by Douglas J. Burgasser, P.E., Warren Engineering

We have had numerous instances where clients and/or realtors have asked us whether a house that we are inspecting conforms with codes. Home buyers sometimes confuse our inspections with code compliance inspections.

Pre-purchase engineering inspections of houses or buildings are not code compliance inspections. Such an inspection is considered to be well beyond the scope of a building inspection as defined by the professional standards that govern home inspections. By law, the local building department inspector (Code Enforcement Officer) has almost the final say in interpreting and applying codes. Although we can sometimes comment on the applicable codes, the final determination must be the local CEO.

More importantly, it is critical to understand that existing homes will rarely conform to modern building codes and standards. This is because building codes are revised on a regular basis. As a result, today’s code would be different than the code that was in place when an existing home was constructed. The code at the time that the work (construction, repair, or improvement) was performed is the code that applies. There is also no requirement that existing homes conform to today’s codes and standards. Certainly, any renovation or repair work that is performed on an existing home must be performed in a manner that conforms to today’s standards. We offer the three examples below:

Modern electrical codes dictate that electrical outlets in “potentially wet locations” be protected by ground fault interrupter protection. These locations would include some kitchen outlets, bath outlets, exterior outlets, pool equipment, etc. However, if a house was built in the 1950s it may not have ground fault protection for a bathroom outlet. There is no requirement that ground fault protection be installed. If this same bathroom were to be renovated the electrician who is performing the work would be obligated to install ground fault protection at the time of renovation. Today’s codes apply to the new work that is currently being performed.

Another example would be entry doors that separate a house from an attached garage. Modern codes for new work dictate that the door leading from the house to the garage must be a fire-rated door (usually metal) with a metal jamb. Also, a self-closing hinge is required for the door. This would prevent the door from being left open. The purpose of this code is to help prevent a fire from easily spreading from the garage to the interior of the house. If an existing house built in the 1940s has an attached garage, and the door leading to the garage is not a fire-rated door the homeowner is not be required to replace the door. However, if they chose to replace the door, their obligation would be to utilize a door that conforms to current codes.

A third example would be that of automatic garage door openers. For a number of years new automatic garage door openers have been required to have redundant safety reverse features. This means that the door will reverse if it meets an obstruction or hits an object during the downward motion. Also, new openers must have an electronic eye safety reverse. This makes the door reverse if the electric eye (or safety beam) is crossed when the door is in the downward motion. Of course, there are many old openers still in use that would not conform to these standards. There is not a requirement that these openers be replaced. The requirement would apply to openers that are currently manufactured and installed.

Homeowners should also understand that overzealous contractors will tend to overstate the necessity for proposed repairs or modifications based on code requirements. Once again, homeowners should understand that in many cases work does not need to be performed strictly because an existing component does not conform to modern codes. However, it is also important to understand that codes have mostly been established in the interest of safety. As a result, homeowners should consider modifications as an improvement and for the benefit of increased safety in their home and to the occupants.

On a related topic we have also seen an increased concern for finished basement space. Fire and safety codes that have been in place for decades dictate that basement space cannot be considered living space without a second means of egress. Since the mid 1980’s, finished rooms in a basement are only permitted if there are two exit points. The stairs leading into the basement would be one exit point. The second egress is usually an appropriately sized window or a door. There are also definite requirements that dictate whether a window would be an acceptable means of emergency egress. The window must be a certain minimum size (width, depth and square footage of opening), and the bottom of the window cannot be more than 44 inches from the basement floor.

A basement level bedroom must be equipped with its own means of egress. In other words, if a house has a finished basement that includes two bedrooms there must be an egress window or door from each of the bedrooms.