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Reuben Saltzman

Home Inspections vs. Code Inspections

Home inspections are not ‘Code’ inspections, and a lot of home inspectors treat the word Code as taboo. They call it the ‘C-word’. Today I’ll share the arguments that home inspectors make against inspecting To Code, and then I’ll share my two cents on all of this.

The case against building codes

There are two large national organizations for home inspectors in the United States: The American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), and the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors (InterNACHI). Both of these organizations make it clear in their Standard of Practice that home inspectors are not required to report on code compliance. The ASHI Standard of Practice states that “Inspectors are NOT required to determine compliance of systems and components with past and present requirements and guidelines (codes, regulations, laws, ordinances, specifications, installation and maintenance instructions, use and care guides, etc.).” InterNACHI says “The inspector is not required to determine compliance with codes or regulations.” If you look up the standard of practice for any licensed state, you’ll surely find similar language.

Besides our standards of practice, home inspectors don’t inspect To Code because it’s just about impossible to do so. If a home was built To Code 50 years ago and nothing has changed, the home still meets code requirements. That’s the way building codes work. To inspect a home To Code, I’d need to be familiar with all of the historical codes for every trade, for every time period, for every house. Even here in the Twin Cities, where we’re all supposed to be on the same page when it comes to building codes, we still have inconsistent enforcement and interpretation of building codes. There’s no way that any person could possibly keep all of this straight.

Additionally, home inspectors are not code enforcement officials. We have no authority to make anyone do anything… so what would be the point in doing a code compliance inspection anyway? Building codes continually change to help make our buildings safer, more durable, and more energy-efficient. If I inspect a 50-year old house that hasn’t had any changes made to it, and I only inspect To Code, I won’t have much to say. But because I’m doing a home inspection, I’ll surely have a lot of recommendations to make in regards to safety, durability, and efficiency. None of my recommendations have any “teeth”, as I can’t make anyone do anything, but my client will have a far better understanding of what they’re buying.

Why home inspectors should know the Code

Home inspections are conducted to educate the client; usually a home buyer. The ASHI Standard of Practice states that inspectors are required to report on Unsafe conditions, which is defined as a condition that is judged to be a significant risk to bodily injury during normal, day-to-day use; the risk may be due to damage, deterioration, improper installation, or a change in accepted residential construction standards. So what are these standards? This is not explicitly defined, but home inspectors all know that this means ‘building codes’.  This is how construction standards are defined.

Inspectors in different parts of the country have different building codes, so they also have different construction standards. What is acceptable in one part of the country might be unacceptable in Minnesota, and vice versa. Home inspectors should be expected to know what’s acceptable in their part of the country, and they should be able to prove it if necessary… and this means knowing the building codes for their area. Every home inspector ought to at least know what version of the building code is adopted in their area, and they ought to be able to look up code references anytime something comes into question.

When I say building code, I’m referring to construction codes, mechanical codes, plumbing codes, fuel gas codes, electrical codes, and energy codes. Additionally, I’m including local amendments to these codes. Here in Minnesota, we make a ton of changes to the International Residential Code, yet we make no changes to the National Electric Code. I have all of the current versions of these Minnesota codes listed on my website here: Minnesota Building Codes.

Code books

Deciding on what to include in a home inspection report is always a balancing act for the home inspector, and there is no clear right and wrong way to do it. I use the building codes as my North Star, but I must rely on a solid understanding of the “why” behind building codes in order to make my recommendations. Let’s work through a few conditions that I’ve blogged about in the past, and how I would choose to report on them.

50-year-old house with no GFCI devices. GFCI devices are life-safety devices that prevent people from getting electrocuted, and they’re required all over the place today. When I inspect a home of any age that doesn’t have GFCI devices in places like the bathrooms, kitchen, garage, outdoors, and unfinished basement areas, I recommend adding GFCI protection for added safety.

100-year-old house with a steep basement stairway. Stairways are surely the most dangerous part of a house. Old, steep stairways are less safe than modern stairways. So what do I say about an old, steep stairway? I might mention to my client that it’s less safe than a modern stairway, but that’s about all. There’s nothing that can practically be done about old stairways, other than adding handrails and guards if they’re not present.

Soft copper used for gas lines. Here in Minnesota, soft copper is an acceptable material for gas piping. It meets code, and I would have nothing to say about it. On the other hand, if I were inspecting a home in another part of the country where soft copper wasn’t allowed, I’d be sure to include this in my inspection report. I’d tell my client that material isn’t allowed because it has a greater potential to be damaged. Does this mean I’m inspecting To Code? I don’t have an answer to that question.

An air admittance valve used in place of a plumbing vent. Air admittance valves aren’t allowed here in Minnesota, but I personally think they’re fine. Nevertheless, if my client decides to remodel their bathroom someday, their plumber will surely make a stink about this and tell them “your home inspector missed this.” Because of this, I would let my client know about this condition.

A very high retaining wall with no fall protection. There’s nothing in the building code that says you need guards or fences near retaining walls to help prevent accidental falls, so what’s the problem here? A small child could still be seriously injured or killed. I’d point out this potential safety issue to my client, and suggest they consider adding a fence or guard. I wouldn’t call this a defect, just an opportunity for added safety.

I could go on and on with these examples, but I think I’ve made my point. There’s no black and white way for home inspectors to report, but I believe it’s important for home inspectors to be familiar with building codes, even if we’re not inspecting To Code.

To hear a discussion of these topics from the viewpoint of both a building official and a home inspector, check out our recent podcast with building code guru Douglas Hansen: