If you have had any construction work done to your home recently, you have most likely had to deal with getting local permits and inspections. This process can at times be frustrating, time consuming and costly. So, where do these codes and regulations come from, and why should we have permits pulled and inspections completed for our construction projects?

Even though the permitting and inspecting process can be frustrating, it is a critical component in making sure that work being done in your home is done safely and properly. When a contractor pulls a permit for work to be done, they are notifying the local municipality that they are going to begin work on a home and they agree to perform work the minimum standards stated in the applicable code book. Then, when the work is inspected by the municipality, they verify that the work was done to those standards and that no shortcuts were taken. By completing work within compliance of the IRC (International Residential Code) it ensures that your project meets the applicable minimum safety and construction standards. This process can give you the peace of mind that your project was completed correctly and is safe to enjoy for years to come.

Where do building codes come from?

Building codes and regulations began in the early 1900s as a way of creating standards for construction work. Eventually, three main organizations emerged as the primary developers of building construction codes. Building Officials Code Administrators (BOCA) developed codes used primarily on the East Coast and in the Midwest. Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI) developed codes used in the Southeast portion of the US, and International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO) developed codes that were primarily used on the West Coast and in the Midwest. While there was tremendous value in having these organizations write construction codes, there was also confusion within the construction industry. The three organizations all had similar but different views on what should be included in construction codes. It wasn't until the 90s that those differing details were clarified. In early 1994, BOCA, SBCCI, and ICBO decided to consolidate their efforts and create one central, national organization. Their combined efforts resulted in a new organization: the International Code Council or ICC. This consolidated organization then released its first code book three years later in 1997, with updated editions published every three years thereafter. The International Residential Code (IRC) is a code book specific to construction of one and two-family dwellings. This is the code book that municipalities reference for the construction standards that they enforce through the permitting and inspecting process. This is what creates the minimum bar that contractors must live up to.

Home Contractors and Permits

So, what does it mean if a permit is required for work being done, but the contractor fails to obtain it? This is usually a bad sign, and is definitely cause to reconsider your choice in contractor. More importantly, it can be the first of many common issues related to contractors who avoid obtaining permits.

Honest Mistakes

Failure to get a permit could be an honest mistake, and the contractor simply missed the detail of filing the necessary paperwork. While it's an honest mistake, it is not a harmless one. Not having permits pulled for work that has already been completed can have consequences down the road. For example, if you try to sell your home, there could be problems at closing due to non-permitted projects. Also, collecting insurance payments to cover damage from disasters like a fire or flood may be denied if you have significant, non-permitted work done in your home. Insurance companies can claim that work done to your home was not properly permitted or inspected, so how can they be sure it was done to the minimum safety standards? You could easily be left in a legal battle between your contractor and your insurer. This “honest mistake” shows that the contractor you have hired isn't detail oriented. If the contractor can't file paperwork correctly, how can they be trusted to complete your project correctly?

Building Codes Change

Failure to get a permit could also mean the contractor didn't know it was required for your specific project. It is true that codes change over time. So, it's also possible that work that previously didn't require a permit may now be governed by a code change that requires that permits be pulled. In this unlikely scenario, it's understandable that a contractor didn't get a permit before starting your project. However, more often than not, if a contractor is worth their salt, they know what projects do or don't require permits. If they truly didn't know a permit was required, it's a red flag that they may not complete projects like yours very often.

Shady Contractors

Failure to get a permit could also mean that the contractor simply didn't want to do the work. There are two key reasons a contractor would not want to pull a permit when they know it is required, and neither of them are good. The first reason could be that the contractor knows what the codes require, but they either don't have the skill to be able to follow the codes or they don't have the type of experience the code requires. The second reason a contractor may not want to pull a permit is because they want to cut corners on the project to save money. These shortcuts mean more money for the contractor but it's done at your expense. Regardless of the reason, if a contractor is trying to avoid the permit process, the homeowner will be left to deal with the consequences. Key takeaway? Make sure you choose the right contractor for you project.

No Code Exists

The final reason a contractor may not get a permit for work being done is because this specific type of work does not have a code written for it in the IRC and the municipality has chosen not to enforce any construction practices. This will occasionally happen. Typically, the work being done in this situation is in a niche market where there is not a high demand or prevalence of this type of work. The absence of written code for the work does not mean it is an insupportable project but simply that the ICC has not yet focused their efforts on writing code for this rarely used solution. Foundation repair projects can often fall into this category. To protect yourself in these situations as a homeowner, be sure to insist that the contractor uses accepted engineering principles to design your project. Don't let the contractor simply use guess work when it comes to stabilizing your home's foundation.

Who's Responsible?

The final thing to consider with permits and home projects is that the person ultimately responsible for the permit is the homeowner. If the contractor doesn't file for a permit, the homeowner will be the one to pay the price in the future. But don't let the permitting process get you down! Instead, appreciate the protection permits provide for you, the homeowner, and insist your contractor follows all local building codes and regulations.

To learn more about building codes in the Omaha and Lincoln areas, in addition to this history behind the ICC, visit the links below.

Lincoln NE: IRC 2012 https://lincoln.ne.gov/city/build/codes.htm

Omaha NE: IRC 2006 https://permits.cityofomaha.org/codes-amendments

History of ICC: https://www.iccsafe.org/about-icc/overview/about-international-code-council/

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