Soft-story retrofit: The cost, concerns and construction

California is the golden state that enjoys beautiful weather, gorgeous beaches and a bit of a seismic activity complex. Californians wake up all too often to read shocking headlines about earthquake swarms, mega-quakes and inevitable devastation.  Given the state’s seismic history and the many scientific studies released over the last 3 years it is no big surprise that city agencies have started to focus on loss mitigation by way of regulation.

Cities all over the state are taking action in preparation for the next big shake-up. For example, San Francisco launched a mandatory soft-story retrofit program in 2013 and Los Angeles followed more recently in late 2015.

So the problem was identified and the regulation is put in place, but what next? Property owners of the over 18,000 soft-story buildings in Northern and Southern California are left with loads of questions and concerns.

The biggest question is How much will it cost to retrofit my building?  3 years ago the answer to that question was much more ambiguous, but thanks to San Francisco’s Department of Building and Inspection,  data was released that will shed some light on costs for those still waiting to retrofit.

According to about 7 million dollars in construction costs for retrofits are already completed and with that data comes some helpful averages from San Francisco’s current construction boom.

For multi-family dwelling properties up to 8 units, the average construction cost was $63,500. Total construction costs for all buildings up to 8 units are reported to date as $2,349,470.00.

Owners of 9-18 unit buildings paid an average of $76,875. Total construction costs for all buildings 9-18 units are reported to date as $3,843,715.00.

Lastly buildings with 19 or more units paid an average of $96,140 per retrofit. The total cost of construction for 19+ unit buildings was reported to date as $673,000.

In looking at the market in Southern California, residents of Los Angeles can probably expect to pay 20% less than the San Francisco average comparatively due to less complicated topography and some other deciding factors. Looking at the San Francisco cost data you can see some major cost discrepancies from one property to another. For example, their averages may be a little higher due to ADU (Additional Dwellings Units) added on some properties.  The public information and full data table including street name of San Francisco retrofit costs can be found at

After costs often the next concern is “How do I choose a reliable and reputable engineer and contractor”? This is an age old question that has been around since the inception of the infamous general contractor. We have all heard stories of the “fly by night” vendor looking for a quick buck and one way ticket out of town.

In San Francisco there have been many reports by both retrofit customers and at the city level of price gouging and even over-engineering by some firms. Here are a few tips as you research vendors to ensure you choose the right servicer. First, it is always good to get 3 quotes.  When comparing rates make sure what your inclusions and exclusions are before comparing “apples to apples”. Second, it is important to do your homework.  Ask questions of your contractor that are more detailed i.e. Do you have an in-house engineer or do you outsource? Do you value-engineer for the lowest construction cost, but most compliant solution? How many years have you been in business? What is your CA license #? Often a savvy customer can scare away the wrong kind of vendor.

In the end no one knows when the next big earthquake will hit. While property owners don’t have a crystal ball to tell them the future, they can take proper steps now to protect their tenants and buildings from catastrophe by doing their research and choosing a reliable and licensed contractor. Of course then when the work is done they can get back to enjoying California’s sunshine and sunsets.

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