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The House Detective: Dealing fairly with unpermitted dwellings

By Barry Stone, Certified Building Inspector Published: April 5, 2014

DEAR BARRY: In a recent article, you gave some advice that showed a lack of professional ethics. Someone wrote to you about an unpermitted guesthouse in their backyard. The building department had learned about it and had ordered them to cease using it as a rental unit. Rather than advising them to obey the law, you showed disdain for the building code and suggested ways of avoiding compliance.

If you don't agree with the laws, you should encourage people to change them. Building codes are intended to keep people out of substandard and potentially dangerous housing. The Internet is replete with stories of tragic house fires due to substandard conditions. I really find your position and the content of that column to be shocking and unprofessional.

If you want to correct this with a follow-up column, that would be great, as long as you don't further vent your negative opinions about building laws.


DEAR JANIS: You are right to suggest a follow-up article. More should be said about the laws regulating unpermitted dwellings and the ways those laws are enforced. However, a few words should be said first about the value of the building code in general.

America, without question, has the most well-conceived system of construction regulations in the world. This becomes strikingly apparent when we see the results of earthquakes in places such as California, compared with the consequences of quakes in most other countries. In other places, the casualties from earthquakes often number in the thousands, compared with major quakes in this country, where the numbers of lost lives are few and sometimes none. These differences are the direct result of our building codes. Any American contractor who has traveled abroad and taken a look at construction sites in other places has seen clear examples of construction methods that would never have been acceptable here.

Other examples of building standards that save lives are to be found in our electrical codes that prevent fires and eliminate shock hazards; the plumbing codes that regulate the use of natural gas piping to prevent fires, explosions, and asphyxiation; the mechanical codes that prevent hazardous condition involving furnaces, boilers, fireplaces, and other potentially dangerous equipment.

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