You’re off and running with your DIY project, looking to become a home improvement hero and saving some cash in the process. Sure, you may know your way around power tools, but you could be the dumbest guy in the neighborhood.
The trap? Building codes, those rules and regulations that govern everything from lumber spans to the clearance in front of a toilet. If you don’t comply with building codes, you may be on the hook for fines and an expensive tear-out and redo of your project.
Heck, you say. Nobody is going to notice a little bathroom renovation going on in the back of your house. That may be true, but the real intent of building codes is to make sure your house is safe and healthy. Not conforming with codes could even cost you when you decide to sell your homea sharp-eyed inspector undoubtedly will spot violations that shrink your asking price or tank a potential sale altogether.
That’s one big advantage that a building contractor has over an ambitious DIYer. A contractor needs to keep up with building codes that change from state to state and from town to town.
But if you’re determined to forge ahead and on your own (we know you are!), watch out for these common code no-nos that trip up many a DIYer.
You may think not applying for a building permit helps shave costs and sidesteps all the bureaucratic BS, and you’d be rightand wrong. Skipping permits means you won’t have access to your local building inspector, somebody who knows all the codes and can ensure your project is in compliance. That translates to the utmost safety for you and your family, and avoids code violation stumbling blocks when it comes time to sell your house.
“By far the biggest mistake do-it-yourselfers make is not getting the right permits,” says Rich Nolan, a structural engineer and owner of Nolan Engineering in Burt Hills, N.Y., a firm that specializes in home inspections. “You may think you can do without permits, but that can really come to haunt you in the end.”
Want more motivation? Your insurance company may not cover your loss if it was due to improper installation or construction.
Improper Bathroom Venting
Got that new humidity-controlled venting fan all snugged up in the bathroom ceiling? Good job, but if your fan vents into an enclosed attic space, it’s a code violation.
Dumping humid air into an enclosed attic can lead to mold growth and rotted wood. Codes say your fan should expel humid bathroom air to the outside via a 4-inch diameter vent pipe, typically the shortest route possible for maximum efficiency. A soffit vent is a good exit point.
Junction Box Blues
Congratsyou successfully wired up a new outlet in your bath remodel. But unless electrical connections are made inside an approved junction box, it’s a code no-no. Junction boxes protect electrical connections and help prevent fires. Also:
- Junction boxes must be visible and accessible.
- Wire ends inside boxes should be at least six inches long so connections are easy to make.
- Wires entering a box must be clamped to the box to prevent movement.
Many Happy Handrail Returns
Whew! You got that new handrail on the stairs to the second-floor bedroom just in time for grandma’s visit. But unless the ends of your wall-side handrail make a 90-degree turn and dead-end into the wall, you’re violating code. Why? The open ends of a handrail can easily snag a purse strap or loose piece of clothing. Combine that goober with a set of stairs, and you’ve got a recipe for a hospital visit.
Your accounting skills may be fine, but if your deck isn’t properly attached to your house with a safe and secure ledger board, you could be putting your whole graduation party at risk. According to the North American Deck and Railing Association, some 40 million existing residential decks were built prior to 1990before stricter codes for deck construction mandated safer techniques.
Ledgers are key points of deck failures. A ledger should be bolted or screwed directly to the house framingnot nailedand must be protected with flashing to prevent moisture damage.
Wrong Way Smoke Detection
The best protection you have in the event of a fire is a smoke detector. They’re required on every floor of your house, inside every sleeping area, and outside every bedroom entry. Alarms on ceilings must be at least 4 inches away from walls, and alarms on walls must be 4 to 12 inches from the intersection of the wall and ceiling. For optimum performance, keep alarms at least 3 feet away from HVAC vents, ceiling fans, and lighting fixtures.
Smoke alarms in new construction must be hard wired and include battery backup, and multiple alarms must be wired together so that all alarms go off at the same time. If you’re doing a renovation project on a house, you must update any battery-only alarms to meet the current requirements.
The Bottom Line
Our recommendation is to play it straight, and keep your project on the level. Before you begin work, check your local building codes and permit requirements. Most municipalities and counties have local codes available on their websites. Unsure? Call your building department and ask for clarification.