Owning & Renting Property

Guide to Residential Building Codes and Home Warranties

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Building codes aren’t usually something we consider as we live day-to-day in our homes. But if you flip a light switch and nothing happens (or worse yet, sparks fly!), there’s a chance someone didn’t follow a building code.

Why are building codes important? Building codes and standards are established and enforced to preserve the health and safety of everyone in your home. These codes address most aspects of building construction, including:

  • Electrical
  • Wiring
  • Heating
  • Sanitation
  • Structural
  • Irrigation

Improper or incomplete installation, updates or maintenance of these items could represent a potential hazard to building users. Building codes provide safeguards against these types of hazards. So it pays to understand the current codes in your area.

Ready to remodel? Know the codes first.

Your remodeling work needs to comply with local laws and building requirements to make sure everything is safe and sound for years to come. This really comes into play when making any structural improvements around the house. While residential building codes vary from state to state (and even county and city), they generally regulate construction in your community and cover things like worker and structural safety.

Here are examples of the more common shortcomings in home building or remodeling that local building codes are in place to prevent:

  • Improper bathroom ventilation
  • Botched electrical work
  • Wrong size circuit
  • Splicing wires without a junction box
  • Missing ground-fault circuit interrupters in bathrooms or kitchens
  • Improper stair or guardrail construction
  • Missing flashing on decks and roofs

New homeowner? Consider a warranty.

Before you moved into your new home, your local town, city or municipality most likely inspected it and issued a certificate of occupancy. That indicated that the home was, at a minimum, livable.

However, many new homeowners are unhappy to discover that the certificate doesn't guarantee that everything is in working order or even complete. As discussed below, you may need to assert your rights under one of various warranties.

At least a year's worth of seasonal changes is often needed to put a new house to the test. For example, only in winter might you discover that water seeps into the basement or around window frames, that the landscaping was badly graded and leads to mudslides, or that you have a mold problem. And your homeowners' insurance probably doesn't cover construction defects.

That's why most home builders issue their new owners a warranty (often called a "limited warranty") on their work, either within the sales contract or as a separate document. Interestingly, such warranties aren't usually required by state law.

The warranty's maximum term is typically broken up into one-, two- and ten-year terms, based on the type of needed work. You'll probably get a one-year warranty for labor and materials, two years' protection for mechanical defects (plumbing, electrical, heating, air conditioning, and ventilation systems), and ten years for structural defects. The result is that the best parts of the warranty expire quickly — your carpeting, tiles, paint and roofing, for example, may not be covered after the first year.

If you received a warranty, read it over to determine its length, who's supposed to handle problems (the builder may have bought third-party insurance), and what's covered and excluded. Pay special attention to your own responsibilities — you may have been given a detailed list of maintenance obligations. Ignoring these gives the builder a perfect excuse to deny you protections under the warranty.

Does your state's laws offer extra protection?

Warranty or not, you may get added protection from the laws in your state. In certain states, the laws give homeowners an automatic warranty of their home's habitability and good workmanship. Some states may require you to give the builder a chance to make repairs before suing.

Laws passed by legislatures aren't your only hope (though they're the easiest to find). In most states, such as Colorado, Illinois, New York and Washington, the "common law" (court decisions on individual cases that then set the rules for everyone else) may also protect you. Such states' courts have said that, just by the act of building you a house, the builder provides "implied warranties" that the house is habitable (safe, sanitary and fit for use) and was built in a workmanlike manner, in compliance with local building codes. And even without an implied warranty, you may be able to sue a builder on another legal ground, such as fraud, breach of contract, or negligence.

To find these laws and implied warranty rights, you won't necessarily have to do legal research. Many states have consumer protection agencies to help advise you on builder problems. Check whether your state agency has published an explanatory pamphlet online. This will also help you understand who enforces building codes.

The bottom line before you build or remodel? Check your state or city’s website to determine what the state, city and local codes require. And if you’re working with a contractor, make sure he or she addresses building codes before construction begins to make sure that everything is on the up and up. And the best way to make sure your place is up to code is to have it inspected by a professional.


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