Building Homes or Extensions/exterior of homes


First, let me thank you for reading my question. I am relocating to California and am looking at homes with different exteriors....wood, stucco, or brick. I grew up in a wood house that always needed scraping and painting and so resolved to purchase my own home in something other than wood. My current house back home (Wisconsin)is all brick and I love it.....very little maintenance! Most homes here are wood and besides the painting issue, I am concerned about termite infestations. Please share your expertise/recommendation in regards to the best home exterior for the East Bay/San Francisco area and why. I have heard many things about stucco. Would it be feasible to convert a wood house to stucco or would the cost be prohibitive? How would a brick home fair during an earthquake? Thank you very much for your kindness and time.


You ask great questions! There are different types of stucco. The best, of course, is hand-applied by an experienced professional with several coats of stucco over wire, after flashing, sheathing, and wrapping. There are several types of manufactured stucco boards, some of which have failed. You might want to do a search for "exterior stucco problems in the Bay Area" to get more information.

What makes a home relatively earthquake-resistant is how it's built. Newer homes are built to more stringent seismic standards, but many older homes have survived since the early 1900s (including the '06 quake, 8.1 on the Richter scale). A brick home doesn't guarantee that it will survive an earthquake. Again, it depends on how the home is built, below the brick skin. The most unsafe type of brick building is often referred to as unreinforced masonry.

For easy maintenance, you are a right about brick. Stucco can be relatively easy maintenance, as long as good-quality primer and paint is used, and it's kept clean. Another great exterior finish is fiber cement siding (I've had very good luck with James Hardie, but there are other manufacturers). Any structure built with wood can have vermin problems. Crawl and attic vents, and openings of any kind (as small as 1/4") make it easy for bugs and rodents to move in with you.   

The East Bay has the Hayward Fault, which hasn't kicked loose in years, making it a potential hazard. The U.S.G.S. has maps available that will show where the major known faults are located, and the likelihood of major damage during an earthquake. I recommend using these maps when you are looking for your new home. We lived in San Carlos during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Fortunately, our home was built on solid rock, so we had no damage.

In my personal and professional opinion, the safest residential structures are built with insulating concrete forms, ICFs. Unfortunately, this type of building is not used as much as it should be, mainly because contractors get stuck in their ways, using wood for framing. ICF construction is more expensive than "stick building". Many of the homes in New Orleans that were destroyed during Hurricane Katrina are being rebuilt using ICFs (thanks to Brad Pitt!). ICFs are like large Leggo blocks made of styrofoam and rebar, then filled with concrete after they're stacked. ICFs also make a home incredibly energy efficient.

If you find a home with wood siding, you can have it removed and replaced with stucco, or fiber cement lap siding.  But it will require professional help, to install the proper flashing and moisture barriers, so the structure is really protected. The weather in the Bay Area isn't as severe as Wisconsin, but there are always weather considerations when choosing the appropriate exterior finish.

Recap: Use the USGS maps to help you learn where the earthquake faults are, and where the land is more stable. Find out if there are homes available that were built with ICFs. Ask lots of questions about when and how the home was constructed, and the type of exterior finish that was used. Stay away from any home that has obvious cracks (inside and out), or has an unreinforced masonry exterior. Get a preliminary estimate for replacing wood siding with fiber cement siding or stucco, so you can make an informed decision about your new home.

Wish you good luck, and years of happiness in your new East Bay home!


Diane Plesset, CMKBD, C.A.P.S., NCIDQ
D. P. Design

P.S. If you are happy with the reply, please consider awarding points and nominating me for "volunteer of the month". Thank you!  

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QUESTION: WOW.....what a GREAT response! SO many things to think about. In dealing with realtors however, I have found that most don't know much about the properties they are representing and even less about the home's construction. But you raise very valid points. Please tell me what specific questions I should be asking about how the home was constructed? Also, what do I look for to tell if a home has an unreinforced masonry exterior? Again, thank you VERY much for your time and detailed response.
With your help, maybe we can generate a more informed realty industry!  :)


Hi, CJ.

I apologize for the length of my answers, but this is important.

Unfortunately, you're right about realtors. Be persistent, and don't stop asking questions until you get honest, reliable responses. Even be willing to threaten to walk out of the deal if you don't get the information. After all, it's YOUR money, and YOUR future.

The age of the home should tell a lot. The seismic codes had major changes after Loma Prieta (1989) and Northridge (1994) earthquakes, so anything built after 1989 would have to meet the new requirements (but not necessarily; see my story below).

The building departments in the East Bay should be able to help you, because they have records about homes that were built, especially if they were constructed after 1989. For example, if you're looking in Berkeley, there's a website with good information, links, and contacts,  Here's another website to check out for more information about cities in the two East Bay counties (Contra Costa and Alameda): You can call or email them, state your purpose, and ask for their help. Or you can call them; there may be toll-free numbers.

The age of the home should be on the MLS listing, as well as other pertinent information about the type of construction, especially if there's a lot of masonry. You should have copies of the MLS listing forms for all of the homes you're interested in. Don't be shy about asking the agent, "What does this mean?" You're trying to be an informed consumer, and the agents are there to help you purchase a home.

If you get to the point of home inspections, get referrals to three inspectors. Home inspectors in California are not required to be licensed, so home buyers need to choose someone who will be on their side -- not the agents' side (to help sell the home). Questions to ask: "How long have you been doing this?" "What's your career experience before you became an inspector?" (Many former contractors become home inspectors.) "Do you  go beyond a minimum inspection?" "What checklist do you use?" Here's a website that has inspection checklists and other good information about purchasing a home in the greater Bay Area:

In addition to an inspection, it might be in your best interest to hire a structural engineer if you're unsure about the property, after you've done all your research and asked tough questions. Here's what happened to my husband me, when we were buying a newly-constructed home on a hillside: I paid a structural engineer to verify that everything was built to code. I supplied him with a copy of the plans, and we went into the crawl space. He discovered that ALL of the required holdowns were missing -- the structural members that tie the first floor to the foundation! He wrote an official letter to us, the agents, the contractor, and the local building department. The house was "red-lined" and couldn't be sold to anyone until the contractor fixed the problem and the engineer okayed it. That was the best $400 insurance policy we ever bought! I checked the inspection cards. Turns out, I knew the building inspector who'd approved everything. He lost his job because of these "oversights".

When we sold our home in San Carlos, to move to Oregon in 2000, we had one of the best real estate agents I've ever met. Her name is Deborah Chelini, and she works with Coldwell Banker. Unfortunately, she works only on the Peninsula, but she might be able to refer you to a qualified, honest and hard-working agent in the East Bay. Here's her website:

Here are some questions to help you sort out the information:
How old is the home?
How was the home constructed? Is there a significant amount of masonry (other than decorative)?
Has there been any major work done on the home without permits?
Is the home in a known USGS earthquake danger zone?
What is the land like (bedrock, fill, etc.)?
If the home was built before 1989, did it suffer any damage in the Loma Prieta earthquake?
Is the structure bolted to the foundation?
If there's a masonry chimney, is it structurally sound? (The home inspector or a structural engineer should be able to verify.)
What is the exterior finish? Have there been problems with the siding? If so, what? When and how were the problems resolved?

Hope this helps you, CJ! Good luck!

Diane Plesset, CMKBD, C.A.P.S., NCIDQ
D. P. Design  

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Diane Plesset


I will answer questions about designing and building a new home, building an addition, remodeling a home, sustainability ("green" building and remodeling), aging-in-place, kitchen remodeling, bathroom remodeling. The goal is to help homeowners achieve ultimate satisfaction with all of their choices and decisions.


Over 25 years in residential design, construction, improvement, and remodeling. Hundreds of completed projects in all ranges of investment. Author of the award-winning book "THE Survival Guide: Home Remodeling," host of "Today's Home" on Lifestyle WebRadio, and public speaker.

National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA), National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), Interior Design Protection Council (IDPC)

THE Survival Guide: Home Remodeling. Designer's Illustrated, Gentry, Interior Coordinator (Japan), Kitchen-Bath Business, Kitchen-Bath Design News, Oregonian, Portland Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, San Mateo Times, Statesman Journal

Degrees in residential interior design, bath design, kitchen design, and lighting design. To improve knowledge about codes, products, and trends that will affect homeowners, I regularly attend tradeshows, conferences, classes, and seminars, and read 7 major trade magazines and newsletters.

Awards and Honors
Certified Master Kitchen-Bath Designer (CMKBD), Certified Interior Designer (NCIDQ), Certified Aging-In-Place Specialist (C.A.P.S.). AWARDS: Henry Adams, Chrysalis, Best of the Best, CoTY, Master Design, HBA Excellence. 2003 NABE Award for best how-to book.

Past/Present Clients
Please see the portfolio in my website,

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