The Myth Of The Grandfather Clause
by Garet Dennis
What Does Grandpa Know About Building Codes?
It’s almost inevitable. At some point during an inspection of an older home almost every client asks: Does it meet code? Unfortunately, there’s no straight answer to that question. Let me explain.
The first thing to understand is that building codes are a moving target. They change regularly. Model building codes are written by large national organizations made up of lots of smart folks from government, industry and the building trades. They get together occasionally, argue a lot and decide what’s best for the rest of us. Most codes are updated every 3 years.
Some code changes are due to the constant improvement in building products. Others are intended to make houses safer. Still more changes are made as we gain more knowledge of how building materials hold up (…or don't hold up!).
"Does it meet code?" Depends on when you ask. Something can meet code just fine today, but not tomorrow. Even a 10 year-old house that was built perfectly is not going to meet today's code. (Note: I haven't yet found a house –new or old– that's been built strictly 'to code'.)
Codes Are Inconsistent
Different Strokes For Different Folks
Colorado does not have a state-wide building code. There are several different model code versions currently in use in the Denver metro area. Each municipality chooses which model code they want to adopt. If that’s not bad enough, most municipalities adopt their own set of amendments to the model building codes. City code can be different from the code in the unincorporated county. There are literally dozens of different building code variations in use within the metro area.
"Does it meet code?" Depends on where you are. It’s not humanly possible for a private home inspector to keep track of it all.
The Code Police
Private home inspectors have no authority to enforce the building code. That responsibility rests squarely with the municipal inspectors. To add even more confusion, the code is interpreted differently by individual municipal inspectors.
"Does it meet code?" Depends on who you ask. Ask someone else and you may get a different answer.
Whose Grandpa are we talking about here?
The word ‘grandfather’ does not appear in the building codes. Why not? Because building codes are for new construction only; they’re not retroactive. Building codes simply don't apply to existing construction. Many older houses pre-date the earliest building codes. The older the house, the more likely that it's not up to snuff by today's standards.
In reality, there is no such thing as ‘grandfathering’. For example, a municipal inspector is not going to waltz into your charming, newly-acquired Victorian era house and tell you that you have to rebuild the staircase because it doesn't meet code. However, if for some reason you want to rebuild the stairs then the work has to meet current building codes because that would be considered new work.
"So, Does It Meet Code?"
Codes are important. They give us a reference for a house that's safe and will withstand the test of time. But they're also a shifting target that is complex, technical and inconsistent. A home inspector should know the intent of the code and be able to tell you why something needs repair, but please don't ask "Does it meet code?"