Helter Shelter

Code Warrior

Just about every time we do a home inspection, somebody will ask me if the house is "up to code." I get this on 100-year-old houses, which were built before anybody in our part of the world ever heard of a building code. I get it on brand-new houses, because people assume that since there are government-certified code inspectors signing off on final codes inspections, the houses must conform with the code.

Let me make this simple: I've never seen a house that conforms with the building code. I don't care if the house is new, old, big, little, expensive, cheap, elegant, or tacky. None of them are up to code.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. If we made up our minds tomorrow to bring every old house up to code, we'd be tearing into perfectly good walls and ceilings, and ripping out useful wires and pipes. We'd be ripping out fancy oak staircases, and reframing a whole lot of sturdy roofs. Worst of all, we'd be throwing away millions of 3.5-gallon-flush toilets and replacing them with those piss-ant 1.5-gallon flushers, which just don't do a good enough job, if you know what I mean. There wouldn't be enough Dumpsters to hold all the wreckage.

Even with new houses, building strictly to the code isn't all good. As I explained a while back, there are some very smart people who think we shouldn't put vents in attics and crawl spaces, at least in the South. But, don't you know, the building codes make the builders do it. Leave out the crawl space vents, build a clean, dry, fungus-free, bugless crawl space, and the codes bubbas might just make you tear it all out and do it over, only worse this time.

While I'm on the subject of codes bubbas, let me defend them, just this once: They've got an impossible job. They can never make sure a house is built to code. A house contains thousands of parts, each of which is supposed to be installed per the manufacturer's specifications. The labor force on a residential construction site comprises dozens of people, most of whom do things just like they've always done them, and I promise that doesn' t include reading any manufacturers' specifications. If we wanted the government to by-God enforce the code, we'd have to handcuff a knowledgeable codes bubba to every laborer on the jobsite, from the time the first shovelful of dirt's turned until the last doorknob's polished. That'll never happen.

With that out of the way, I'm done defending codes enforcers.

In our part of the South, they routinely and knowingly ignore codes violations. I can say that with certainty because I've talked to them, I've faxed them, I've e-mailed them, I've sent messages via back channels, and I've written about it in this very column. I've told them over and over that I have yet to see a house with the code-required weep holes and flashing in the brick veneer. Even so, no local codes authority is requiring builders to get this detail right. It's not as if this is some trick question. All an inspecting boy needs to spot this particular defect is about 20/50 vision in one eye and a dim-bulb flashlight. It's not as if this is a meaningless defect. I know of at least one case of real enough toxic mold growing in a house, partly because the weep holes and flashings weren't done right.

I know, I know. The builders are supposed to build the houses right, whether the codes inspectors make them do it or not. But that's not happening. Just last week, I told a building manager about my standing offer to buy a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer for the first builder who got the weep holes and flashing right. He just looked at me sideways and said, "Pabst? Pabst? Where's my incentive?"

If you're about to buy a new house, and you want to make sure it's built to code (or at least somewhere close), here's what you do: Get a lawyer to review your contract with the builder, and insert a provision that the house will be built to conform with the applicable codes, and if it doesn't, the builder will have to make it conform with the codes. Also, call the local codes authority, talk to the head honcho, and explain that you know local builders often leave out the weep hole/flashing details, don't flash decks, and vent all their bathroom fans into the attic. (That can get you a crop of toxic mold, too.) Tell that honcho you'd appreciate it if his (or her) inspectors would check this stuff, and make sure it's done right.

Lissa Sims (On the Block) is retiring from the weekly grind of column deadlines, and although we'll all miss the column mightily, the good news is she will still regularly contribute features to Ace. (Once she and her family complete their imminent and forthcoming move to their dream house that is.) If you have a story idea to share with her about downtown, neighborhoods, development, or related issues, feel free to contact her directly at lsims@aceweekly.com.