California Homeowners in Fire Hazard Areas Must Comply With New Property and Disclosure Laws in 2020

New California laws require homeowners to take fire-preventative measures and disclose to buyers what they've done and what the risks are going forward.

** LEGAL UPDATE **

New laws passed in 2019 will affect Californians who live in areas prone to wildfires in two ways, though few of them will take effect immediately:

  1. They will face increased enforcement with respect to rules about creating defensible space, and
  2. When they sell, they will need to provide prospective buyers with relevant disclosure information.

The legislature's motivation was the catastrophic threat that wildfires increasingly create for Californians' lives, property, and resources. Among the causes it cited were climate change, an epidemic of dead and dying trees, and the proliferation of new homes in the wildland urban interface.

The legislature also noted that over 25 million acres of California's wildlands are considered to pose a very high or extreme fire threat.

Fire Mitigation Models and Enforcement

Homeowners won't personally feel the effect of this for some time, but after January 1, 2020, under Senate Bill 190, codified as Cal. Government Code § 51189 and Health and Safety Code §§ 18931.7 and 13159.5, the Office of the State Fire Marshal could become a bigger factor in your life.

That office must develop a model defensible space program, which each city or county can then use to enforce existing defensible space rules found in § 51182 of the Gov’t Code and § 4291 of the Cal. Public Resources Code.

These existing rules say that anyone who owns, leases, controls, operates, or maintains a building or structure in an area covered with forest, brush, grass, or other flammable material, or that's near mountains, must maintain defensible space around their structure of at least 100 feet.

The new program must, among other things, include more guidance on creating this defensible space, along with plans to make site inspections, procedures for notifying and citing property owners regarding violations, and so on.

Disclosures to Home Buyers

The disclosure laws affecting home sellers with properties in high fire-risk areas are soon to change in a number of ways. (See Assembly Bill 38, codified as Cal. Gov’t Code §§ 51182 and 51189.)

First, starting January 1, 2020, sellers who received a final inspection report after completion of construction, in cases where that report covers compliance with home hardening laws, must give a copy of it to buyers (or information on where to get a copy).

Second, starting a year later on January 1, 2021, sellers of homes built before 2010 must give buyers a notice that includes language on how to fire harden homes and a list of any particular home features that the seller is aware might make the home vulnerable to wildfire and flying embers.

Third, starting July 1, 2021, sellers will need to provide documentation to buyers stating that the property is in compliance with the defensible space laws mentioned above and/or any local vegetation management ordinances. The exact rules will depend in part on whether relevant local ordinances already exist.

Finally, starting July 1, 2025, sellers' disclosures will need to include a list of low-cost retrofits regarding home hardening and specify which ones the seller actually completed.

By the time these various new laws go into effect, California will have no doubt created a standard form for this use, or added language and sections to the existing Transfer Disclosure Statement that is required in most California home sales per California Civil Code § 1102.

Effective Date: January 1, 2020