Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Home Inspection Confidential

By Matt Cantor
Friday September 22, 2006

Everyone has something particularly annoying about their job. I’m sure yours has at least one (I can see the heads nodding). O.K. It’s more than one. Me too. I’ve got a few and one of these serenity-busters that bugs me the most is being asked which building code justifies an item that I’ve called-out during an inspection. 

Now, I’ve actually gotten quite a bit better at finding things in the code book in the last year or two and to discuss the finer points that come out of their study, but to be frank, it’s not that relevant to what I do.  

The building code really doesn’t apply much to looking at old houses. Now, on the face of it, that seems like a reasonable statement but, in the search for something to hang our ideas upon, people still keep running down the cognitive ravine to the what seems as though would be found at the root of what’s right or wrong about a house, i.e., the codes. 

There are a bunch of problems with this thinking and it really messes with my day, if you know what I mean. How do I justify the things I have to say about a house.  

Does the code tell me what’s wrong or right? Can I say that something is wrong because it didn’t follow the code? No. I can’t and here’s why and get ready because it’s quite an onslaught. 

First, many of the building I see were built before the first building code even existed. While building protocols or practices DID exist, there was nothing written down as to what you could and couldn’t do. The first building code book came out in 1917 and even this was a very slender pamphlet. The majority of buildings I see (those from the 1920’s & 30’s) were built with some codes in force but were, again, largely the result of good practices and not enforced rules. 

Since everything old we see is grand-fathered, or adopted as acceptable unless changed in some way, there’s almost nothing the code has to say about these much older buildings. 

For the sake of argument we can talk about a building from 1970 and say that many modern codes would have applied to it but here again, there are a range of problems. What city were we in at the time of construction? What version of the code was being used on the dates of the inspections? 

Who was the site inspector for the inspections and what local additions to the code were being practiced by the city for this type of construction at the time? Also, what were the zoning practices for this site at the time of construction? 

This mass of conditions makes it virtually impossible to say what rules would have applied to a particular building at the time of construction over a wide range of issues including set-backs, specific electrical codes, building height, the steepness of stairways and the requirement for smoke detectors. The list is huge.  

One thing that’s very important to realize is that, not only were the city policies and adopted codes relevant to each condition, but the specific site inspector was and is much like a judge in each case. 

No matter what the code book may say, the site inspector has the authority to call things as they see fit. Of course if they wander too far afield, we can “appeal” to the chief inspector or higher government official but it usually doesn’t work. 

So, how can I say that a stairway would have violated the code in 1966, when, for all I know, the city inspector stood there on that day, looked at his 1964 copy of the Uniform Building Code and his local Oakland amendment sheet and decided that these didn’t apply to what he (yes it was a guy) thought of as a servant’s entrance. You see, there’s just too much “noise” between that event in the past and today to be able to say much of anything about what the right call would have been at the time of construction. 

Even construction from the very recent past has problems of this sort, although this can more easily sorted out, if you’re serious about it and willing to do a lot of calling around. 

However, the important thing in my line of work isn’t to say what the site inspector or the plan checker would have said at the time but what I, as an observer, can say based on what I know and see today.  

That’s the nitty gritty of the job. I’m not a code checker and if I were, you can see how woefully hobbled I would be in performing it. I never know, for certain, which code was in force (they’re constantly being revised), what presiding official’s would have said at the time and also, how much has changed since that time.  

That’s is one more thing that makes code checking virtually impossible on older building. They’re being changed all the time. Many houses I see have been remodeled, and remodeled and remodeled. Little thing here, big thing there, tear this out, put this here. By the time I come along, it can be quite a trial to tell, even broadly, what the original building looked like and when each change came to pass. 

Nevertheless, I’ll confess that I do spend a lot of time looking at this aspect of the houses I see. I do, in part because it’s a puzzle and sort of irresistible. Partly, because it can help to ferret out mistakes that might be important. 

One oft-seen case in which it’s relevant is the one where a wall or other load bearing member has been moved or re-moved. If I don’t think about what the building would originally have looked like, it’s easy to miss something of this sort which might be truly vital. So I try. 

Once again, the point I wanted to make has required that you slog through all this stuff and so you have my gratitude and apology. And here it is. 

Home inspectors are not code checkers because the code says so very little about buildings. This may seem nutty to say but it’s really quite true. You can’t design a building using the codes and as code experts are so fond of saying, the code is a MINIMUM standard, not a recommended formula for construction. The code also says almost nothing about the way in which things wear out, decay and fail. 

Amazingly, there’s no code for seismic retrofitting, so you can’t say that there aren’t enough bolts in your retrofit based on that book.  

The code doesn’t say when the paint job or the leaky window needs fixing and it doesn’t say that you have to have x number of smoke detectors in your old building (unless you are doing a remodel and they make you put some in). The code doesn’t prevent many places where slips and falls occur and also doesn’t point out the myriad improvement and upgrades that time and technology have provided. 

In short, I’d say that the most of what I’m doing in my job has almost nothing to do with the code. It’s there all the time as a reference, lurking just out of sight, and I like to invoke it where it says something of value but that’s very different from “calling something” as a violation.  

As you can see, I just can’t do that, ever. All I can do is to say that some current codes say such and such a thing and that this may be in violation of one of them. However, I can say that something is a problem, that something is dangerous (in my view). That something is a bad idea (all too often…) and might lead to harm or distress. And let me tell you, friend, you can sure fill up a day with that stuff.