Casa Latina: Understanding Your Building Code

“Are you aware of the building code?” This question can instantly irritate and sometimes ruin someone’s day. At the mere mention of building codes and permits I often see people rolling their eyes, muttering under their breath, and at times, walking away from me in mid-sentence. It’s a very sensitive topic.

Yes, permits can be costly and building codes annoying but we need to remember that the building code was designed to protect people, and to provide community safety. These rules were not just pulled out of a hat, they were designed and put down on paper because accidents have already happened and they were written to prevent them from happening again.

So if are thinking of renovating your home or adding onto it, you should understand its importance.

The building code varies depending where you live. In the suburbs it changes from town to town. In the city, it can change from building to building. These laws were initially enacted to provide standards to safeguard life, health, property and public welfare. They are enforced by local governments to regulate and control the design, construction, quality of material used, number of occupants, and the maintenance of all buildings and structures.

On paper this sounds fantastic, for everyone loves the idea that their government is watching out for their safety. But in reality, there are a lot of aspects of the building code that make many people angry. Often, the older generation generally has a harder time dealing with the building code. They do not like the idea of being watched and being controlled. A permit to them means that they are being charged extra for wanting to be more comfortable in their own homes. They consider the fees to be a rip off. They adamantly believe that no one has the right to walk into their homes and tell them what they can and can’t do. I walk into these people’s lives sometimes knowing that it’s going to take me a while to sell them on why permits are needed.

The first building codes in the United States were established in the early 1600s. They mostly dealt with the material used in the construction of roofs and chimneys. With the continued population growth and technology, our needs have changed and so have the codes.

For example, there’s a brownstone down the street from me that’s over 100 years old. It’s a solid house that’s not going down anytime soon. Nonetheless, by today’s standards it would not meet current code. Does this mean that it unsafe? No, it doesn’t. What it means is that it was built under different building codes. New construction, however, has to be built to the most current codes. This protects homeowners from unscrupulous house builders who might otherwise cut corners in order to reduce their costs.

From the homeowner’s perspective, I understand the headaches and the anger that people sometimes feel when they are told that they cannot change something about their home because of a building code.  Especially given that even following all the rules does not guarantee an approval.  However, if you feel that you want to move ahead without permits take this into account:

If the roof that you thought you installed correctly caves in during a snow storm and harms your family. How would that make you feel?

If the electrical work you spent so much time on burns your house down while owned by a new family. How would that make you feel?

If the boiler you so carefully installed leaks and in one night you lose your entire family? How would that make you feel?

I am passionate about the need for people to understand the importance of obtaining permits and building to code. I believe that if you are not willing to follow the building code then you should be willing to sign a waiver taking responsibility if anything happens in the future. Buy signing this wavier you would give up your right to making a claim if anyone is hurt as a result of your work. You would take solely responsibility and waive any insurance claim if anyone is hurt. Are you willing to sign off on such a waiver? I think not, so you need to understand and follow the rules.

Finally, I would like to add that if you change the footprint of your home or do any work without permits, no insurance company will even think of insuring your home. And if you cannot insure your home, you cannot get a certificate of occupancy.  Obtaining permits and following the building code is absolutely essential.

Marlene Pratt is the co-founder of Casa Latina, an interior designer and on-air television host on both English and Spanish-language television. Follow Marlene on Twitter at @CasaLatinaToday and Like her FB page

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