Whether or not anything in your home is in fact “to code” is a mystery to most homeowners. Depending on the work that’s been done over the years – whether it's an air conditioning unit replacement, a bathroom vanity installation or 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.
[Read: The Guide to Home Renovations.]
Is Your House to Code? Probably Not.
A newly built home will be built to code, beginning with the plans and permits, and it will be 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 that 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 in 2015 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 a swimming pool, 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 a mandate 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, explaining what corrections need to be made and how long they have to make them.
In the event of a code violation 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 city typically allows extra time, unless it becomes clear the owner doesn't intend to correct the violation. The next step is prosecution by the city attorney. "Thankfully that's a really rare occurrence – probably less than 5% of cases," he says.
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.”
A renovation project for each season
Homeownership comes with a never-ending list of home improvement projects, and being able to time them right can be tricky. Ultimately, the best time for a home improvement project is when you have the time. But if you’re eager to plan projects to set yourself up for success, consider which season has the right weather patterns, minimizes future maintenance issues and makes it easiest to hire professionals. Read on for the best time of year for 12 home improvement projects.Interior paint
Best time of year: Winter
The benefit of painting inside is that you have air conditioning and heating. “We paint interiors all year-round because of that climate control,” says Tina Nokes, co-owner of Five Star Painting in Loudoun County, Virginia, which is a part of Neighborly, a network of home service providers. Your biggest concern when it comes to a quality indoor paint job is humidity – so if you’re in the middle of a humid summer, it’ll take longer for a room to dry and it will dry unevenly. If you’re worried about humidity levels inside, paint your interior rooms during the winter, when the air is driest.Electrical updates
(Paul Bradbury/Getty Images)
Best time of year: Winter
Electrical work can happen just about any time of year, unless it’s during rain or a thunderstorm, for obvious safety reasons, explains Dennis Burke, owner of Mr. Electric of Southeast New Hampshire, which is also a Neighborly company. What truly makes winter a winner for electrical updates is that you’ll be avoiding the bulk of competing homeowners. Burke says late spring and early summer see a big influx of requests from clients, as well as late summer as people go on vacation. “Labor Day to Thanksgiving is also really busy,” he says.Building a deck
Building a deck
Best time of year: Winter
An outdoor project like a backyard deck seems like a natural undertaking for summer, but it’s actually just the opposite. Deck builders and contractors report that pressure-treated wood, which is best for building a deck, stabilizes best when humidity is low. Additionally, the increased sun exposure in summer can cause the surface of a deck to crack, and cloudier winter days help avoid early damage. If you live in a particularly cold climate, aim for early winter to avoid the bulk of snowfall and temperatures that are too cold for contractors to work outside.Full-room remodel
Best time of year: Winter or spring
Remodeling or updating a well-loved room in your home can happen any time of year, but it’s best to be proactive and avoid higher labor costs or jampacked contractor schedules during the summer months. HomeAdvisor reports that July is the busiest month for bathroom remodel requests, with 48 percent of homeowners indicating they’re ready to hire and start work immediately. Avoid the rush by scheduling your remodel earlier in the year.Cleaning out gutters
Cleaning out gutters
Best time of year: Early spring and fall
The gutters along your roofline collect leaves, twigs and other debris over time. When they get too full, the drains can clog and cause water to sit along the edges of the roof and get inside the house or continue to weigh down the gutters. Avoid any problems by cleaning out your gutters in the fall, when leaves are most likely to make their way in, and again in early spring so the path for water is clear before April showers roll in. If you're not comfortable on a ladder or you have a high roofline, consider hiring professional help that will take proper safety precautions.New floors
Best time of year: Spring or fall
The best time to install wood flooring is during parts of the year with the least extreme conditions. In spring and fall, you'll avoid peak humidity and dry air, both of which can cause problems like bowing and warped wood or cracking in too-dry conditions. Plus, you can open windows to ventilate the smell of wood stain or carpet adhesive, and you’re least likely to have the heat or air cranking in spring and fall.Updating a deck or fence
Updating a deck or fence
Best time of year: Spring, summer or fall
The wood on a deck may fare better in winter, but staining a deck or painting a fence often requires additional weather consideration. “Decks and fences are a little more finicky (than painting a house exterior). We need it to be even warmer, around 40 to 50 degrees,” Nokes says. A good deck staining or painting company will recommend a timeline specific to temperatures where you live to avoid an incomplete, delayed or flawed project.Exterior paint
Best time of year: Late spring, summer, early fall
New paint will freshen up the look of your exterior walls, and painting is a doable project for a decent chunk of the year. Temperatures have to stay above 35 degrees for exterior painting, so in the early days of spring and late days of fall, weather-dependent work may be delayed if temperatures drop. For this reason, Nokes keeps clients on a watch list: “If we get a warm snap, I’ll call them right away,” she says.Home addition
Best time of year: Late spring, summer, early fall
For outdoor work, it’s best to avoid the seasons that will bring inclement weather and delay the project. Plan for the project to begin after the chance of snow in your region has passed, and shoot for a completion date before the frost returns in the fall to reduce the chances of delays. But be sure to schedule all professionals well in advance. In fact, Burke says a month to two months’ advance notice is often needed for electricians to complete an estimate, plan a contract and schedule work.Roof repair and replacement
Roof repair and replacement
Best time of year: Summer, early fall
It’s a given that you don’t want people working on your roof in icy or wet conditions. As a result, the best time of year for roof repair or replacement is also when the professionals are busiest. Be sure to plan roof replacement a month or two in advance to avoid having to wait with possible leaks causing damage to the inside of your home.HVAC care
Best time of year: Early fall
Any repairs to your heating, ventilation and air conditioning system should be done as soon as you notice an issue, but if you’re planning to do routine maintenance, schedule a professional long before you’ll need to turn on the heat. That way, any potential problems that could leave you without heat are found and fixed before the first cold nights of the season. The same goes for air conditioning in the late spring and summer.New appliances
Best time of year: Fall
Consumers can expect everything from washing machines and oven ranges to refrigerators to sport discounts leading up to the holidays. Even if you’re not updating your kitchen until May (and your home can accommodate an extra oven or fridge for five months), keep an eye out for deals. Stores that sell appliances like Sears, Lowe’s and Home Depot are known to regularly offer holiday weekend deals.Read More
Updated on May 31, 2019: This story was originally published on May 20, 2016, and has been updated with new information.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.