Remodeling Your Home? Consider these Common Building Code Violations
The Residential Code of New York State is big. The current edition has over 1,600 pages of rules, exceptions, diagrams, and definitions used by building inspectors to ensure that your home is built safely.
However, even an experienced contractor could have trouble keeping up with all the revisions and additions to the residential code. For someone who is not a professional builder, the residential code can lay many traps that can lead to some of the common building code violations that will hold up approval of a DIY remodeling project.
Here are common building code violations to avoid when remodeling a home in New York state:
Building a Project Without a Permit
One of the most common building code violations is neglecting to get a building permit before beginning a remodeling project. In New York, building permits fall under the jurisdiction of the city and county governments. Where you apply for a building permit will depend on where you live.
Every project that requires compliance with the residential code will also require a permit. In other words, if the residential code has a rule about it, you are required to obtain a permit to build it. This includes both new construction and remodeling projects.
Some of the examples of projects that require a building permit include:
- Structural, such as building or tearing down walls.
- Electrical, heating, air conditioning, and plumbing.
- Egress and ingress, including doors, stairs, and windows.
Under the code, some projects are excluded from permitting. This means that you are not required by New York to obtain a building permit for:
- Non-residential farm buildings
- Storage buildings less than 140 square feet
- Repairs that do not affect the structure or HVAC, electrical, or plumbing system.
Thus, having a barn or small shed built by Amish shed builders would not require a permit. Similarly, repairing siding, painting an interior or exterior wall, or repaving an existing private road probably would not require a permit.
If you have any questions about whether a project requires a permit, it is usually better to contact the local building department and describe your project. The local building officials can tell you whether you need a permit and how to obtain one.
Generally speaking, to obtain a permit, you need to hire a professional engineer or architect to prepare the plans and the building permit application. The building department reviews the submission and either provides its objections to the applicant or approves the plans.
The homeowner hires a licensed contractor who applies for a work permit. The work permit is granted as long as the plans have been approved and the contractor is licensed. If you have subcontractors handling electrical, plumbing, or HVAC work, they will also need to obtain work permits for their parts in the project.
If you do not get a permit when it is required, the local building department can issue a stop-work order, fine you, and require that you either remove the illegal work or bring the work into compliance by paying for plans and obtaining the necessary approvals. These fines and costs of fixing the work can exceed the filing fees of getting the plans and permits. Therefore, most projects will proceed more smoothly and incur fewer expenses if you apply for the permits before beginning work.
Cutting Corners on Electrical Work
One of the more common building code violations is shoddy or non-compliant electrical work. Electrical work is critical in almost every remodeling job. Whether you are adding lights, moving electrical sockets, or running wire for a home theater system, electrical work can touch kitchen, bathroom, living room, bedroom, or basement renovations.
However, electrical work can also create major hazards in your home if done incorrectly. For example, shoddy electrical work can cause:
- Risks of electrocution: Exposed or improperly grounded wires can electrocute anyone who touches a switch, fixture, or outlet.
- Fire hazards: Mis-wiring, overloaded circuits, and damaged wires or fixtures can start electrical fires.
- Short circuits: Wires or fixtures that inadvertently touch metal pipes or structural supports can electrify the metal piece and fry the electrical system.
Even when electrical work is performed well, the electrical fixtures installed might constitute one of the common building code violations. For example, arc-fault circuit interrupter (AFCI) outlets are required in bedrooms and ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlets are required in bathrooms under New York’s residential code. AFCI outlets are designed to stop the electrical flow if it detects an electrical arc, which can cause fires. GFCI outlets are designed to break the electrical flow when it detects a surge, which can cause electrocution.
If you are installing a new bathroom, you should make sure your contractor complies with New York’s requirements for bathroom vents to avoid one of the common building code violations.
Specifically, bathroom vents must discharge air outside the home and cannot discharge into an attic or crawlspace. Aside from avoiding a code violation, venting the bathroom to the outside will reduce humidity in your home and lower the risk of developing mold in your attic. Thus, the extra cost of running the exhaust duct to the roof is well worthwhile because it extends the lifetime of your home.
Moreover, the size of bathroom exhaust ducts must be selected based on the fan airflow rating and the length of the duct. As a result, your contractor might need to install an adapter to connect the correct size duct to your bathroom exhaust fan. However, using the right size exhaust duct will help your fan deliver the humid bathroom air all the way to the vent and avoid one of the common building code violations.
The vent itself should also be secured to the roof with flashing to prevent leaks back into the attic or crawlspace through or around the vent. If you are unsure of your contractor’s skill in handling this, you can subcontract installation of the vent to a residential roofing service.
Unsafe Stairs and Handrails
The New York residential code has extensive rules about how stairs and handrails must be built. These requirements include such features as the height of each step, the diameter of the handrail, and even the distance of the handrail from the wall. These rules for installing stairs and handrails are at the heart of many common building code violations.
For example, stairs cannot be less than nine inches deep or more than eight and one-quarter inches high. Moreover, the height of the steps cannot vary by more than 3/8ths of an inch. Of course, the goal of setting these dimensions is to maximize safety, but careless manufacture or installation might inadvertently cause a building violation.
Similarly, ladders cannot be used as the primary means of exiting or entering a room greater than 200 square feet, except for kitchens and bathrooms. Again, the purpose is to allow a quick and easy exit in the event of a fire. However, creativity will need to give way to the building code to avoid a violation. For example, designing children’s playrooms for luxury home additions will need to account for the limits on the use of ladders to avoid common building code violations.
If your home renovation includes a wood deck, you will need to study the New York residential code carefully to make sure you do not commit any of the common building code violations that could arise from deck installation. Some of the specifications for wood decks include:
- Materials: Materials have to be resistant to rot and insects.
- Flashing: The deck attachment has to be protected by flashing to prevent water from getting between the deck and house.
- Footings: The size and depth of the concrete footings supporting the deck are determined based on the size and weight of the deck and the soil characteristics.
- Posts: The dimensions of the posts are selected based on the height of the deck.
- Roof: For covered decks, the roof has to meet the standards for home roofing. This might require a contractors roofing service if you want to extend your home’s roof to cover your new deck.
Unsafe Drinking Water Wells
When your home is located away from a public water supply, New York requires you to have a private well on your property. The New York residential code requires that the well be drilled by a company licensed to perform water well drilling services. However, rather than falling under the jurisdiction of the local building department, the well must comply with New York’s health code.
The health code designates where the well must be located, the specifications of the well pump, and the tests that must be performed to ensure the water is safe. For example, in locating the well, the New York health code specifies the distance of the well from barnyards, septic systems, and natural bodies of water like streams, wetlands, and lakes.
Many of the building codes are meant to reduce the risk of fires or improve the survivability of fires. For example:
- Automatic fire sprinklers: Single-family homes taller than three stories above the ground are required to have automatic fire sprinklers.
- Smoke detectors: The New York residential code provides extensive rules for placement and connection of smoke detectors in new construction. When a permit is issued for renovation of an existing home, the smoke detectors must be brought into compliance with the regulations governing new homes.
- Insulation: Wall insulation materials have to comply with fire spread and smoke generation specifications. The installation requirements depend on the type of insulation. To ensure insulation meets code, you might consider hiring home insulation services for installation.
If you have ever looked at the layout of a home, you might have wondered how an engineer or architect chooses window types and decides where to locate doors and windows. Often, these fixtures are located as a result of building codes and failing to put them in the right place can lead to some of the most common building code violations.
For example, bedrooms must have at least one window that is large enough to act as an escape route in the event of a fire. Similarly, basements must have windows with window wells that can be used to escape the basement during a fire.
When a window is covered by a grill or bars to prevent break-ins, the window covering must be removable by pushing on it and cannot require a key or tool to open. Again, the purpose is to allow quick escape in the event of a fire.
These rules apply to renovations of existing buildings, so make sure you understand the building code requirements before you begin your window remodel.
Disabling Safety Features
One of the easiest ways to avoid common building code violations is to install equipment as manufactured rather than disabling safety features. For example, windows designed for upper floors usually have window opening control devices to limit how far the window can be opened. These are intended to prevent children from accidentally opening the window completely and falling from the window. When installing these windows, they must have their safety features fully intact or the building inspector might issue a building code violation.
Similarly, garage doors often include safety features to prevent the garage door from closing when obstructed. This not only protects the door but also reduces the risk of crushing a child under the garage door. These safety devices usually include a light or pressure switch to sense when something has obstructed the garage opening when the switch is activated. Again, disabling these safety features during a garage door install can earn you a building code violation.
One of the techniques used to provide a renovated home with character is to use reclaimed or second-hand materials. However, you will need to check the building codes to make sure that the materials you choose either comply with the building material specifications or are used decoratively rather than structurally.
For example, framing members must be graded, have design value markings, and meet ASTM standards for load-bearing lumber. Moreover, using materials damaged during delivery can result in a building code violation. Thus, if your forklift service damages your building materials while unloading them, you should immediately note the damage and file a claim with the building material supplier.
On the other hand, damaged, reclaimed, or second-hand materials can be used in non-load bearing applications. For example, using them as a mirror frame would likely be acceptable as long as the mirror mounting hardware otherwise meets code. Similarly, using them as countertops would likely meet code as long as they are properly supported according to code.
Renovating a home is often one of the best ways to increase the value and enjoyment of your home. Although the average home in New York costs about $330,000, there is no reason you cannot increase its value even more by adding a deck, renovating a kitchen, or installing another bathroom.
However, you have to be diligent when you do this. Building an addition or remodeling a room without going through all the proper steps can actually diminish the value of your home by burdening you or a subsequent homeowner with bringing the home into compliance with building codes. Instead of spending money on re-doing a job, you can do it the right way by obtaining plans from a professional engineer or architect, filing for the necessary permits, and complying with building codes.
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