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L.A. Law Requires Sellers to Install Low-Flow Toilets

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Forget bragging about your home’s city lights view or tumbled-marble floors. This year, thanks to a new Los Angeles city ordinance, the humble low-flow toilet may be the feature you’re most proud to own.

Under a city ordinance approved last year and enforced beginning in January, Los Angeles residents who are selling their homes must replace any old-fashioned high-volume-flow commodes in their homes with water-efficient “ultra-low-flow” models before escrow closes.

The law applies to all residential properties within Los Angeles, including multifamily units.

The low-flow models, the only kind manufactured in the United States since 1990, use only 1.6 gallons of water per flush. Some older toilets use as much as 5 gallons with each flush, said Frances Spivey-Weber, executive director of the Mono Lake Committee, a group that lobbied for the passage of the water conservation ordinance.

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“I am sympathetic that [toilet replacement is] not costless, but for the city as a whole this is the least expensive way to go,” Spivey-Weber said, “and the benefits will accrue to everyone.”

Critics of the ordinance--some realty agents among them--think buyers should be allowed to install low-flow models themselves within a certain amount of time after the sale.

“The one who gains the most from the ordinance is the one who buys the house,” said Mel Wilson of Coldwell Banker Quality Properties in Chatsworth, one of several Realtors who argued to the City Council that home buyers should be allowed to replace toilets in their new homes.

For home sellers, he said, "[the] main goal is to meet the minimum requirements and get the problem behind them.”

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But a move to amend the law failed in February, and now droves of home sellers (and their agents) are calling the Department of Water and Power to find out how to comply with the law.

Owners who are putting their homes up for sale--as well as those who simply want to save money on their water bills--can get free toilets from the Department of Water and Power or receive rebates of $100 per toilet in a single-family home if they choose to buy their own.

The rebate for multifamily units is $75 per toilet.

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Once new toilets are installed, and before escrow closes, the home seller must obtain a certificate of compliance from the DWP.

The certificate must be signed by the seller, the buyer and a third party--usually a realty agent or the contractor who did the installation--to indicate that the house has low-flow toilets.

Processing fees totaling $16 must be paid to the DWP.

The DWP will issue rebates only to the homeowner or a tenant whose name is on the water bill. Rebates cannot be issued to real estate agents who opt to buy the toilets for their clients.

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In some cases, DWP officials said, the rebate can be issued after escrow closes to a home buyer if the buyer has opened a pending account with the DWP for the new home.

City water conservation rules already require that all residential, commercial and industrial properties be equipped with low-flow shower heads and urinals as well as with water-displacement devices that result in water savings when placed in toilet tanks.

But until now, installing low-flow toilets in existing homes has been voluntary in Los Angeles.

Nonetheless, in the last decade about 800,000 L.A. residents have taken advantage of the rebate and free-toilet programs, said Thomas Erb, assistant director of water resources for the DWP.

The changes have resulted in savings of an estimated 9 billion gallons of water a year, he said.

“When they were asked to save water during the drought, we saw our customers respond positively, as they continue to do today,” Erb said.

The city will not mobilize any “toilet police” to enforce the new law. But city officials hope that having three parties sign the certificate will increase the chances for widespread compliance.

Also, Erb said, Angelenos realize their new toilets will pay for themselves in water-bill savings.

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Costs for low-flow toilets range from about $45 to $380, with colored commodes costing even more, said Chuck Hansen, plumbing department supervisor at Home Depot in Woodland Hills. And installation prices run from about $50 to more than $100.

But some Realtors say that the cost of the toilet itself is not the only burden. If a homeowner has to switch out the toilets before escrow closes, says real estate broker Dolores Golden of First Intestate Realty in Culver City, the process may include having to alter or repair bathroom woodwork, plaster and paint.

Golden said she recently sold a rundown Los Angeles home built about 90 years ago to a person who plans to re-plumb and remodel.

But when she called the DWP and the California Assn. of Realtors, she learned that the law required low-flow toilets to be installed regardless.

What happens if people don’t comply with the low-flow law before escrow closes?

“According to the city ordinance, it would not be a legal sale,” Erb said. Not only that, the DWP can add surcharges to the water bills of any household known not to be in compliance with the law.

Santa Monica has had a similar law since 1993, said Susan Munves, that city’s conservation program director.

Since then, residents have tried to claim exemptions by saying they were selling “as is” or by telling the city that the new owners were planning to tear the house down.

“People will tell you all kinds of things,” Munves said, but the excuses don’t work. As in Los Angeles, nearly the only loophole is for properties that have been designated as historically significant.

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In February, Cynthia Thorin and her husband, Donald, bought a three-bedroom two-bathroom Sherman Oaks home with the help of broker Pat Zicarelli of Style Realty in Tarzana. They immediately began remodeling the bathrooms in their $185,000 home.

Though they submitted the certificate of compliance, Cynthia said she is actually waiting to install the low-flow toilets until she’s decided on color schemes for her bathrooms.

“If I get lavender tile, I want a lavender toilet,” Thorin said, adding that she replaced the toilets in her Northridge home about eight years ago. “Low-flow toilets make common sense.”

Where to Call

L.A. residents with questions about free toilets and rebates should call the DWP’s conservation programs hotline at (800) 544-4498.

Maybe You’re Already Conserving

How to tell if you already have low-flow toilets?

If, when you flush the toilet, the water swirls in the bowl for six seconds or less, chances are the toilet is low-flow.

Also, since about 1994 most manufacturers have been marking their toilets with the flush volume. Look at the bowl section where it meets the tank (just behind the closed toilet seat).

Finally, on most low-flow models, if you look at the base of toilet bowl from the side, you’ll see the outline of a “reverse trap” in the porcelain, leading out from the bowl, up and then down toward the floor.


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