Q. Why are we being told, now, that our second-floor bedroom ceilings are too low and the doghouse dormers aren’t legal? We’ve owned for five years and are expecting our third child. We applied for a permit to add a first-floor extension, renovate the kitchen and enlarge our master bedroom. The ceilings are 6 feet 8 inches high instead of 7 feet, but we were told this was legal, had a permit, and now the inspector sent a letter saying it isn’t legal, we can’t use our bedrooms and the windows are too small. What can we do? It would be much more expensive to rebuild our whole second floor.
A. The first thing anyone should do when buying something as costly and life-changing as a house is research before purchase. It is taken for granted that people you hire do that for you. But each one of them has a different expertise not generally related to what you asked about, building codes. The codes have changed several times in the past 20 years, complicating their application to your åcase.
It’s unfortunate that builders, building without approvals, assume something they heard about applies to all circumstances at any time. For example, I often see windows installed in a new section of a home that match the old windows. It makes sense, because everything should match, right? But the code says that new work must comply with new code, which now calls for larger openings.
Further, how much work is being done relative to the whole building is based on the opinion of building officials. If the official thinks you’re doing more than 50 percent of a home, such as renovating or adding another level, then all windows must meet the new code, not just the rooms you’re redoing or changing the use of.
The problem starts with not having the right advocate. When a family member is sick, someone goes with them to the hospital, makes sure they see the doctor, takes medications on time and asks the right questions. But buying a house is a big deal, and you needed to see the plans and records for the house, compare them with what you’re buying or have someone who reads these records do a comparison to make sure everything was legal.
It’s very common, unfortunately, when I meet a new client, to find the owner has no idea, just assumes that sales people, title companies and lawyers all knew and assured the new buyer that everything was accounted for. They may know parts of the story, but when a code official catches a condition like you describe, it presents a potentially expensive problem. What must now be done is a records search of dates. When was the construction done? Can the second floor be “maintained” based on that year’s codes, not today’s? With research, there are code exceptions that must be discussed and possibly applied.
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