building codes

What Homeowners Need to Know About Building Codes

As with any area of law, the legal dos and don’ts of the home improvement industry are constantly changing. Above all, building laws and codes are made to keep professionals and homeowners safe but they can also have other motives. For example, some neighborhoods might prohibit buildings taller than 3 stories while others might not allow planting certain types of plants that can become invasive. The point is, there are volumes of laws dictating what you can and can’t do to your house.

Why We’re Asking

You aren’t expected to be versed in family law to get married and you certainly don’t need a degree in international justice to take a trip to Cancun, so you shouldn’t need expertise in building codes to build a new deck or add a mother-in-law apartment to your dream home. Nonetheless, homeowners get caught violating building codes all the time and sometimes, the project will simply be scrapped among other penalties and fees. It’s a problem that’s particularly common in the DIY sphere, but can happen even with professionals. We want to help homeowners build within the law, so we asked our panel of home improvement experts.

So experts, it’s time to weigh in:

What Should Homeowners Know About Building Laws and Codes?

Can you rely on contractors to take care of any permits and regulations that are necessary?
What about smaller jobs that only involve one professional: a plumber, roofer or electrician? Are they responsible for following all building laws?
How do you know when a project might violate a local building law or code?
What are the usual penalties for violating building codes?
If you have an old project that violates a new building code, what happens?

We’re hoping to prevent some homeowner headaches with tips from our experts. Check back later in the week to see what they have to say!

Experts, post your answers in the comment field below!



  • Pablo Solomon 10/09/12

    Great topic.

    Dealing with governmental agencies is seldom easy and dealing with building codes and inspectors can be especially frustrating. I hate to admit it, but I am a sissy and like to pass on that aspect of the project to specialists. I try my best to avoid dealing with the government on any level. If possible, I do general designs and leave the details to the engineers, architects, contractors, etc.

    One reason that I am an artist and designer is my desire for independence. So having to deal with agencies that seem determined to make things difficult is not my idea of fun. However, I will admit that were it not for codes and inspectors, more rip offs would occur. And since I want my clients to be protected, I back having codes.

  • Henry Shao (Movoto Real Estate) 10/09/12

    As a real estate broker, I have worked with homebuyers who are looking at potential properties to purchase, and often they would run into properties that have illegally built rooms or extensions of the house. That may or may not be a deal killer, depending on that particular homebuyer. Sometimes people are specifically looking for extra rooms and don’t worry about the code or permit compliance. However, those structures usually are built nicely such that the structure or area show nicely. When that structure/area is obviously poorly built, then they are not going to be popular with the homebuyers. In one case, I saw this kitchen extension was built on top of a few bricks put on top of a plastic sheet on top of the backyard dirt. It was ridiculous what it was like.

    The issues are similar. Sometimes home sellers have no problems selling properties with illegally added structures, and sometimes they do, depending on the market and the situation. I have seen one situation where one house in a very popular area had an illegal structure, and despite being in a very popular area, it was hard to sell the property, so in that case it did hurt. In another case, I have seen one of the buyers thinking of knocking down the house building a new one on the lot, and obviously in that case, that homebuyer didn’t care.

  • Greg Chick @ Ramonas Plumber 10/10/12

    Let me preface this with, I sit on several Plumbing Code committees. I am acutely aware of how many hours go into each word, in every code written, Plumbing codes anyway. The CPC, UPC, I.A.P.M.O. the Green Plumbing Mechanical Code Supplement and experts from all fields are directly writing these codes all year long. I will suggest that codes are needed to help prevent loss and injury and I so also recognize most water heaters get replaced without a permit. I also know some inspectors can seem to be a pain.

    My best advice is to pull a permit on much larger projects than just to replace a fixture. Codes change, products change, when selling a house buyers inspections are made, creating a “balloon payment” for you to pay up to comply with code before closing escrow! Knowing the code, and using the code is the best advice because if loss occurs and the Insurance adjuster finds cause to be your under permitted and not to code installation, you are in jeopardy of claim denial! Make sure to call your agent and ask!

    Contractors can, and often do, say on contract “Permit to be pulled by Homeowner” this saves paying a contractor to stand in line for hours. This is fine, and some permit you can get online and for cheap without too much hassle. Pre-approval from an Inspector is also a good approach on some installs because understanding codes is a life long study, not for everyone on just any project. Some projects are easy, plain simple and no issues, but it pays to know. A neighbors job is not the model to use as a template, time and inspectors change.

    After being a licensed Contractor over 35 yrs, as well as assisting code writing and also helping edit the State Exam, I still look in code books for 1/2 the questions people ask me on “what is the Code”… Codes are a moving target, you can buy any code book online. If you want a professional discount on Plumbing Code books ask me I will connect you. PS, the Code that applies to your project is the one enforce when permit is issued. Also keep in mind, thousands of codes change every year.

  • Steve Robinson @ Axios Architecture 10/10/12

    Building codes are primarily about keeping people safe, limiting property loss in certain events (say a hurricane)…and making it safe for first responders (fire fighters, etc.) in our homes. Admittedly, the regulations are complex, onerous and often seem unreasonable. But I can assure you (at least with major building codes) they are not randomly created, but go through a rigorous vetting process. I have been confronted with code provisions that at times have seemed capricious, over-reaching or unreasonable until I learned the logic behind them. All this to say that code compliance is an important issue and is for the good of the homeowner, guests of the homeowner and future owners of the home.
    A homeowner shouldn’t have to know all the codes. Rely on licensed professionals (architects, licensed contractors, plumbers, electricians, etc), it is their job to do due diligence to meet code requirements. Insist on a permit and inspections except for the smallest maintenance type jobs. Don’t make final payment until the city/county has signed off on the project as complete.
    One final comment. Never accept “the inspector didn’t say anything or didn’t notice.” Code compliance is still the responsibility of the installing contractor, not on an inspector “catching” it or not in the field.

  • Peter L. Mosca 10/10/12

    Conduct due diligence! The days of “buyer beware” are long gone. It is up to you, as the consumer, to take responsibility and the Internet and various communications devices help to make your due diligence a bit easier; although when having to work with so many parties and so many rules and regulations, your task completion will be most definitively challenging. That said, the idea is to find professionals who are ethical; ethics require integrity, reliability and consistency in work. Ethical professionals treat consumers with respect, honesty and integrity. They back up their promises, and they keep their commitments. Here again is where your due diligence comes in, verifying any claims made about the company, its products and its people. Contact the BBB, run an online search for comments, and not only ask for testimonials, but follow up on them. The onus is on you; conduct your due diligence.

  • Sam @ ServiceMaster by Best 10/10/12

    Should you hire a general contractor for a significant project, such as re-roofing, perhaps something upwards of $5,000.00, then one should certainly make effort to get the pertinent information about their qualification etc.

    Smaller contractors for certain things can be exempt based on local jurisdictions of various repairs. No permits are required for a plumber to replace a faucet or even a hot water heater here.

    Penalty for code violations depends on various factors from severity of infraction to even the number of times the particular contractor has been written up.

    A qualified licensed contractor generally will be up-to date on most building code, if he or she is not, certainly we have a issue on our hands.

    As a buyer, one must be aware and do their due diligence.

  • Grand View Builders 10/11/12

    While the task of adding another bathroom to your home may seem small, if you are not a professional, you may soon find yourself inundated with more questions than you can answer. As with any project that you undertake, research is an important first step, especially if you choose to pursue the project entirely on your own.

    If you do choose to work with professionals, we recommend asking your friends whom they have worked with in your area successfully in the past. A professional with a good record of reliable testimonials should be able to let you speak with their references. Contractors will know all of the codes and regulations that pertain to the area in which they practice, how a project would violate a code and the penalties associated with a potential violation. However, researching them yourself will help you understand what your contractor is doing and help you avoid any unnecessary work.

    If you are choosing to work with a professional, the Grand View Builders design center team can assist you in making your dream a reality. Contact them for information on how to quickly and successfully finish your project.

  • Richard Koller, C.O.O. Criterium Tauscher Cronacher Professional Engineers 10/11/12

    As a 55 year old Engineering firm, we are often called upon to comment on construction code issues, and often fix or stamp previously done construction, without proper Building Code submissions.  The Building Code is the least acceptable standard of construction, as deemed by a specific State or municipality.  If the local municipality has a stricter code than the State or National Code, then their standard trumps.  
     
    Often times a contractor will do work without submitting permits or getting building department sign offs.  The real risk falls on the home/ building owner.  While the cost may be less to avoid the permit fees, the consequence can be much more costly if discovered later. As an example, it has become increasingly more common for real estate transactions to be stalled or denied because work was done on a property without proper permits and Certificates of Occupancy.  The simple reason is that once you buy it, you own it.  So if a bathroom was put in a basement without permits and building department sign off, upon sale of that property, if the buyer does their due diligence, the seller often must call in an Engineer or Architect to design “as built” drawings, approve the work, and submit to the building department that based on their professional opinion, the work meets the current minimum building code standards.  I am sure that you could imagine that a Licensed Engineer is not going to take legal responsibility on plumbing and electrical work, behind a wall, or under the floor, without having some destruction done to properly verify the work.  Additionally if the work was done without permits and building department sign off, chances are we will find some short cuts that don’t adhere to the minimum standard.  As the dominos continue to fall, when the Building Department does come into the house, they may look for other items that don’t adhere to the code. All of this may result in fines, new submission fees, professional engineering fees, new construction costs, and time.

    Simple rule of thumb is to hire a licensed professional to consult with on any project, before construction, or at least schedule a meeting with the Building Department to discuss your options.  

  • John Braun @ Thomas Law Group 10/11/12

    Homeowners wanting to tackle a DIY project have several ways to protect themselves from disappointment when it comes to legal compliance.

    1. Get a permit. Almost all cities in the US have a process by which a homeowner can legally do work on their own residence. Unpermitted work, while commonplace, is the number one area where DIYers run afoul of the law. If the city catches you doing un-permitted work, they will typically order the work to stop, and then they’ll charge extra (double here in Minneapolis) for a permit to continue. If the project was ill-conceived to begin with, there may be substantial extra expense getting it to conform to the building code; some inspectors may force you to dismantle the project and begin anew.

    2. Make a plan. The worst half-finished projects start out as half-finished ideas. If you want professional results, do what the pros do – draw the whole project out, detail by detail. This will be a huge help with #1 ( building permits are generally not issued without a plan, especially where they include structural work) ,will help in estimating your total cost to complete, and will ensure that what you build winds up being what you wanted. You don’t need thousands of dollars of fancy software and years of training to do this – I have seen pencil-drawn plans submitted on graph paper and approved. Building department types want to see you improve your home: that increases your tax base. They will be much more helpful that you might imagine, even going so far as to make the necessary corrections on your plans to get the work into compliance.

    3. Don’t be afraid to hire part of your project out. Being a committed DIYer doesn’t mean that you have to mine the iron, forge a shovel, and then start digging the hole. Work requiring heavy machinery or specialized skills might be better left to someone else; in some cases, it is less costly as well. Having a foundation professionally built for your room addition, for example, relieves you of immense physical labor and provides an ‘error-free’ start to your project. That way, instead of running out of steam before the framing is up, you can still be going strong at the finish line.

    4. Be realistic about how much time you have to spend. Building permits typically have a time limit – as does your neighbors’ reserve of patience. As much as your neighbors might appreciate the improvement, they are eventually going to tire of looking at a tar-paper exterior and a stack of lumber under a tarp. Complaints to the city can get you slapped with nuisance fees and costs to extend your permits. If you have a full-time job and no television, you have about 3-4 hours per day that you can work on your house.

    5. If you have to do it in stages, get the outside looking pretty first. If you are doing something that is visible, put your time and money into giving the exterior a finished appearance before you work on the inside. Gaping holes and weathering wood attract unwanted attention from inspectors and the curious alike; an unfinished interior is known only to you.

  • Eric Corey Freed @ Organic Architect 10/11/12

    As an architect in San Francisco, I see a great deal of misinformation about the codes thrown about. Real estate agents are notorious for this, telling would-be buyers that putting on that addition they want is “no problem” or building up a 3rd story is “easy” without bothering to check the code. In my experience, the planning staff is incredibly helpful and there to answer your questions. So before you invest time, money and your hopes into a project, your first stop should be a visit (or phone call) to your local building department.

    Many older existing buildings are grandfathered into the code (non-compliant, but legal). But if you remove that old staircase that no longer meets the current code, you will not be allowed to built it back the same way. Any new construction will have to comply to the current codes. I’ve seen many homeowners eagerly demolish an old stair down to the garage only to then discover that a code-compliant stair will not fit, due to the requirements for wider treads, shorter risers and additional head height.

    Having an architect or licensed general contractor on the project should remove the risk of this happening. Usually an individual sub-contractor (plumber, electrician) will only be familiar with their portion of the code, and can sometimes unknowingly cross into other territories. During the inspection by the building official, the homeowner is often surprised by a series of new fixes to correct the mistakes of a well-intensioned sub-contractor.

    Not all projects require a building permit. Though this varies by city, you often do not need a permit for cosmetic upgrades (wallpaper, paint, finishes) or even for low-rise items, such as decks below 30 inches off the ground. It doesn’t hurt to simply check with the building department first. The penalty for getting caught building without a required permit can often be ten times the permit fee. It’s not worth the risk.

  • John Salat @ Zen Architect 10/12/12

    The scenarios of what can go wrong with each project are unlimited and solutions to each situation happen from case by case as there are no standard rule or formula. Lets call it research rather than assumption. Each project needs special professional attention to be familiarized through a field walk by a licensed individual of those trades.

    Each jurisdiction decides what professional is needed and what kind of license. As an example, as an hired architect, I know that anything
    that is altered, changes or expanded needs permits based international building codes. This does not include other agencies such as planning, HOA just to name a few to stack up the cards. I would call in into the city, HOA and professionals to collect all the information before doing work. Remember, plan checks are required following permits in most cases as again emphasis the local agency will advise you special directions. Do not trust the advice from a private party such as contractor. Do your own research and act according to laws which are enforced in your area. At least you know you can have a peace of mind without emotions shouting from impulsive decisions that could get you in trouble down the road.

  • Jason Todd @ GreenHomes America 10/12/12

    A contractor you intend to hire should be knowledgeable about the codes concerning the work you would like to have done. It is after all, their job to understand how to do it right. If you plan to do it yourself, it is your job to understand the code which can be somewhat complex, but the intention is to insure that what is done, ends up being safe.

    What we often fail to recognize is that building to code is building or installing to the minimum standard. It is a passing grade really. Ignoring the code is asking for trouble most of the time.

    As a Home Performance contractor, diagnosing problems in existing homes, we come across code violations, and find things that need to changed or updated. We also come across building science issues that make the home under perform, unhealthy or unsafe. Sometimes the minimum building codes don’t address these issues. This is one reason why we follow the Building Performance Institute standards and test for health and safety.

    Using specialized equipment and looking at a home with an understanding of building science, may reveal a code that doesn’t help the occupants, and it’s a dilemma for sure. It doesn’t mean the code should be broken, but it may be time to challenge it or change it. I think safe, healthy, comfortable and energy efficient are good reasons for codes, and more!

  • Rudy Nino @ SA Building & Remodeling 10/14/12

    Getting to Know the Building Permit–

    –When you start a remodeling project, preparation and knowledge on your part is essential, and vital to this preparation should be the knowledge of building permits, codes, and fees. Permits allow the work to be inspected, and inspections are necessary to the progress of the project. To give you some basic information on building permits, let’s answer some questions regarding these items.

    WHAT IS A BUILDING PERMIT?
    A building permit is an official certificate or document issued by a municipality. This document is issued by a building official who authorizes the performance of a specific building activity and is posted at the job site. There are various inspections for different items — such as plumbing, electrical, etc. — performed by different inspectors, and each inspection gets its own documentation. Rules on permits, how they are enforced, and how the fees are set vary by locality.

    WHO SHOULD GET THE BUILDING PERMIT?

    Actually, any home owner can get a building permit; remodelers and subcontractors, however, must be licensed in order to take out a permit and work on your house. So, if a contractor asks you to get the permit, this should raise a red flag with you. This could mean the contractor is not licensed, or that the contractor is not allowed by building officials to work in that locality. Be wary if you are asked to get the permit yourself, and ask why you should perform this action. You should not wish for an unlicensed remodeler to work on your house. After all, you would not want an unlicensed surgeon to perform surgery on you, so why should you want an unlicensed contractor to perform surgery on your house?

    Also, whoever takes out the building permit is held responsible — and accepts the liability — if the work performed does not meet local building codes. If you are hiring someone to do work on your house, you would most likely want them to be responsible for ensuring it meets the codes. To find out if a contractor is licensed in San Antonio, call the Building Inspection Contractor’s License Department.

    WHAT DOES THE INSPECTOR LOOK FOR?
    The main reason the inspector is there is to ensure that the work meets local building codes. The inspector does not make sure you are happy with the work or that the contractor is meeting your expectations, only that the codes are met.

    WHO ARE THE BUILDING INSPECTORS?
    Inspectors are paid employees of the local building department, or — in some localities — they are employees of the police or fire departments, whichever government entity is in charge of inspecting projects and code compliance.

    WHAT ARE BUILDING CODES?
    Building codes are published ordinances that regulate design loads, spans, materials, and so on. There are hundreds of them adopted from national codes books, and they are revised and updated every few years.

    WHO SHOULD KNOW THESE CODES?
    Ideally, any one who is performing the work should have adequate knowledge of the building codes so that the work can pass inspection. A licensed contractor and all the subcontractors should be aware of these codes, and definitely the building inspector will know all the codes.

    WHEN AND HOW OFTEN WILL INSPECTIONS TAKE PLACE?
    Inspections will be made when called upon by the contractor, and there are several different types of inspections usually made depending upon the size and scope of the project. Typically, inspectors will perform their duties after foundation, framing, insulation, plumbing, electrical, etc.; and construction cannot proceed until each stage has passed inspection with a written approval from the inspector. If a stage of the work does not pass inspection then changes must be made to ensure that it does, and this may impact the completion date for the project. It’s a good idea to keep track of the inspection schedule to make sure that construction is not delayed.

    WHY THE FEES?
    Fees associated with permits are there to offset the real cost of reviewing job plans and job site inspections for all departments. One way you can look at the costs associated with fees is that they are insurance the work will be done to code; the fees may seem like major obstacles, but they are there to provide minimum standards for the protection of life and property.

    A building permit allows work to begin on your remodeling project, and it makes the work available for inspection for code compliance. It would be beneficial to you to make sure your contractor secures a building permit. This will not only prove that the contractor is licensed, but it will also hold that contractor liable for anything not meeting code. It is a way to protect yourself and the work being done on your biggest investment, your own home.

  • Steve Labbe @ Paradigm Plumbing and Heating 10/15/12

    When it comes to laws your local town office can help you more than you could ever imagine. I always talk to the code official in the area. They will help you and get you pointed in the right direction. When you involve the city or town building officials you get a wonderful result. The code official will help you and your contractor. This is also a good way to check on the contractor you choose to see if you can get a referral from any of the code officials. Remember if you have a good contractor the code officials will have inspected and seen their work. Always a win, win. Good luck:)

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