DIY Laws and Codes You Don't Want to Break

building inspector touching a wall getting constructed
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Tackling home improvement projects DIY style is a great way to save money and take satisfaction in your efforts. But ignoring critical codes and laws during your undertaking can cost you in a variety of ways.

It’s important to remember that building codes are in place to ensure a safe building. Although it may feel like the county is just milking you for a dime, having an inspector clear your work means you can sleep at night knowing the job is up to snuff. Plus, insurance companies may not cover damage caused as a result of non-permitted work.

Also, a project that is completed without critical permits can be called out by an inspector when you go to sell the home. In the worst case, this could mean ripping out the job and doing it right. At a minimum, a fine is common for the infraction.

Another thing to keep in mind is the building codes vary widely from one location to the next. So even if you know the code in Florida, don’t expect it to be the same in Oregon. Regardless of location, here are some big violations to avoid.

Feel Free to Vent

gloved hands installing a vent in a wall

In nearly every area, your bathroom, kitchen, and fireplace venting must direct air to outside the house. Venting a bathroom into the attic, for example, results in moisture buildup, mildew, and even mold, violating code.

It’s Not Okay to Be on Fire

burning electrical outlet and plug

Inside the walls, all wiring must come together inside junction boxes. Never leave groups of wires hanging out behind an outlet or light switch without the metal box for protection.

While we’re on the subject of electrical outlets, make sure each circuit contains a GFCI. This is a ground fault circuit interrupter, a safety device that overrides the electrical current to the outlet in the case of a surge or other high current draw.

The Return of the Handrail

woman holding a wooden handrail in a home

Yes, even the handrail is under scrutiny in the eye of any inspector. First of all, it must be located within a specific height from the stairs. Most importantly, though, the banister must curve back into the wall, known as a handrail return. This is to avoid creating a hazard that can catch sleeves and bags, which may cause a fall down the stairs.

If you are building or renovating stairs, also pay attention to the distance between the balusters. Current codes typically stipulate balusters for any stairs interior or exterior cannot be further than four inches apart. This is a safety feature that keeps children from falling through the railing slats.

Remember to Flash

deck construction materials with flashing

If you build your own deck, you should be aware you’ll need flashing between the boards on the deck and those where they mount to the house, called a ledger. Because the area is susceptible to rot, the flashing is critical for the integrity of the deck.

While we’re on the topic, decks in general have a host of rules to consider. Be sure to check with local authorities for requirements regarding how far off the ground a deck can be, whether it necessitates a railing, and if you can build a pergola or other covering without a permit.

Be Alarmed

hands installing a smoke detector

Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are heavily regulated from production through installation because an improperly placed detector won’t protect your family. Carbon monoxide detectors should be placed outside the living area, but not near a fireplace or kitchen. According to the EPA, “Because carbon monoxide is slightly lighter than air and also because it may be found with warm, rising air, detectors should be placed on a wall about 5 feet above the floor. The detector may be placed on the ceiling. Do not place the detector right next to or over a fireplace or flame-producing appliance.”

For smoke alarms, new homes are required to have a unit inside each bedroom, mounted to the ceiling is best. However, existing homes are required to have a unit outside each bedroom and on each level. In either case, smoke detectors need to be hard wired with battery back up so they alarm in a series when one of them senses smoke.

Maintain a Window to the World

basement egress window with cement wall

Every bedroom must have an escape avenue. This means even basement rooms need to have an egress window large enough for a fireman dressed in gear to crawl through, typically a minimum of 24 inches high and 20 inches wide.

Speaking of windows, make sure yours contain safety or shatterproof glass, especially in the bathroom, kitchen, stairway and other areas where a person could fall into them and cause a breakage. When replacing windows upgrade to double pane with safety glass to avoid the ‘pain’ of high heating bills and fines from the building permits department.