Whether or not anything in your home is in fact “to code” is a mystery to most homeowners. And in terms of small work that’s been done over the years – whether it's replacing an air conditioning unit, installing a bathroom vanity or doing electrical maintenance – there’s a good chance it’s not.
Most municipalities in the U.S. have adopted a set of building codes that establish standards for properties, aimed at ensuring the health, safety and general well-being of their occupants. The specificity of building codes range from requirements for ensuring a floor can bear an adequate load to the distance a toilet must be away from the wall.
The strictest attention is paid to new construction homes, where code inspectors will visit the property multiple times before it is completed, explains George Hank, director of the City of Madison Building Inspection division in Wisconsin. Inspectors will check the site repeatedly to ensure the foundation is poured correctly, walls are secured properly and even radon mitigation hardware is installed sufficiently.
“It seems to be an ever-increasing number of things that we look for, which is a good thing because they’re things that make the building even better,” Hank says.
Building codes can vary from city to city, depending on differences in geography and climate, but they often follow similar standards and are accessible through your local government. However, despite being a part of every building process in incorporated municipalities throughout the country, they're often not well understood by property owners. Here are answers to common questions about residential building codes.
Is your house to code? Probably not.
A newly built home will be built to code, beginning with the plans and permits and checked each step of the way until a final inspection by the city and certificate of occupancy is issued.
But once a resident moves into the home, that’s often where code compliance goes off track.
“Having someone perform a code inspection on an old house just gets you a laundry list of codes it doesn’t meet,” says Jim Davis, owner of About the House Inspection Services in Houston. General inspectors like Davis do not check for code compliance, but rather they look for general issues with the home, such as poor workmanship in a finished basement or leaky plumbing that could be causing water damage.
When general inspectors do come upon some work that’s been done, like a newly installed water heater, that fails to follow local standards, Davis says the rule in Texas is to note it “doesn’t meet current standards.”
But a building code violation doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be fixed, as long as you’re maintaining your home properly. And if a code violation isn’t posing a health threat or creating a nuisance to others, you’re often in the clear, even with city officials. It's when the magnitude of the project reaches a certain point, like a complete overhaul of a room, that you need to follow the code's guidelines more closely.
“If somebody’s replacing a toilet in a 1910 house, we’re not going to make them move walls around,” Hank says. “If they’re going to remodel the bathroom, and they’re doing a substantial amount of work to it, or a total gut of a single-family home, we are going to make them make those type of corrections.”
Will it kill your ability to sell a house? No.
Davis says existing homes often have a number of things that technically violate local code, though they don’t necessarily pose an immediate danger. “You wouldn’t force somebody to bring a house up to code because if you did, none would ever sell,” Davis says.
A real estate transaction typically includes a general inspector, like Davis, who checks for deficiencies in the home or perhaps poor workmanship that could affect a person’s desire to purchase it or a lender’s willingness to issue a loan.
City inspectors, who check for code compliance, are rarely – if ever – involved in a real estate transaction. Hank notes the state of Wisconsin passed a law last year that prohibits municipalities from requiring a home to pass a building code inspection prior to sale.
Does it mean you’re in danger? Maybe.
While there are any number of things in your home that can stray from the adopted building code without posing an immediate threat to anyone, the codes are an effective way for the local government to require compliance to avoid harm to individuals.
“The codes are all about minimizing risk,” explains Dominic Sims, CEO of the International Code Council, which has established building codes for various property types that have been adopted throughout the U.S. and other countries.
Under the ICC’s "International Residential Code for One- and Two-Family Dwellings," any lighting or electrical outlet near swimming pools, for example, must adhere to strict distances from the pool and not be positioned directly above the water, reducing the possibility for accidental electrocution.
On the other side of the danger spectrum, the ICC's residential code also requires any hinged shower doors to swing outward, away from the shower. While mandating that a shower door swing a certain direction intends to keep all who use it safe, a person comfortable with the space would likely not be in immediate danger by pulling it inward.
How do you know it’s to code? Ask for permits.
Particularly if you’re planning to purchase a home, there’s good reason to want to ensure any major work was done to the local code requirements. Davis recommends contacting the municipality for permits obtained for the home you’re interested in – and also having a general inspector check the quality of work completed.
“Usually the workmanship is just bad, it has nothing to do with codes. It’s just poor work because somebody’s brother-in-law had a six-pack, and he watched HGTV a couple times and says, ‘Hey Martha, it can’t be that bad. I think I can do it – give me a sledgehammer.’”
It’s when major work hasn’t been permitted that a problem could arise, as most state or local laws dictate that the current homeowner is responsible for resolving any code violations. So if you buy a home and neglect to check for the permit on the kitchen addition the seller did a few years ago, you’ll likely find yourself shouldering the cost of redoing it properly.
Can you fix a code violation? Yes.
When a municipality receives a code violation complaint, a city inspector will visit the property to verify if the complaint is valid. If it is, they’ll notify the property owner, telling them what corrections need to be made and how long they have to make them.
In the event of a code violation being found on a construction site, the inspector puts a hold on all work until the correction is made.
In either case – with a new or existing building – if the property owner doesn’t take the proper steps to reach code compliance, Hank says the next step is prosecution by the city attorney, though he says that is rare.
Once a code violation is identified, Davis says it will typically be corrected as quickly as possible because there aren’t exceptions to the code adopted by the municipality: “When [city inspectors] find a violation, there are no personal agendas … It’s what the code says, and it’s what the code requires.”
She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.
Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at email@example.com.