Fire sprinkler systems are now required on all new California single family residences (SFRs) and duplexes built on or after January 1, 2011. Prior to the recent California building code amendment, 146 cities and counties in California had building codes requiring sprinklers in particular homes, however this is the first time a statewide building code for fire sprinklers has been enacted.

The fire sprinklers are estimated to raise costs of new California homes an average of $4,000 per unit, an increase builders and buyers fear will slow and deter an already sluggish housing market.

Nonetheless, proponents argue this is an essential safety measure that will protect homes and people, especially in the wildfire-prone Golden State. According to a five-year study by the National Fire Protection Association, death rates were 83% lower in homes with fire sprinkler systems. Opponents of the new law have suggested more cost-effective alternatives, such as upgrading smoke detectors in homes built prior to 1992, when state building codes strengthened smoke detector requirements.

first tuesday take: It may be awhile before the newly-mandated fire sprinklers will be of use to anyone — the number of SFRs and apartment/condo construction starts from December 2010 to January 2011 dropped more than 40%. For SFRs, that is the most dramatic decrease since before the Great Recession. This dearth of new home construction reflects the lack of money in the system available to builders, which in turn is representative of a lack of housing demand. [For more information on construction starts, see the February 2011 first tuesday article, CA single- and multi-family housing starts.]

In the short-term, the increased cost of building new homes due to the fire sprinklers may benefit California’s recovering housing market by deterring construction. The few homebuyers in the current market are spread too thin to cover the current inventory of both existing and new homes. Thus, introducing more inventory to the market would further weaken prices and sales volume and prolong the state’s already protracted real estate recovery. [For more information on home sales during and after the recession, see the March 2011 first tuesday article, Home sales volume and price peaks.]

In the long-term, fire sprinklers will of course increase costs for builders, who will pass on these costs to buyers. While fire sprinklers may prove effective, putting money into installing them in every new home will not make California housing more efficient in the future to justify the money spent.

Re: “Sprinkler systems now required in new homes” from The Press Enterprise