For years, many sellers of properties in Santa Barbara have been frustrated by discrepancies in the Zoning Information Reports (ZIRs) that are required when a home within the city limits is being sold. The City’s regulation of inspecting every home that sells seemed originally to stem from a goal of keeping buildings safe and neighborhoods free from shoddy additions and garages/sheds being used as additional dwelling space, which most people would agree is a reasonable goal.
What has become most problematic for sellers and their agents, however, is when, during escrow, the home that is being sold is inspected and a new ZIR is issued that calls out violations that were there when that seller purchased the property but got overlooked on the zoning report. Some of these are major enough that the City immediately opens an enforcement case requiring the owner (seller) to begin the process of getting permits to fix the problem within 30 days. So the sellers — and buyers — all get surprised by the new zoning violation, and a negotiation ensues between them about who is going to bear the cost, get the permits, and have the work done.
So far, the City has not seen fit to honor their past reports, and I’ve seen a discrepancy between old and new ZIRs cost a seller $40,000 — so this isn’t a minor issue; transactions can easily fall apart over these discrepancies, and property values diminish.
Santa Barbara is one of only several cities in California that requires an on-site, interior inspection of every home being sold. At $485 for a single family home and more for duplexes, triplexes etc., it’s not a small fee to get the report that may end up causing you grief.
Thankfully, the City does not open enforcement cases willy-nilly: Certain minor violations like the height of a hedge or a garden shed being too close to the property line are noted on the reports so the buyers know about them. Those minor infractions do not have to be cleared up unless the homeowner wants to pull a permit for work to be done on the house in the future.
The Realtor community has been working with the City for years, hoping that the City ordinance requiring the zoning inspection would be repealed, and replaced with an option to have it done if the buyers want a zoning report and the sellers agree to it. Most cities, such as Ventura, do not do an inspection but they provide a report that gives buyers and sellers a list of what permits have been issued and what is allowed on the property for its zoning category (i.e. single family home, duplex, etc).
In response to pressure to repeal the ordinance, the City recently changed their applications for zoning reports, giving sellers an option to not allow the city inside to do an interior inspection. Instead, the city employee can stand on a sidewalk and look at the property from the street and note any infractions they can see, and then provide a list of existing permits and what is allowed on the property in general. The cost is 25% less than the cost of a full report.
On the surface, this sounded at least loosening up the situation so sellers might have fewer surprises. But so far this new option is causing confusion and strife during transactions. If a seller opts out of the interior inspection, a buyer might be suspicious that the seller wants to hide something. There are situations when both the buyer and seller may want to avoid the interior inspection for some reason, or a buyer might just be OK and not feel too worried about it (although their Realtor should definitely make them aware that they would have responsibility for any zoning violations in the future).
The new Zoning Information Reports being issued after a seller checks the option for no interior inspection now start at the top with a paragraph in bold, red, all-cap type that says the seller “REFUSED” to have the full inspection. This makes the seller sound suspect and to me it sounds confrontational and bristly. I’m not sure why it can’t be that the seller “CHOSE NOT TO” to have the full inspection — particularly when a seller might just wants to avoid a possible surprise of a violation being called out now that got missed on the report done when they purchased the home.
The saga continues! Safety and neighborhood integrity are important, as are homeowner rights. Most cities do a modified zoning report that gives buyers a list of existing permits and calls out what the property is allowed to have. Many here would like to see Santa Barbara adopt this position.