Codes are the minimum standard — the worst house you are allowed to build.

Every Square Inch Property Inspection

We have all heard home inspectors make comments that go something like this: “I do not do code inspections.”

While “technically” this is most likely correct, it is in fact a little disingenuous.

In an attempt to protect ourselves from perceived liability we maintain this notion that we do not do “code inspections.”

I want to go into this a little further and take a look at just what such statements mean.

At an ASHI conference several years ago, the speaker, Douglas Hansen, well known Code God and author of a series of books called “Code Check,” asked the 90+ home inspectors how many of them owned a copy of the 2009 IRC. Now keep in mind that this version of the code had only just gone into effect in Washington State. By show of hands, about 2/3 of the inspectors claimed to own a copy.

This indicates that while we may not be “code inspectors” we seem to have a lot of interest in the codes.

So what is a Code Inspector?

I think the general perception is that a code inspector is a “jurisdictional inspector.” He or she is someone that is actually on the payroll of some municipality or county to verify work done on structures complies with the codes at the time of construction. So when home inspectors claim they are not jurisdictional code inspectors, they are quite accurate–we are not being paid by the city or county, we are being paid by someone else entirely. In fact the person who has hired us is probably more concerned about the condition of the home they are buying than the municipality is concerned about the overall structure that our client is buying.

Another very important thing to keep in mind is home inspectors are generally not authorized to interpret the codes. So while we might say something does not conform to some particular code, if there is an argument, the code inspector is the one who is officially authorized to have the “final word”–even if they are wrong.

Due to time constraints, the code inspectors must necessarily be more superficial in their inspections than the home inspector is. However they are generally there at intervals during the whole process and get to sign off on many things the home inspector will never see. They tend to hone in on the major things that would affect whether the house is going to fall down and kill someone or whether it is going to burn down and kill someone.

They are (in my experience as a builder) pretty good at picking out the big stuff–the important stuff. They quickly tend to get to know a builder’s work and know who they have to pay more attention to and who they do not. If you are a homeowner doing your own work, they can make you wish you had hired a professional–and often deservedly so. The system is far from perfect, and home inspectors are relied on as part of the oversight process. This was not always the case. It may still not be the case with some hard headed home inspectors and jurisdictional inspectors.

Almost everything that a home inspector calls out during a home inspection is in some way tied to the codes.

After all, the codes are the bare minimum standard to which we are required to build a home. Most builders do better than this. All builders miss things too. So while we may not come out and say that the handrail with no returns on the ends is a violation of the building code, we in fact know that it is wrong because there is a code that says so, and we could quote it to a builder or buyer if we needed to. The fact that we are more likely to language around the word “code,” and merely state that it does not, or may not, conform to current standards, should not imply that we aren’t interested in, or have some knowledge of the codes, or to say that the codes are not necessary to what we do.

In the real world it works better to not use the word code because in some cases it gives us an “out” if we find that we have crossed over into the Twilight Zone of some jurisdiction that has not adopted or is not enforcing some particular code. Also some manufacturer may have requirements that supersede code. It is not possible to know every applicable code for every jurisdiction, code cycle, and/or time of adoption. Even the “code inspectors” can’t do that. That said, a good working knowledge of the codes is important to be able to know that what some of the things we are looking at are problems or not.

More and more, houses are getting to the point where there are more and more things to show us that we don’t know what we don’t know.

It is no longer adequate for a home inspector to pretend that the codes are outside of their purview. They are not–and never have been outside our purview–even though we would like to pretend otherwise.

There is this perception among home inspectors that if we say something does not meet code we are opening ourselves up to the notion that we have checked every single item in the home for compliance with the code. I am not sure where this perception came from, as even the people being paid to do the specific job of code inspections are not held to this standard. The other confusing thing is that this mind set condemns us for bringing what are the bare “minimum requirements” to someone’s attention.

I see the building codes as merely one more tool in my tool box to provide better information–better inspections–for the consumer. I make it very clear when I find myself in a position where I am quoting the codes that it is regarding that specific issue and that issue alone and cannot be construed to mean I am doing a “code inspection.”

These specific code references are never part of the inspection report. They usually come into play when I have said something in the report like: “The ends of the handrails on the basement stairs do not return to the wall as required. I recommend proper repairs by a qualified party.” The builder comes back and says: “Who says it is required to return to the wall?” This is when I could provide a code reference to support what I said in the report. Pretty simple really. (By the way, did you know that the requirement for the ends of handrails to return to the wall has been in the building codes since 1927?)

Don’t be a wimp–the codes are the minimum standard–the worst house you are allowed to build. When we are splitting hairs over the code it is more a matter of what color Gremlin you want–not a Tesla.

Many builders strive to be better than the minimum.

Many inspectors strive to be better than the minimum.