“It’s not a code violation.”
“That’s not the code.”
“We build to code.”

These are all statements that new home buyers have been told by builders after receiving a home inspection report.  First, let’s define what it means to build to the code:

“In accordance with § 36-99 of the Code of Virginia, the purpose of the USBC is to protect the health, safety and welfare of the residents of the Commonwealth of Virginia, provided that buildings and structures should be permitted to be constructed at the least possible cost consistent with recognized standards of health, safety, energy conservation and water conservation, including provisions necessary to prevent overcrowding, rodent or insect infestation, and garbage accumulation; and barrier-free provisions for the physically handicapped and aged (2018 Virginia Residential Code 102.1).”

The code is a prescriptive-based method of building to ensure a minimum acceptable outcome.  The code is the maximum standard that a city or county can enforce, but the minimum standard that a builder can follow.  When a builder rebuts a home inspector’s finding by stating that it’s not a code violation, they are stating that they are satisfying the minimum acceptable standard.  Did your builder advertise, “We build minimum standard houses!”  Probably not.

Additionally, many home inspection reports will contain recommendations that are consistent with local codes.  Virginia does not allow home inspectors to report code violations, and it is important to note that a home inspection is not the same as a code inspection.  Few home inspectors have code-specific training, and it is unlikely that they will be capable of identifying every code violation.  However, the codes stem from what we have learned about buildings through experience over time.  In many cases, the home inspector will report a problem, but it won’t be cited as a code violation.  In some instances, what a builder is claiming to be up to code is actually not compliant, but the home inspector can’t tell you that!

For example, Chapter 5 gives prescriptive design specifications for constructing exterior decks.  If the deck is built with 5/4 deck boards perpendicular to joists that are spaced 20 inches on center, then this is in violation of the code (2018 Virginia Residential Code Table 507.7).  However, a home inspector would write in their report something along the lines of, “The joists were spaced too far apart for the deck boards, which may cause the deck boards to sag, deteriorate prematurely, and/or fail.”  Essentially, the home inspector tells you why instead of “because the code says so.”

Home inspectors are also likely to find issues that are not addressed by the codesIncidental damage, adverse conditions, poor workmanship, and malfunctioning equipment are not directly addressed by the code.  Examples of these issues might include mechanical damage to roof coverings, mold growth on structural members, construction designs that poorly manage water, poorly installed flashing that is prone to leaking, or a damaged furnace blowing exhaust fumes into the home.

The installation methods used with certain systems are oftentimes not compliant with the manufacturer’s instructions.  Companies want their products to perform well and invest substantial resources into research, development, and testing to ensure an optimal balance of quality and cost.  However, home inspectors frequently see problematic installation methods that are at risk of leaking but might not be in violation of the code.  Fiber cement siding, commonly known by the brand Hardie Plank, advises that backing blocks be used behind many of the wall penetrations from vents, receptacles, panels, and more to better manage water (Best Practices – Installation Guide Siding & Trim Products 19).  We regularly see these penetrations missing backing blocks and relying upon only a bead of caulk to keep them sealed.  These areas are susceptible to moisture damage from water intrusion and air leaks.  What does the code say about it?  See for yourself:

“The exterior wall envelope shall be designed and constructed in a manner that prevents the accumulation of water within the wall assembly by providing a water-resistant barrier behind the exterior cladding as required by Section R703.2 and a means of draining to the exterior water that penetrates the exterior cladding (2018 Virginia Residential Code R703.1.1).”

In this case, it is not clear to me whether a hole with caulking around it satisfies the code.  However, it is clear to me that the installation detail is at risk of leaking, and there is a better solution for a nominal difference in cost!  Which option do you expect from your builder?

Home inspectors exist in a void where we can’t inspect for code compliance, but we risk missing problems or failing to deliver useful report observations if we don’t understand the codes that hold builders accountable.  What is Property Doc doing about this?

Well, we are always iterating.  We treat our report templates as living documents; we are constantly making changes and adding more information where it counts.  Through our experience inspecting newly constructed houses, we have learned to anticipate the pushback our clients will get, and we preempt it as much as possible.  Here are a few things that we do that are beyond the scope of a home inspection to deliver more value to our clients:

  • We complete code-focused courses from the International Code Council.

  • We research current systems and components for best installation practices.

  • We hyperlink the manufacturer’s instructions in reports to support our recommendations.

  • We bolster our report comments with graphic illustrations to show correct solutions.

  • We communicate why there is a problem and what might happen as a result.

Over time, these value drivers will increase in potency as we continuously fine-tune our service to perfectly match the needs of our new construction clients.

References:

“2018 Virginia Residential Code.” ICCSafe.org, International Code Council, 10 Nov 2023, https://codes.iccsafe.org/content/VRC2018P2.

“Best Practices – Installation Guide Siding & Trim Products.” JamesHardiePros.com, James Hardie Building Products Inc, 10 Nov 2023, https://www.jameshardiepros.com/getattachment/9a1017e1-853d-4574-b3e9-7afb1a5a472d/intro-tools-hz5-us-en.pdf

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