Common Housing Code Violations and Questions to Ask About Them

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 ranges from requirements for ensuring a floor can bear an adequate load to the distance a toilet must be from the wall.

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.

Common Housing Code Violations

Here are some of the more common areas you’ll find code violations in your home:

  • Electrical panel. Especially in an old home that has undergone some work over the years, a messy or overloaded electrical panel is often a sign that previous electrical work is not to code. “The first place I always go is electrical panels,” says Tom Brooks, founder and CEO of Cornerstone Managing Partners, a full-service construction management company. An improperly wired home can be dangerous, and it’s something you’ll want to have updated and corrected by a professional.
  • Windows. New windows that have been retrofitted on an older house are often done in a way that doesn’t quite meet local housing code standards, Brooks says. The window installation isn’t necessarily a structural hazard, but you may find reduced energy efficiency compared to how the new windows are intended to perform.
  • Kitchen. In this popular room for renovations, there’s a heightened chance that work wasn’t always done correctly. “Kitchens are probably done 100% without permits a lot of the time,” Brooks says.
  • Bathrooms. Similar to kitchens, bathrooms are more likely to get a remodel over the years by different owners and often don’t meet current standards.
  • Additions. When a new room or section of the home is added after original construction, there is always the question of whether the work was both properly permitted and inspected to ensure the new structure is sound and doesn’t compromise the original part of the home.
    Attic, basement or crawl space. You’re most likely to be able to see plumbing and electrical wiring in parts of the house that are unfinished, like an attic, basement or crawl space. These spots are also the likeliest places you’ll be able to take a closer look at plumbing and electrical wiring, as well as spot structural issues through rippling, damaged beams and more.

Here are common questions about residential building codes:

  1. Is your house to code?
  2. Will it kill your ability to sell a house?
  3. Does it mean you’re in danger?
  4. How do you know it’s to code?
  5. Can you fix a code violation?
  6. How do you fix a code violation?

Is Your House to Code? Probably Not.

At least in theory, a newly built home is constructed to follow current municipal codes, with final inspection and a certificate of occupancy when it’s done. After that, however, you can expect a home to not meet all codes due to years of repairs, renovations and changes to codes.

“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.

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,” says George Hank, director of the City of Madison Building Inspection Division in Wisconsin. “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.

Does It Mean You’re in Danger? Maybe.

“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.

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 ensure any major work was done to the local code requirements, or at least the requirements that existed at the time the work was done, as Brooks notes that municipal codes change often. 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, since 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 that the complaint is valid. If it is, he or she will notify the property owner, explaining what corrections need to be made and how long the owner has 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.

How Do You Fix a Code Violation? It Depends on the Work Required.

t’s possible to bring a part of your home up to code as a do-it-yourself project. Especially if you’re doing minor updates or work on your property, rather than to the structure of the home itself, you can do a solid job – as long as you follow code and obtain any necessary permits.

Fortunately, “pulling permits is not that complicated,” Brooks explains, and the permit provides much of the information about how to complete the work properly.

But with complicated systems like electrical, plumbing or HVAC in your home, a licensed professional may be a safer bet to make sure it’s done right and avoid risking your own health and safety in the work. Many permits require a licensed professional sign off on completed work anyway.