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You’ve got the DIY bug, and you’ve got it bad. Maybe you want to do something small like install recessed lighting in your kitchen, or maybe you want to build a brand-new detached garage. Either way, it’s critical to know that your project is legal.
Many home construction projects require permits from local authorities to ensure you’re building “to code.” For a building to be up to code, all of its construction needs to adhere to guidelines set up by government authorities.
If you shirk building codes, your local government could slap you with a hefty fine and force you to undo unpermitted work. More importantly, code violations can result in property damage and serious injuries for those in the house.
If you’re a DIY newbie, the idea of sorting through national, state, and local house codes might have you feeling stressed out. Thankfully, this process isn’t as difficult as it may appear. We’ll teach you how building codes work and how to find them with advice from a seasoned flipper.
House codes keep us safe, and they are everywhere
“House codes exist primarily to ensure the safety and wellbeing of area residents,” explains Eric Nerhood, owner of Premier Property Buyers in Seal Beach, CA.
“Just about every state in the U.S. has house codes for their cities and towns.”
Essentially, house codes exist to prevent builders from cutting corners or making dangerous oversights that could lead to fires, cave-ins, flooding, or other serious issues that put people at risk.
House codes are revised and enforced by various government agencies at the state, national, and international levels. Ultimately, the U.S. General Services Administration reviews and approves house codes for all jurisdictions in the state. However, your local government has plenty of its own codes and will serve as your reference point for figuring out what you need to get your project started.
To understand the entities involved in creating and upholding house codes, let’s go over the main organizations for house codes.
International Code Council
The International Code Council (ICC) is the primary organization responsible for developing the various house code standards used to ensure safe and sustainable buildings worldwide.
The ICC developed the International Building Code (IBC), a set of building codes to protect health and safety while avoiding preferential treatment of specific materials or construction methods, avoiding unnecessary building costs.
Most jurisdictions in the U.S. use IBC as a base standard for developing house codes.
State building department
In addition to local building codes, your state may have its own statewide building codes. For example, several of California’s state codes regulate the design, construction, use, and maintenance of buildings.
These state codes include the Government Code, Public Resources Code, and Health and Safety Code, encompassing codes for energy conservation and green design.
National Electrical Code
The National Electrical Code (NEC) is a regionally adoptable standard for the safe installation of electrical wiring and equipment in the U.S. It is part of the National Fire Code series published by the National Fire Protection Association.
The use of the term “national” may lead you to think otherwise, but these codes are not federal law. Typically, the NEC is adopted on the state or local level to standardize their safe electrical practices. In some cases, local governments may amend, alter, or even reject NEC codes in favor of regional regulations.
International Plumbing Code
The International Plumbing Code (IPC) is currently adopted on the state or local level in 35 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico. These codes pair seamlessly with ICC’s family of house codes. The IPC sets minimum standards for plumbing systems covering topics such as backflow prevention, water heaters, and nonpotable water systems (e.g., rainwater and greywater)
National Fire Protection Association Standards
In addition to the National Electrical Code standards discussed above, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has other standards in its National Fire Code series. The NFPA is a private trade association, not a regulatory body, but the NFPA’s 300 plus codes and standards are widely adopted and available for free online access.
Don’t worry — not all of these codes will apply to your home construction project!
How to find relevant codes for your home project
Now that you have an idea of the bigger picture, it’s time to get the information you need for your specific project. Nerhood advises that the quickest and simplest way to do this is to get in touch with your local government’s Building and Safety Department. “In the old days, you’d have to go down to City Hall to talk with someone, but now you can usually do everything online,” advises Nerhood.
So, if you live in a city, go to your city’s website and look around for the relevant department for an email address or phone number to contact. If you aren’t sure who to talk to, you can quickly find out by calling whatever contact number is listed on your city’s website. If you live in an unincorporated area, go through the same steps but with your county government instead.
If you want to read the codes for your jurisdiction, look through your city or county’s website. Many governments have their codes easily accessible. If you can’t find them, google “[your city here] house codes” and look for resources from .gov addresses.
Because your local government’s codes are in line with national and state laws, you typically won’t need to worry about seeking information from other government agencies. If you do, your local government will provide you with instructions. Still, if you’d like to read about your state-level house codes, you can find them with this directory.
Beyond building to code, you need to obtain permits
Even if you’re sure that your building project won’t violate any codes, you may still need to get a permit before starting construction. To obtain a permit, you or your contractor submits a plan to the local government. Once the plan is approved, you’ll be issued a permit, and you can get to work. Later on, an inspector will check the work to confirm that it meets the plan and is up to code.
Nerhood warns that even small-scale projects may require a permit. “Even something as little as upgrading a window or replacing a single light fixture with a canned light needs to be permitted. I once retrofitted a window without even breaking the stucco or making any changes to a building’s frame. As I was doing it, an inspector drove by and warned me that I needed to get a permit. It’s a perfect example of something that you wouldn’t even guess would need one.”
Once you’ve confirmed your project is legal and safe, you can break ground and install that beautiful new pool (or window)!
Header Image Source: (Brett Jordan / Unsplash)