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 Tauscher, Cronacher

Anthony J. Grieco, Licensed & Registered Architect

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Approvals for Changes and Additions

The bottom line question is- "Is the house legal?"

The simple and direct answer is this- you want to purchase a home that is legal.  Thus all needed building and site approvals need to be obtained prior to purchasing the premise.

In general terms, the purpose of the building and zoning codes is to protect the public from unsafe, unsanitary, and inappropriate buildings. Building codes represent a collection of minimum standards for construction.

Thus when we are told it is "Built to Code" they are telling you that your home meets only minimum standards. If the construction of a house can be compared to a report card, its grade will be just passing. Anything less will be sub-standard or poor construction.

Quality or superior construction should not be measured in terms of code compliance alone, but rather to the extent that a building exceeds minimum standards. Unfortunately buyers of new or re-sale homes and owners that engage home improvement firms anticipate quality construction only to be surprised by the existence of this lower standard- Built to Code.

During the construction phase the building department representative inspects the work in stages. Any unacceptable work must be corrected or no final approval will be issued.

Typically the building department inspector will observe the sub-soil conditions and size and depth of the foundation wall footing, see that the electrical wires were properly installed before the drywall is installed, check that the contractor used the right number and size of nails at each connection, and a host of other items that will be concealed when the house is finished. Thus the building department approval is a good indication that the concealed work meets the minimum building standards.

If building changes or additions do not meet code requirements, the current owner is financially responsible to correct the code violation. Regardless if the current seller purchased the house with violations or caused violations, the current owner is responsible for the conditions and corrections. If the new buyer purchases the premises with violations, knowingly or unknowingly, the new owner is now responsible for the conditions, and responsible for all the needed corrective work and all the costs associated with correcting and removing the violations.

Typically building departments issue certificate of occupancies (C of O) for new homes and certificate of completions (C of C) after changes or additions are completed. Thus there may be several certificates for a house depending on when the changes or additions occurred.

Although each building department may have different requirements for when approvals are needed, in general approvals for changes, additions, and alterations are needed as follows:

Major additions to the building like: a new room, a new wing or dormer, garage or apartment. 

Adding or changing the size and/or location of bathrooms and kitchens, fireplace or wood stove, whirlpool or hot tub, in-ground or above ground pool, and other items.

Changing the use of a room or area, like changing a screen porch into a den, an unfinished basement into a den with bedrooms and a bathroom, and a garage into a family room or bedrooms.

Vaulting or raising ceilings, adding skylights that require alteration to the attic area structure.

Adding or increasing the size of doorways (replacing a window with a sliding door), arches, or windows.

Removing supporting columns or bearing walls.

Relocating fossil fuel burning equipment used to heat the house and for producing domestic hot water.

Further, the codes may require changes in existing building or changes when existing items are replaced. Some of these items are as follows:

Requiring, for fire egress reasons, lower window openings (maximum height for window sill of 42 inches except 54 inches in the basement) when installing replacement windows.

Replacing existing electrical outlets that are within six feet of water fixtures with ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) devices when kitchens and bathrooms are updated.

Installing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in various parts of the premises.

Installing a pressure relief valve on a well water holding/pressure tank and a back flow valve on a lawn sprinkler system.

Installing fire sprinklers in rooms used for burning fossil fuel for heating.

The above examples may be too extensive or not extensive enough. The building department that has jurisdiction over the premises should be consulted for a complete list of requirements.

After all the needed approvals are obtained, the filed drawings that pictorially show the actual changes and additions should be obtained. The certificates and approved drawings must be compared to each item as constructed. Sometimes the certificate and drawings indicate one thing and the actual items are constructed differently-thus the certificate is not valid. Examples are a 12 x 15 foot deck that was constructed larger, or a 4 x 4 foot skylight was added after the new family room was approved.

All the above information and documents are available at your local building department. Sometimes the documents can be reviewed for free or obtained after filing a freedom of information request and paying a nominal fee.

Even if you are planning major renovation work to your newly purchased house, the bottom line is this- you want to purchase a home that is legal.





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