Home Inspectors and Codes - 3 of 4 - Help for New Home Buyers

Can a home inspector help when it comes to codes and new home construction? Since the inspector has no juice as an Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ), what can he do? And what do home buyers do about codes and their new homes?

Most new home buyers have little way of knowing if a house has been properly constructed. While your home inspector may not have jurisdictional authority, he should, and most likely does, have a basic or specific understanding of the codes in the area. Most inspector's reports have verbiage that identifies items he thinks suspect, and recommends further investigation.

This will go for older homes as well. It doesn’t matter to your inspector if the homeowner does not have to improve something to meet a modern code. If he sees something that is not correct, or should he identify something as lacking, insufficient, unsafe or whatever, almost always he will recommend it to a specialist for further evaluation for reasons of safety or common sense. Deck guardrails, for example, if built today, are to have vertical balusters that are separated by the width of my hand. That is how I check them! Older decks may have balusters that are spaced wider apart or even guardrails that are horizontal. Is the homeowner required to bring that up to the modern standard? No. But I have language already built into my report software that identifies many such problems and recommends further evaluation.

The AHJ sometimes renders imperfect inspections of new construction. There are few inspectors in most jurisdictions, usually with many, many homes to inspect. They really have little time for each structure and are looking for big things. On one recent pre-drywall inspection, the county inspector showed up and asked me what I had come up with. After pointing out some things to him, he said, “I’m failing it,” and walked out! He had been there less than five minutes and I was very surprised. But I do NOT think that is common practice.

Builders usually give a guarantee for what I call “the structure and the stuff.” If someone bought a home that did turn out to have some flaw to report to the local code authority, most jurisdictions give them a year to do so. If the AHJ was to agree and report it to the builder, the flaw then becomes a violation and subject to court action.  But if the builder has gone out of business or left the area, the new homeowner may be ordered to correct the error. And any other deficiencies found to be violations. Code enforcement authorities are usually quite amenable and reasonable and even help to work things out.

For remodeling, most community Home Owner Associations require permits for maintenance, repairs and improvements so going through them often gets one square with what the County might require. Also, as to codes, community rules often supersede local codes and, in effect, become “THE CODE.” Check the rules with both authorities before a project is begun.

You should know that MOST code enforcement is against homeowners and not professionals who don’t follow the rules. The best way to avoid having to tear things apart and start over is to get a permit first. If a contractor says to you that a permit isn’t necessary, beware!

Remember, codes are minimum standards! They may not be adequate! This is especially true if a house is used in an unintended way. How many of us have converted a bedroom into an office, adding shelving, cabinets and all kinds of equipment? Part of the code-compliant room may be overloaded beyond the floor strength it was designed to handle as a bedroom.  A roof overloaded with ice and snow can be code-compliant but collapse. Codes are minimum standards.

My recommendation:  When I am asked if this or that is a good builder, my response is that it depends on the supervisor on site every day and on the subcontractors. The supervisor is responsible to make sure that the architectural specs are implemented. If the supervisor does not want to work with you, or is incommunicado, get answers from someone else! And a pre-drywall inspection and one just before the final walk through are highly recommended!

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Jay performs inspections Monday through Saturday, throughout Northern Virginia, from his office in Bristow to Leesburg and Centreville, to Great Falls and Vienna and everywhere in between!