People often ask, “does this house meet code?” However, the answer is not as simple as yes or no. Building codes are a confusing topic among home buyers, Realtors, and contractors during the home inspection process.
Building Codes Constantly Change
Codes are constantly changing. Multiple agencies create codes. Further, it can take years for a code to go from creation to being adopted by a local jurisdiction. You know the saying a car loses value as soon as you drive it off the lot? Or a computer is outdated as soon as you buy it? Home and codes are similar. By the time a home is designed, approved, and built, it is often already out of code. Houses are built to the current codes when they are designed and approved. It can then take several years between the approval process, groundbreaking, construction, and finishing. This means, very likely, new codes have been created in the meantime.
Now take an average home built in Los Angeles. Most homes are at least 20 years old, and far more are 60-80 years old, with some being in the range of 100 years old or older. When you have a home that is that old, is it up to code? Well, of course not, it would be impossible for an older home to meet the current codes. Most codes were made long after the home was built.
Building Codes Come From Many Places
Codes come from many, many different agencies.
There is the National Electrical Code (NEC), National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), International Building Code (IBC), International Residential Code (IRC), International Plumbing Code (IPC), and the list goes on and on.
In addition, local lawmakers can and do make their own codes. The State of California has many codes that only apply to California. For example, many rules around water heater installation are based on California-specific standards.
The more confusing part is local states, counties and cities have the option to adopt codes or not from the agencies that make codes. The City of Los Angeles likes to pick and choose codes to enforce, as well as create its own codes that only apply to the city itself.
As such, it is next to impossible for any one person to know every possible code, or which code was adopted at what date. For a home to always be “up to code” one would need a team of contractors working on the home around the clock to keep up with every last change.
Safety and Functionality
If a home inspection is not based on “up to code” then what is it? A home inspection is based on safety and functionality. Of course, codes are the source of many safety items. We refer to codes often as a source of why something is or isn’t safe. However, safety and code do not always align. We can not expect a 1950’s home to meet modern code. However, we still call out items that are no longer considered safe by today’s standards. For example, a missing GFCI in the kitchen was not a code item in a 1950’s home, but it is considered dangerous by today’s safety standards.
Some safety standards are not based on code at all. For example, there is no code against having a Federal Pacific Electric Stab-lok panel. Yet these panels have been widely reported as a safety hazard.
Home Inspections and the Law
Business and Professions Code, Chapters 9.3, sections 7195 (a)(1) states Home inspection” is a noninvasive, physical examination, of the mechanical, electrical, or plumbing systems or the structural and essential components of a residential dwelling to identify material defects in those systems, structures, and components.”
California law does not contain the word “code” anywhere in describing what a home inspection is or what a home inspector does. Rather, a home inspector is looking for “material defects”.
So to answer the question “does this house meet code?” the answer is, no, no one would expect it to meet code. But not meeting code does not make it a bad house.
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