. If there is a drain clog, they can be taken apart and put back together with relatively little experience, however make sure whenever you take apart a drain pipe, that you check it for leaks: fill the sink up, let the water go, fill the tub, let the water go; just make sure you have continuous water.

If you have a tub with an overflow, you must check that the overflow pipe on the other side is secured. The way to do that is - it has a little screen with a screw which acts as an intricate part in keeping the water and the overflow from dripping outside and behind the tub causing water damage. Make sure it is secure.

SINK & TUB CHIPPING

If your sink/tub has a chipped finish, that chipped finish can be repaired, but I recommend repairing it with professional help. Usually, if you let your maintenance guy do it, they don't know how to apply the epoxy paint. It becomes very important that you get it done properly as a bad job will turn into more frequent maintenance.

With your building intact, you are ready for the city to come in and inspect your property. When you get your notice or get a complaint about your building, you should get there 30 minutes prior to the scheduled arrival to make any additional preparations. Go through the building personally to make sure you have the items that may arise covered, outstanding or not done. When the inspector comes, you can tell him/her that you have been through the units. Give him some feedback whether or not some tenants are cooperative or not.

You should have all the unit keys in hand during the inspection, or my recommendation is to have a master key. One key fits all doors and the tenants cannot change locks. If they do, you can hire a locksmith to change the lock, remove the lock they put on, put your own lock and warn them never to do that again.

When the inspector comes, you go through the property and when the inspector writes something, ask what is that they have written. What is it that they found so you can write it in your notes. You are typically not going to get anything for two weeks and you want to get started as soon as possible. Sometimes there are two inspectors and you can only be with one of them at a time. If that's the case, at the end of each unit you've inspected, ask the lead inspector if there were any violations in that particular unit. The inspector will tell you yes or no and say what. If it is not clear, have them explain and write it down on your notes. Do that after every unit and then start to work right away to get these violations taken care of before the inspection is rescheduled. Reschedule is usually 45 days from the date of your inspection.

My recommendation is that when tenants take over a unit, issues such as drain boards, screens, operational doors and fixtures and toilet function should be made operational and should be inspected at the time of granting the lease. It should be observed, signed and photographed by you and the tenant. The tenant will need to agree that the things observed are in good order.


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