Reflections on Building Inspectors and Code Enforcement

Now with insulation!  And LED can lights!

Between our DIY kitchen remodel (now with insulation!) and the solar panels that we had installed in March, we’ve had quite a few inspectors stop by our house over the last month or so.

In our city, the building inspectors act as check to make sure that construction work is done to code and is properly permitted. Talking with other homeowners we know, it seems some people think building inspectors and code enforcement are  an unnecessary nuisance and don’t bother with them for DIY or even some non-DIY under-the-table projects. Heck, we’ve probably done some work over the years that probably should have been permitted*, so can’t judge those thoughts too harshly. But with bigger projects, we’ve always gotten a permit and here’s the big reason why.

We think we’re getting our money’s worth by permitting big projects.

For this kind of value determination, there are two factors:
1 – How much it costs
2 – What we get out of it

How Much Is A Permit?

In general, permits around here aren’t that expensive and all projects don’t need them. For instance, the “decorative portion” of our kitchen remodel (ie the new tile and cabinetry) didn’t require any permitting. Our permit for the “structural portion” part of the kitchen (this is just for the structural changes that the city estimated would cost a little under $7K to complete) cost about $180. And when we had to modify our permit to expand the scope of our project to include some more HVAC work, they didn’t charge us any more, though I think they could have if they wanted to. From our perspective, the city isn’t using permitting fees as a profit center. More likely the fees don’t even cover the full cost of the city’s code enforcement department, so our property taxes likely fund the remainder of the department’s budget and would whether or not we used their services.

What Did We Get?

The first big thing that we got was plan review for code compliance. While we had an architect prepare the structural plans for modifying our trusses to vault our ceiling (something we felt was out of our DIY abilities), it was really nice to have another independent set of eyes look at the plans and make sure we weren’t doing anything that was going to put us out of compliance with the Florida Building Code, a long and complex book of regulations for building that we try and adhere to, but are certainly not experts in.

8 new switches in 2 three-gang boxes controlling lights, fans, and outlets.  Not that I have any doubts in Mr PoP, but we'll gladly take a pro's eye to double check his lovely new electric runs.

8 new switches in 2 three-gang boxes controlling lights, fans, and outlets. Not that I have any doubts in Mr PoP, but we’ll gladly take a pro’s eye to double check his lovely new electric runs.

The other big value that we can see in having the inspectors out is to check our work and make sure we’re doing things correctly and not going to end up creating a fire hazard by routing the dryer vent wrong or something equally not fun. So far we’ve called the inspectors out three times for our project, and expect to call them out at least three more times before we’re all said and done with the structural part of this remodel. So we’re basically paying ~$30/visit (less if we need even more visits) to have an expert look over our DIY work.

Considering the scope of the work involved in this project contains a lot of big projects that we haven’t done before:

  • cutting into and then repairing the slab of the house,
  • adding supports and sheathing and then cutting away large parts of our roof trusses (the big wooden triangles that hold up our roof!),
  • rewiring and bringing up to date the electrical circuits in the kitchen,
  • and adding new windows,

having someone knowledgeable check our work for important items like our safety seems like a pretty good idea, especially for such a small price.

They’re Still Kindof Intimidating

Just because we value what the inspectors are doing doesn’t mean that we’re not a little bit intimidated by them. After putting months of hard work into our remodel, it’s intimidating to think about an inspector coming in and telling you that it’s all crap. I had this exact fear (nightmare, really) after watching the inspectors interact with our solar contractors.

It’s kindof a long story, but our solar panels didn’t pass inspection the first time. Or the second time. It took three inspections for our solar panel installation to pass our city’s inspection and it was all for really minor items or things that seem to be subject to interpretation in the code for these installations from the best I can tell. Watching the best solar contractor in the county jump through hoops for our inspector, and knowing that our own inspection (for a huge list of major items) was coming up soon, was incredibly stressful. After that I was terrified of what would or could happen at our own inspection.  That’s not really an exaggeration.

But then the next inspection for our house (a big one – for the trusses and other major changes!) went fine.

That made us realize, our inspectors treat homeowners and contractors very differently – but in a way that works out to our benefit. Working with us as homeowners on a DIY/Builder-Owner permit, the inspectors are more akin to advisers to the homeowner who is acting as the general contractor. When they saw something that they weren’t 100% comfortable with while with Mr PoP for our most recent kitchen remodel inspection, they told him what to do to fix it, but still signed off on the assumption that Mr PoP would fix it asap. (Mr PoP did it as soon as they left!)

When they’re working with the contractors, though, the inspectors take on a different role. Instead of an adviser to the contractor, they’re much more of a knowledgeable consumer advocate. If they see something they are not 100% comfortable with, they don’t sign off under the assumption that the contractor will fix it. They force the contractor to fix it and withhold their signature on the permit completion until they do.

It was definitely not fun having to juggle work while sitting at home waiting for inspectors more than once for the solar panel inspections. But, in hindsight, I’m glad that I’ve got these inspectors in my corner as my knowledgeable consumer advocate when it comes to contractors. I would have never been able to say to our solar contractor, “Hey. You should put waterproof splices inside this waterproof box, just to be on the safe side.” But our inspector can and did. And the contractor has to do it and our system is a little more robust because of it.

All in all, we’re pro-inspector. How about you?

 

* At the time when we did the small work, technically it should have been permitted, but in the past couple of years, our city has expanded its list of small(ish) projects that are allowed to be completed without being permitted and most of what we did when we moved in now falls under this umbrella even though it didn’t then.

 

Do you permit your DIY projects? What have your experiences with your local permitting/code enforcement/building inspectors been like?

12 comments to Reflections on Building Inspectors and Code Enforcement

  • Chasa

    I always look ascance at DIY renovations. The number of people who attempt them is such that not everyone can possibly be doing them correctly, and to hear that your permitters were easier on you than the contractors. . . Well, that just gives me the shivers. I trust that you and Mr. Pop are doing things above board but there are so many others who would NOT fix the item after the inspector leaves. The inspector should work as a consumer advocate every time (think about the next person who buys a house)! Not just when the current consumer is watching.

    • Please don’t get the shivers. The inspector didn’t “look askance” at anything that was a safety hazard. We needed to install a sticker labeling the effective length of our dryer vent and though we had the label but had not affixed it and filled out its length awaiting to see that the vent would pass inspection first. As soon as it did, the label got filled out and installed next to the vent opening. The inspector trusted us to complete this simple step knowing that the underlying vent was 100% safely installed. In contrast, our solar contractors were missing a notice label on the new electric boxes they installed. Instead of trusting them to put them on after they left, the inspector withheld signature making sure that the contractor wouldn’t overlook this step.

  • Chasa

    PS. I’m still waiting to hear how you back-spores your Roth!

    • Oooh, backdooring was actually so boring I didn’t think to write more about it. Our tax guy filled out a form saying we were making a non-deductible traditional IRA contribution of $5,500 for each of us which was sent with our taxes. Then we each opened a tIRA with Vanguard (since we didn’t have any) and funded it with $5,500 into money market funds. Because we did not opt for the brokerage option of opening the tIRA (which can take a couple of days for approval), our accounts were created within seconds. Then after that tIRA trade settled, we had to call back and speak with a “retirement specialist” to rollover our tIRA contribution to our Roth IRA, and then they read the tax disclaimers and asked us if we wanted any $ withheld for taxes (we said $0 since we have no other tIRAs so this will not have a taxable effect for us), and what funds we wanted it put into. That part took the longest, but it was maybe 10 minutes?

  • I’m pro-inspector, but I think I like to push my luck. We have a lot of outdoor work going on, some of which needs permits, although nothing on the same level as yours (electrical, structural, vents etc).

    Our fence needed a permit, which we received in September. Little did I know a permit only lasts 6 months, and the fence probably won’t be finished until NEXT September. Probably no one will notice, and even so, our city is nice enough that they would let it go. I just don’t want to pay for a duplicate permit. Our shed will also need a permit.

    I’m also planning a stone patio. I called the city about this, asking if paver patios need permits. They said no, because they are easily removed. What I didn’t mention is how crazily heavy-duty I am planning our patio to be. Pavers might weigh 1 lb or so each, but our stone blocks will be 20 lbs each. The assembly will be the same as a paver patio, so technically it won’t be permanent, but it will certainly feel permanent!
    Norm recently posted..Ridinkulous Quarterly Expenses: Q1 2015My Profile

    • Yeah, our city has the same 6 month expiration on permits, but each time you call an inspector out it resets your clock automatically. And we were told if we needed more than 6 months, we could ask for an extension and probably get it no problem, which is nice.

      Your pavers remind me of when we replaced our siding. I called twice to see if we needed a permit, but we didn’t, which was crazy to me since the 4×8 foot sheets of plywood siding on our house are huge and I think at least partially structural so we totally thought we would need a permit. But nope!

  • EL

    Never had to do such an extensive DIY remodel by myself. That’s cool they hold contractors permit until its complete, it does make it feel like they are on the consumer side. Good luck.
    EL recently posted..Making the Best of FinancesMy Profile

  • I’ll permit anything that the HOA or city could come back later and ask for – like decks, fences, etc. Other stuff, not so much..
    Mom @ Three is Plenty recently posted..The Costs of Buying and Financing a HouseMy Profile

  • Permitting just seems like a cheap insurance policy to make sure you’re doing things right! I have a feeling if you didn’t get permits and there was a problem (e.g., electrical fire) you might have problems making an insurance policy claim since it wasn’t approved. This way, the city is at least partially liable (though I doubt you could ever get money out of it) should something go wrong in the future. It’s also probably way cheaper than independently getting an inspector, so it seems well worth the cost/effort.
    MasterNerd recently posted..Investing Part 2: ETFs and Making Your Money Work, So You Don’t Have To!My Profile

  • Kendall Frederick

    I permit stuff that would show on the city’s records (square footage, # of bathrooms, etc.) or that are immediately obvious to neighbors (roof, siding).

    I just put a new metal roof on our old house, and my experience with the inspectors there was similar to yours. The dry in/nail off inspection was first, and on the phone he mentioned that I needed to be on hand to cut some paper so he could inspect the truss re-nail. When he arrived he spent about 2 minutes on the roof, commented that it looked better than most professional jobs he’d seen, and didn’t make me cut the dry-in to check the nails.

    When he came back for the final, he didn’t even get up on the roof. Before anyone thinks he didn’t care, I should say that I used to be a roofer, I’m an engineer currently, and I had specs on the metal roof, the underlayment, and had discussed the re-nail requirement in advance and shown him the nails and gun I would be using.

    My experience has been that they’re happy to help you determine the code requirement, especially if you’ve got a good attitude and ask in advance.

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