It’s easy to indulge your imagination and creativity when planning to build your dream home, or when planning a renovation or addition to your home.
As you evaluate and select architects, contractors, and styles of windows or decks, the possibilities seem endless and exciting. But you need your feet to stay grounded in reality to ensure the best outcome.
Laws for Building a House
First and foremost, before a single shovel of dirt has been dug, you need to familiarize yourself with all the construction-related laws you should know before you build.
Ownership of land doesn’t mean you can do what you want with it. Further, everyone may not have been as careful as they should have been in the past, and laws can change over time, so the presence of an existing structure on a lot doesn’t mean it’s there legally.
However, property records are available to anyone. You’ll want to get the parcel map, find your APN (assessor’s parcel number) and make sure your parcel is an approved building site before you build. You can search online to find out where to go for records in your area. They are typically held at the county courthouse, the county recorder’s office, city hall, or another city or county department such as the tax assessor’s office.
Zoning laws cover how land can be used, and what type of building is permitted on the land. Zoning information is available to the public.
Talk to your local zoning office, city hall, or other local planning board about obtaining the zoning information relating to your lot to make sure there are no restrictions or regulations that would prevent you from building in your desired spot, and obtain their permission before you build. This is different than a building permit, which we’ll cover later.
Ordinances and Covenants
Even small rules and regulations can interfere with your build. It’s up to you to ensure your proposed build is in compliance with local ordinances and covenants.
Your zone might be approved to build a certain type of structure, but a local ordinance restricts the size or height of that structure. You’ll want to obtain written approval from the planning commission or commissioner in your municipality to ensure you’re good to go. The best place to find this information is typically your town’s city hall or mayor’s office, department of housing, or other local government office.
If you are building where there’s a Homeowners Association (HOA), you should also ensure the build is in compliance with neighborhood covenants. If you don’t have a copy of the covenants as an owner in the community, they might be available from the local county assessor’s office.
The bylaws of a community aren’t required to be recorded publicly, but you should at least be able to find your HOA contact’s information at the county assessor’s office, from whom you can request a copy.
While zones determine land usage, building codes deal with physical structures on the land and the details of the structure. In the U.S. as well as several other countries, these codes are a standard covered under the International Building Code (IBC). While some of this has to do with fire prevention, these codes also reference and are inclusive of other codes, such as the International Plumbing Code and the National Electric Code.
If your area uses the IBC, it adopts the other included codes along with it. Usually, your project’s engineer, builder, or contractor will make sure all aspects of the build meet code, but you can and should research them yourself. Many codes are available online by doing a specific search, but your city or town should have a local building codes department if you can’t find what you want.
Permits and Plans
Of course, a building permit is needed if you are building or remodeling a house, and you’ll need to submit your plans for approval to your local code office. This includes drawings of the structure, measurements, floor plans, what material will comprise the exterior, and an elevation view. FEMA offers a great checklist to help you understand the permitting and approval process.
Under the law, the person who obtains the permit is considered the contractor for the project and is liable for construction-related damages. As the homeowner, you can partner with others in this process, but ultimately it’s on you to make sure your ducks are in a row.
Be clear with anyone on your team in this journey about who will be pulling (filing) permits, such as a contractor or builder, with a full understanding of when each permit needs to be obtained. If you’re working with a contractor who even hints at skipping this process, run.
You typically will need multiple, additional permits for different systems if you’re building a new home. If you’re replacing outdated pipes or installing an underground sprinkler system, for example, you’ll need a plumbing permit.
You may also need electrical, mechanical, and even grading permits depending on what your are building. An experienced contractor will pull all the required permits when needed.
Permits: Help or Hindrance?
Permits should be accounted for in your budget, and can also affect your timeline. Include time and costs for permits before you build, even if your project is only a renovation or addition. Some people see obtaining all of these permits and following the rules as cumbersome, but a good, smart builder, architect, designer, or contractor will never skip these important steps.
Frequent communications with everyone involved in your build project, combined with your understanding of the process, will ensure the proper steps are being taken.
If you’re doing it yourself, be informed, educated, and compliant from the start, or else your project could end up having to be altered or even completely removed later on. Do your research and build smart.