August, 2017
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors

Who Moved My Code?


here has been a lot of discussion lately—through emails, chat rooms and social media about why home inspectors should or should not quote codes when inspecting. For many years, the conventional wisdom in the industry has been not to quote codes due to the “liability” aspect of doing so. Well, let’s review some of the pros and cons of quoting code from a home inspector’s point of view.

Keep in mind, this information only pertains to houses up for resale, as these homes make up the bulk of most home inspectors’ business. Building Code for commercial, industrial or new construction involves a different approach that will be explained later in this article.

The Building Code is an interpretive set of minimum standards—“interpretive” being the operative word, as only the municipal inspector or his or her boss (the Building Official) have the right and authority to “interpret and enforce” the code. So, you see, it doesn’t matter how well-versed you are with the code, as a non-government inspector, your opinion does not matter. You may even be accurate as to what the interpretation is and how it’s spelled out in black and white—you will still lose the argument. Want to take your argument to court for the benefit of a client? Doesn’t matter, as the only recognized authority for interpretation and enforcement of the Building Code is the municipal inspector or the Building Official.

Now, there are some codes that are fairly uniform and consistent with most buildings. We can rely on ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs), for example, to be required uniformly at the exterior, in baths and kitchens and near pools. But when were GFCIs required? Did the jurisdiction in which you work require them when they became part of the code? As the code cycles every three years, was there a delay in adoption? As a house ages over a 20-, 30- or 40-year period, who remembers this stuff? In some municipalities, a 3-, 6- or 10-year delay in adoption of the newest edition or its supplements is not unusual.

In most municipalities, the GFCI requirement came about in the following time frame:

  • 1973: exterior receptacles (less than 6 feet from the ground)
  • 1976: bathroom receptacles
  • 1980: garage receptacles
  • 1986: kitchens and basements
  • 1990: bath lighting, pools and spas, crawl spaces, boat houses, hot tub equipment, kitchens and more

These dates represent approximate estimates based on all of the codes used nationally. They vary by degree. For example, the kitchen GFCI receptacle requirement stated in 1986 was only for receptacles within 6 feet of the sink. The GFCI requirement for all kitchen receptacles, regardless of distance, came about in 1990.

So, you see, when time is added to the interpretation, the code becomes a puzzle—a puzzle that the typical home inspector has no way of unraveling. If you make a statement in reference to the Building Code, you have a better than average chance of getting it wrong. Consequently, you may embarrass yourself and your credibility will suffer. And this is for the easy stuff that I just sampled. What about the really gnarly codes, like bearing and supports, fire blocking and loads? Once you have opened those “cans of worms,” are you willing to look in the bottom of the can? Your chances with obscure interpretations are slim, at best.

Let’s not forget the exceptions to codes. All codes have exceptions, in which the information you are reading does not apply. And, to make it more interesting, some exceptions have their own exceptions. Usually, these are found in the small print somewhere toward the bottom of the code page.

Did I mention market area? Most of us work an area that we consider our market area and that area may encompass multiple jurisdictions. For example, in my market area (that covers two counties), there may be as many as 25 jurisdictions. Imagine keeping up with 25 different code versions that change over the years. Who knows which version they are using at any given time?

One other factor is that the typical home inspector is at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to credibility with Building Codes. But, there are ways to move up the pole. I would imagine, for example, that an inspector who is well-versed in the Electric Code [NEC], could have a voice in its interpretation and revisions. By the same token, a home inspector who has training and experience with Municipal Building Codes could have a better view from the pole as well. To have a voice in what the codes mean, you need training, certification, experience, prior attendance at code meetings, a familiarity with the movers and shakers of code, and a developed or developing reputation in the code community. Is it worth it to you?

That brings us back to the original statement: “Who moved my code?” If you want to quote code, then you have to know where the code started, where it went, what’s changed and why. What is current and what was enforced at the time and in what context? Keep in mind that the same information can be conveyed in an inspection report using other “neutral” terms.

For example, you could cite a code in your report in this way: “There is no GFCI receptacle protection in the master bathroom. This is a code requirement, as the house was built in 1978.”

Or you could state: “There is no GFCI receptacle protection in the master bathroom. Good construction practice, as well as family safety, suggests installing GFCI receptacles in all bathrooms or near water sources.”

If you follow the second option, you are done and you didn’t have to crack a book. There was no house age requirement and whether you were “code accurate” or not does not enter into the report. It’s a succinct, accurate statement that is not time-dependent.

I’m not saying that quoting code is a bad idea. I am saying that doing so takes preparation and when compared with other means of conveying written information, it’s not the path that limits your liability.

When inspecting commercial, industrial or new construction buildings, however, I think that the code plays a more central role in your report. These clients have a point of view different from a residential buyer. Codes are more easily managed with new construction, because you are dealing with today and that’s a specific code at a specific time.

Ultimately, however, whether you quote code or not is a business decision that you will make. To what degree you are willing to take on managed liability is up to you. You might be thinking, “There’s money in them thar hills!” More service means more money—and the ability to charge more, as it differentiates your service from that of your competition.

Michael D. Conley is owner of Straight Inspection Service, Anna Maria, FL. He is a Certified Member of ASHI, a Certified General Contractor, a Code-Certified Building Inspector, a Code-Certified Coastal Construction Inspector and a former Municipal Building Code Official. He also serves on the ASHI Board of Directors.