Hot market: Defensible space law could increase home cost |

Hot market: Defensible space law could increase home cost

A new law set to take effect this summer has the potential to impact home prices in an already smoldering real estate market in California.

Starting July 1, the new law will require maintaining defensible space of 100 feet from each side and from the front and rear of a structure, but not beyond the property line. Building material, building standards, location, and type of vegetation will determine the amount of fuel modification needed. Also, fuels must be kept in a condition so that a wildfire burning under average weather conditions would be unlikely to ignite the structure.

Assembly Bill 38, authored by Assemblyman Jim Wood, is also known as the home fire hardening and defensible space advisory disclosure requirement prerequisite. It will mandate that a seller of real property, which is located in a high or very high fire hazard severity zone, inform a buyer that retrofits were completed to bring the property into compliance.

The work on each parcel can vary considerably. For property in heavily forested areas or property that has not been maintained regularly or even neglected for years, required clearance ordered by a fire marshal or fire safe council could cost a considerable amount, said Matt Merrill, owner of Yuba Forrest Restorations in Grass Valley.

It can be difficult to quote an average cost for such work. The cost of the work can only be determined after inspecting a potential client’s property, because the scope of the work involved varies considerably and often depends on how regularly the vegetation had been maintained in the past.

“It can vary from minimal (hundreds of dollars) to potentially tens of thousands of dollars,” he said.

Mark Lawson, bidder/estimator of Grounds Guys, in Sparks, Nevada, also does defensible space clearance. “We use Google Earth Maps to accurately estimate a particular job,” said Lawson.

Typically he uses two man crews, but sometimes one man is adequate, though larger jobs require added staff. A two-hour job could cost $260 for clearance, and there is a two-hour minimum. Ladder fuels, like trees, as opposed to surface fuels, like weeds, grass or leaves, can add to the complexity and expense of a job.


Starting July 1, all home sellers must inform a buyer they have completed a home fire hardening and defensible space advisory disclosure within seven days of signing a contract. But there is no point of sale mandate if the seller has not had an inspection of the property. If the buyer decides not to require a defensible space inspection, they will not have recourse once an inspection is done and are ordered to do a clearance of vegetation.

The Nevada County Association of Realtors has been working with homeowners since the beginning of the year to bring them up to speed on new requirements that go into effect this summer, said Teresa Dietrich, past president of the Realtor group and now the organization’s legislative affairs chairperson.

“We are helping homeowners understand what affordable home hardening options are available such as gutter covers, heat sensing vents that close in a fire to prevent embers from entering attics and crawl spaces,” she said in an email.

Those measures prevent fire from spreading across sections of a house and to a neighbor’s house, Dietrich said. Home hardening initiatives can increase property values and make a home better for the community. If there is a row of five to 10 houses that are home hardened, it halts fire from spilling across an entire neighborhood.

“We’re trying to verify what homeowners have or have not done,” Dietrich said. “At some point in the future, people who completed home hardening can expect to get a reduction in their fire insurance premiums.

For newly constructed houses fire retardant materials are now fairly standard, she said. Roofs are Class A fire rated, windows are tempered glass and home siding is more often concrete, stucco or metal siding. New homes also include sprinkler suppression systems.

“Those (elements) are required for new construction, and it can be expensive,” Dietrich said. “But we’re talking about (this summer’s legislation) retrofit. The retrofit required is in the affordable range.”

Dietrich said it’s important for sellers and buyers to consult the website to learn what the state, county and individual city ordinances are to meet compliance, because they can vary.

Additionally, Dietrich said some home owners are leveraging their retrofits though PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) loans from the state. PACE programs allow a property owner to finance the up-front cost of energy or other improvements on a property and then pay the costs back over time — usually 10 to 20 years — through a voluntary assessment.

“Home hardening is to the benefit of everybody in the community,” emphasized Dietrich.

Barbara Bashall, the Nevada County Contractors’ Association’s government affairs manager, said her group supports defensible space and home fire hardening.

“When you see what happened to Paradise,” she said, referring to the 2018 fire that destroyed the town. “Defensible space may cost additional money, but its benefits far exceed the cost.”

William Roller is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at

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