Is that Grandfathered?

Grandpa is getting old

During inspections, we are often asked, “Does that meet code?” or “Is that Grandfathered?” If the building is older than a few years, the answer is probably “yes.” You see, building codes are updated every 2-4 years, with minor changes occurring each “cycle”. Existing homes do not meet the current codes.

When asked if something meets code, inspectors often give ambiguous answers. The reason is that each municipality that we inspect in has different versions of the various building codes. They may also have different interpretations of the code. This results in a great deal of confusion during a real estate transaction. New research creates new safety requirements, e.g. GFCI receptacles in damp areas. Code governing bodies meet regularly to discuss this research, hear testimony from contractors, manufacturers and other lobbyists and issue a revised Code – which then must be adopted by the local governing bodies, in total or with modifications. Confused?

“Back when I was a boy…”

Remember Dana Carvey playing the grumpy old man on Saturday Night Live? We all know somebody who comments, “back when I was a boy” (insert offending problem here). Dana Carvey was hilarious in that skit. But, we get tired of hearing people talk about their good old days that were better than they are here and now.

grumpy old man

In construction, old codes are a gray area. The good old days often have safety consequences that we find unacceptable today. Example: codes for stair construction is much more stringent today, but nobody requires rebuilding the stairs in an old house. Sometimes a municipality “grandfathers” the older code provision only until a permit is taken out for other work, at which time the new code is enforced as an upgrade. But not always.

“Sometimes a municipality “grandfathers” the older code provision only until a permit is taken out for other work, at which time the new code is enforced as an upgrade.”

R. Heyl and Associates, LLC

What about change of ownership?

Another example: Required installation of GFCI safety receptacles near sinks and other damp areas at a change of home ownership or tenant occupancy may be required in some municipalities. In all cases, when and how “grandpa” functions is totally controlled by the local code enforcement body. Result: Another Layer of Confusion.

Codes are inconsistently enforced

If it is not readily apparent, codes are inconsistently enforced. Enforcement may be rigorous, or relaxed, depending on the mood of the individual inspector, or whether the alderman has gotten recent flack from his constituents. Sometimes strict code compliance is waived because of individual or neighborhood hardship. In any case, it may not be possible to know exactly what code compliance entails in any given area on any given day. Now we have something approaching Code Chaos.

code book
A thick code book!

Private Fee Paid Inspectors are not Code Police

Multiply this by over 200 separate communities in our area and you began to get an idea why a building inspection cannot be a code compliance report. It is simply not possible for a private inspector to keep up with what constitutes code compliance in all these jurisdictions. More importantly, private inspectors have no legal right to mandate, enforce, or otherwise police, code compliance. That task properly belongs only to the duly authorized local governing body. A private inspector should have considerable knowledge about codes. S/he should be able to discuss intelligently the general intent of codes, the consequences of specific deficiencies and the wisdom of code safety improvements, but a private inspector cannot make anybody “bring anything up to code.”


So it is not surprising when an inspector sounds non-committal when asked if something “meets code.” Codes are important for consumer safety and health but they are also complex, dynamic, technical, inconsistent, and complicated. Give the inspector a break. Listen to all that they can tell you about the house, but remember, even if something does not “meet code” it may not require correction – “Grandpa” may be in charge. Who is in charge at your home?

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