Construction Laws to Know Before You Build a House

Group of people talking on a construction site.
  • Beginner

Even if your great grandparents built their own home and passed down the DIY know-how through the generations, constructing a home from the ground up is heavily regulated and you likely won’t be able to follow directly in their footsteps.

Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than simply having the tools and skills required to build a house. You must play by the rules or face huge fines.

In fact, you may be required to dismantle your work in order to meet the requirements so be sure you understand the laws specific to your build before breaking ground.

1. Zoning

Every piece of land is zoned in a specific way. For example, it might be zoned as commercial, industrial, or residential. You’ll need to make sure the lot you plan to build on matches the end goal.

Start with a visit to your local zoning department. Zoning information is open to the public so this step might even take place before you own the property.

2. Lot Approval

Men talking on a jobsite

If the zoning works out, you’ll need to make sure you’re dealing with a buildable lot. Some land isn’t deemed buildable by planning departments for a variety of reasons. Others might require engineering reports or changes to the structure of the land before it can be built upon.

It’s important to note that just because the lot may already have a structure on it, it doesn’t mean it’s currently a buildable lot. You may find the existing structure was grandfathered in, meaning it was already standing when a law changed.

The same holds true for a structure that was built without attention to regulations. If someone broke the rules before you, regulatory oversight will correct those wrongs during your shift. It’s best to never assume you have a buildable lot until you ensure you do.

Again, this is something you can do before you invest in property since property records are available to the public through the assessor’s office.

3. International Building Codes

The IBC, or International Building Codes, are a set of codes meant to provide universal guidance towards safe building practices and ensure the long-term safety of the building. The code includes regulations from a variety of disciplines, ranging from plumbing to electrical and beyond.

In contrast to zoning and lot approvals, the IBC pertains to the actual build itself. It will include things like width of doorways, egress access, height of stair risers, railing construction and rules adopted as part of the International Plumbing Code and the National Electric Code.

Any reliable contractor and builder will be aware of this code if it’s applicable in your area. It’s one primary reason to hire professionals, even if you’re capable of building the house yourself.

However, it’s important to know that even if your contractor handles the permitting paperwork, in the end, you’re responsible for any cut corners, so be upfront with your contractor on the topic.

4. Local Ordinances

workers reviewing paperwork on an jobsite

In addition to general building code regulations, your particular area might have additional conditions, covenants, and restrictions (CCRs).

Sometimes these are implemented as part of a housing development. Other times CCRs are enforced by the Homeowner’s Association (HOA).

If your home location is in an area covered by an HOA, there isn’t an option to opt out. You’ll pay an annual fee to be part of the HOA and in return, it acts as an oversight committee to ensure all homeowners under the agreement play by the same rules.

Typical HOA topics include the location of outbuildings, height of the house, fencing, and even paint options for the exterior of the home.

By building in an area with an HOA, you’re agreeing to these terms whether you know about them or not, so read the title report carefully.

5. Permits

Facing the local planning department is another level of required approvals and it’s an important one. Permits are needed for nearly every part of the build, and it can be both expensive and time-consuming to proceed without them.

Make the planning department your first and frequent stop. They’ll want to see detailed plans for the project and, depending on what type of build or renovation you’re tackling, will likely require inspections along the way.

Get a list of everything required here and plan to meet requirements in a timely and efficient way to minimize delays.