Home Remodeling Basics and the Importance of Building Codes and Permits

It is of the utmost importance before home remodeling to know that local governments decide what building codes apply in your area. This is huge for budget and planning reasons. The purpose of the codes is to ensure that you and others follow minimum standards for construction. Different codes may be in effect in different regions. These include the Uniform Building Code, the National Electric Code, the Uniform Mechanical Code, and the Uniform Plumbing Code, plus any state and local codes.

The building department can tell you how to obtain a copy of the appropriate code. If you’re planning to do much of the work yourself, buy a copy and study it. Usually you won’t need the complete code; a condensed version or guidebook can summarize the important facts you’ll need to know.

The building code influences your remodeling plans by specifying the following: The type of materials that can be used.

For example, can you use plastic pipe for your plumbing? In some areas you can and in others you can’t. Can you do the work yourself? Some codes require electrical and plumbing work to be completed by a licensed professional. What of the structural requirements and installation techniques? For example, the code will tell you how large the headers must be over doors and windows.

Most remodeling projects require one or more permits before work can begin. Permits are generally needed for any alteration that changes the structure, size, safety, or use of living space. They are usually not required for projects considered to be normal maintenance such as painting, wallpapering, reroofing (unless you remove the sheathing), or window and door replacement.

But don’t attempt to interpret the regulations yourself. One of the reasons for your preliminary visit to the building department is to find out the type of permits necessary for your project. Ask if inspections are necessary and at what stage of construction. Once the work begins, an inspector will visit the site to be sure that you’re in compliance with the code.

Generally the code applies only to new work that’s to be done. Inspections are not retroactive. If your house is old, you will probably not be expected to bring the entire structure up to code when you remodel, unless, of course, the building inspector finds something that is a definite safety hazard. Then you’ll be expected to correct the situation within a reasonable amount of time. Also, improvement over a certain percentage of property value requires upgrading the whole structure to code.

You also want to find out what you need to apply for each permit. How many sets of working drawings? Can you draw the plan yourself or must they be done by a professional? If you’re planning an addition that changes the exterior dimensions of your house, do you need a plot plan that shows the remodeling in relation to the property lines? If you’re planning a second-story addition, do you need a structural evaluation from an engineer to be sure the foundation is adequate to carry the load? At what stage of construction will inspection schedules be necessary? What is the permit fee? How much time is necessary from the date of application to approval? Don’t assume you can get a permit on the spot as soon as you present your plans.

Remember, this is only a preliminary visit. You’re seeking information that may affect your plans. It’s too early to apply for a permit. That comes later, once you have finished your working plans.

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