When and Why Existing Homes May Need to Meet New Building Codes

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Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

As a homeowner, you might wonder why your perfectly functional house suddenly needs to meet new building codes. It’s a common question, and today, we’ll explore when and why existing homes may need to be brought up to current building standards.

The Basics: What Does “Bringing a Home Up to Code” Mean?

First things first: when we talk about bringing a home “up to code,” we’re referring to ensuring it meets the current building standards set by local and national authorities. Building codes help ensure safety, efficiency, and functionality in our homes.

The residential building codes are a national standard with widely adopted guidelines. However, local jurisdictions may have specific rules that need to be adopted or were omitted from the code during the adoption process. Always check with your local code official or the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) for the most accurate information.

So, when might you need to update your home?

There are four main scenarios where existing homes may need to be or may be legally forced to be brought up to code. Let’s break these down in simple terms:

When You’re Making Significant Changes

If you’re planning a major renovation or repair that requires a permit, you might need to bring affected or changed areas of the home up to current standards. This doesn’t mean your entire house needs an overhaul – typically, it’s just the areas you’re working on.

For example, if you’re remodeling your kitchen, you might need to update the electrical system to meet current safety standards. This ensures that homes evolve and become safer and more efficient.

When You Change How You Use Your Home

Are you considering turning your residential property into a small business or converting your basement into a rental unit? These changes in use or occupancy often trigger the need for code compliance. A space designed for residential occupancy might need upgrades to function safely as a commercial space or to accommodate more people. Usage rules are among the most common reasons you’ll be asked to bring your house up to current code.

After Damage from Natural Disasters or Other Events

Mother Nature can be unpredictable, and unfortunately, our homes sometimes bear the brunt of it. If your home is damaged by fire, flood, or other natural (or human-caused) events, repairs often need to meet current building codes. This requirement isn’t just bureaucratic red tape—it’s an opportunity to rebuild stronger and safer, incorporating lessons learned from past disasters.

When Your Home is in a Special Hazard Area

Local building officials may sometimes determine that homes in certain areas pose risks to public health, safety, or welfare. In these cases, they might require updates to mitigate these risks. For instance, homes in flood-prone or fire-risk areas might need to be elevated or relandscaped, or those in earthquake zones might need structural reinforcements.

The Why Behind the Rules

You might be thinking, “My house has been standing for decades! Why change now?” It’s a fair question. Here’s the thing: building codes evolve for good reasons.

  • Safety First: As we learn more about building science and potential hazards, codes adapt to make our homes safer. For example, modern electrical codes help prevent fires, while updated structural requirements make homes more resilient to natural disasters.
  • Energy Efficiency: Newer codes often incorporate energy-saving measures. These changes benefit the environment and can save you money on utility bills in the long run.
  • Accessibility: Updates may include features that make homes more accessible for people with disabilities or older residents, promoting independent living.
  • Property Value: While bringing a home up to code can be an investment, it often increases the property’s value and can make it easier to sell in the future.

Addressing Buyer Requests to “Bring the House Up to Code”

As a home inspector, I often encounter situations where buyers, upon receiving their inspection report, request that the seller “bring the house up to code” before proceeding with the purchase. While this request is understandable, clarifying when necessary, practical, or legal requires important consideration.

It’s crucial to understand that building codes are primarily intended for new construction, significant renovations, or changes in use. Existing homes must not be retroactively updated to code unless one of the earlier scenarios applies. Requesting a seller to upgrade a home to current code standards can be unrealistic and costly.

Instead of a blanket request to bring the entire house up to code, focus on addressing safety concerns and major deficiencies. Here are some examples:

  • Electrical Issues: Outdated or faulty wiring should be addressed, as these pose significant safety risks. Although it’s smart to replace missing or faulty receptacles, it doesn’t warrant rewiring the building.
  • Structural Problems: Any issues compromising the home’s structural integrity should be rectified. But remember that foundation repairs may be prudent; the job could be temporary.
  • Plumbing and HVAC: Ensuring these systems are in good working order can prevent future problems and expenses.
  • Life Safety Systems: Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and other essential safety systems should meet current standards. Many home inspectors see them as “the low-hanging fruit” because they are easily identified yet heavily negotiated at the time of purchase.

When negotiating repairs with the seller, focus on essential repairs that impact safety, health, and habitability. For instance, electrical and plumbing updates might precede cosmetic or minor code compliance issues. Based on the inspection report, outline which issues need addressing. A detailed list avoids misunderstandings and ensures the prioritization of critical problems. Work with the seller to find a reasonable middle ground. They may agree to fix the most crucial issues or offer credit towards future repairs rather than undertaking extensive renovations themselves.

In some cases, consulting with contractors or engineers might be beneficial to get a clear picture of necessary repairs and their estimated costs. This can help both parties understand the scope of work involved and facilitate a fair negotiation.

A knowledgeable real estate agent can help mediate between buyers and sellers, ensuring reasonable requests based on the inspection report findings. They can also provide valuable insights into what is customary in your local market.

Navigating the Process

If you need to bring your home up to code, don’t panic! Here are some tips to make the process smoother:

  • Start with Research: Familiarize yourself with local building codes. Your city or county’s building department website is a great place to start.
  • Consult Professionals: Licensed contractors and architects can help you understand what updates are needed and how to implement them effectively.
  • Get Proper Permits: Always obtain necessary permits before starting work. It might seem like a hassle, but finishing the job correctly and legally is crucial.
  • Consider Long-Term Benefits: While updates can be costly, consider them investments in your home’s safety, efficiency, and value.
  • Explore Financial Assistance: Some localities offer programs or incentives for certain upgrades, especially those related to energy efficiency or disaster preparedness.

Your Local Jurisdiction, The IRC, and the IEBC

The IEBC encourages the use and reuse of existing buildings. The IEBC (International Existing Building Code) is not a part of the IRC (International Residential Code). They are separate but complementary codes published by the International Code Council (ICC). Your local code office may adopt either code rule or both. Our local public works department (Ridgeland, MS) has adopted the 2021 IRC and IEBC with amendments.

Here’s a breakdown:

  • IRC focuses primarily on designing and constructing new residential buildings (one—and two-family dwellings and townhouses).
  • IEBC addresses repairs, alterations, changes of occupancy, and additions to existing buildings, regardless of their original use.
  • Local Code Compliance – while the IRC and IEBC are model codes developed by the ICC, they don’t automatically become law anywhere in the US without the adoption process. Each local jurisdiction (city, county, or state) can adopt, amend, or reject these codes. That’s why the most important official is your local building code officer.

While they are separate codes, they often work together. For instance, if you are making a significant alteration, you might need to consult the IEBC for guidance and the IRC for construction requirements applying to the altered portion of the building.

Key points to remember:

  • Separate Codes: Both have independent scope and requirements.
  • Complementary: They work together to address aspects of building construction and maintenance.
  • Both are published by the ICC: They are part of the family of model codes created to promote building safety.

The Bottom Line

Bringing an existing home up to code is not about making life difficult for homeowners. It’s about ensuring our living spaces evolve to be safer, more efficient, and better suited to our changing needs.

Remember, these requirements typically kick in when you’re already making changes to your home or when there’s a significant safety concern. They’re opportunities to improve your living space and invest in your property’s future.

When in doubt, contact your local building department or a qualified professional. They’re there to help you navigate these requirements and ensure your home is not just a house but a safe, efficient, and comfortable place to live for years to come.

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