Building Codes

 

Older Homes

At some point during an inspection of an older home almost every client asks: “Does it meet code?” Unfortunately, there isn’t straight answer to that question. Let me explain.

Codes change. The first thing to understand is that building codes are a moving target. They change periodically. Model building codes are written by large national organizations made up of lots of smart folks from government, industry and the building trades. Committees meet, pour over hundreds of code-change proposals and data, and then decide what’s best for balance of safety, affordability and durability. Most codes are updated every 3 years.

“Does it meet code?” Depends on when your home was constructed. Something can meet code today, but be outdated by tomorrow. Even a relatively young 10 year-old home that was built in compliance with the code will likely not meet today’s codes. We should remember that the codes in any time-period are the minimum standard for a building or structure. So any building constructed to lower standards than code is sub-standard and perhaps not as safe as it should be. Would anyone want their family in such a building?

“Can the codes be enforced?” Only inspectors employed by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) are authorized to enforce building codes. Does that mean that all other inspectors should ignore the requirement of the code? Some inspectors and home inspection trade organizations think so. However, you as the purchaser have the right to know if your home is sub-standard. That’s why I have invested heavily in training and education focused on building codes. Although no private building or home inspector can enforce the codes or force correction of any violations, he should be able to identify, document and recommend corrective action. This requires familiarity with the codes from the past and those currently enforced. Older home are not required to meet today’s codes, but they were required to meet any codes that were enforceable at the time of construction. For that reason, I maintain a library of current and older codes and standards. I don’t shy away from codes, but embrace them as a minimum standard to which a building should be constructed.

“Why didn’t the Building Inspector do his job?” To answer, we need to look at the purpose of code enforcement. It is interesting that previous versions of the Florida Building Code, Building and the Florida Building Code Residential have deleted Section 101.3 of the model code titled “Intent” or “Purpose”. This is significant because it leaves the intent open to controversy, a “gray” area. Likely, this has been because of concerns that he Building Official could be held liable if a building was found to be non-compliant. However, the 2010 Florida Building Code has restored this section where it reads:

101.3 Intent. It is the purpose of this code to establish the minimum requirements to safeguard the public health, safety and general welfare through structural strength, means of egress facilities, stability, sanitation, adequate light and ventilation, energy conservation, and safety to life and property from fire and other hazards attributed to the built environment and to provide safety to firefighters and emergency responders during emergency operations.

It remains to be seen if this will be removed in subsequent revisions. Whether it remains or not, it demonstrates the intent of the authors that the code should offer a reasonable degree of protection against sub-standard building practices. It is my belief that this intent has no “expiration” and should be considered when purchasing any property.

Notice this reference from the code adopted by one city located in another state. It has been modified to protect the government more than the occupant. Notice the “soft” approach to enforcement:

101.3 Intent. It is the specific intent of this Code that no provision or term used in this Code is intended to impose any duty whatsoever upon the City or any of its officers or employees for whom the implementation or enforcement of this Code shall be discretionary and not mandatory. Nothing contained in this Code is intended to be nor shall be construed to create or form the basis of any liability on the part of the City, or its officers, employees or agents for any injury or damage resulting from the failure of a building to comply with the provisions of this Code, or by reason or in consequence of any inspection, notice, order, certificate, permission, or approval authorized or issued or done in connection with the part of the City related in any manner to the enforcement of this Code by its officers, employees or agents.

This is a sad commentary on the system of enforcement in some parts of the country. The language is intended to excuse the government employee, in this case, the building official/inspector from liability. Most legal statutes already do that. In Florida, by law, the building contractor or home builder (and his sub-contractors) have the responsibility to comply with the mandatory codes to a reasonable degree and may be sued for construction defects under F.S. 558. Sovereign immunity protects the local building department from such action unless they are a party to the construction contract, which would not be the case. It is highly unlikely that any building is 100% code compliant so this statutory protection prevent the building official and department employees from being endlessly embroiled in lawsuits. But is should never be deficient to the degree that it does not meet the intent “to safeguard the public health, safety and general welfare” of the occupants. Updated HomeWe cannot blame the building inspector if he does not identify every deficiency. He is only responsible for a limited inspection to ensure reasonable compliance. Time does not permit the inspector to look at every component. That’s why you need your own expert who will assist you to identify any deficiencies that may have been overlooked.

Codes are important. They give us a reference for a house that’s safe and will withstand the test of time. But they’re also a shifting target that is complex, technical and inconsistent. A qualified inspector should know the intent of the code and be able to tell you why something needs repair, but if you ask “Does it meet code?” the answer is not as easy as it may seem.

 

Remodeled or Renovated Homes

As with older homes, remodeled or renovated homes need to be scrutinized for code-related issues. Quite often work is performed by homeowners or unqualified contractors without a building permit. Having an inspection by a code-certified building inspector will assist you to evaluate the quality of the upgrades. Do they meet the code requirement that were enforceable at the time of the renovation? Since codes change over time, the newer installations will need to be brought up to the codes in effect at the time the work was performed. Certain levels of renovation may trigger requirements to upgrade components not specifically targeted in a renovation such as electrical, plumbing or HVAC systems, smoke alarms, emergency escapes or wind resistance.

 

New Homes

Most homebuyers assume that, if they buy a new home, the local building department is ensuring that the home is built to the plans, specifications and building codes. This is not the case. The local building inspector is only responsible for a limited inspection to ensure some reasonable level of compliance. Time constraints prevent the inspector from looking at every component. You’ll need your own expert to assist to identify any deficiencies that may have been overlooked. My extensive background in code education and multiple code certifications will provide an added level of comfort and confidence.

Ideally, you should have an expert inspect the home at every phase of construction. But even if the home is complete, there are deficiencies that can be discovered.