Tips For Working With The Building Inspector

Even if your project is a small DIY deck it's probably going to require a building permit due to the footings, so you'll need to have the project inspected by the building inspector, also known as a code enforcer. Here are a few tips for dealing with building inspectors.

In our area, the building inspectors are part of the Fire Department. The more populated the area, the more likely code enforcement will have its own separate department.

Tips for working with a Building Inspector

  • do your homework
  • local rules rule
  • meet with the inspector before starting the project if possible
  • keep appointments
  • don't hate the building inspector
  • good communication is key

Do your homework. Once you decided to build the deck yourself, you became the general contractor and it falls on you to make all the decisions and do all the research a GC would have done. It's your responsibility to determine the spacing and depth of the footings, the allowable size of the ledger and joists, height of the railing, spacing of balusters, and allowable tolerances for the stairs. The building inspector is only there to inspect your work; he's not your friend, mentor, teacher, and certainly not your contractor. The building inspector won't mind if you ask for clarification on certain points as long as he sees you've made an attempt to find the answers on your own, but local lawmakers probably forbid him from offering specific building advice because they fear liability if anything goes wrong.

Local rules rule. When researching building codes for decks, start with your town's building code - don't rely on the IRC code guidelines alone. The IRC building codes aren't laws - most are designed as broad guidelines that can't address each and every local soil type, frost depth, population density, or zoning regulations. Some of your local building codes may be the same as the IRC, but some will probably be different. As always, local is best, and when building a deck local codes almost always supercede IRC building codes.

Meet with the inspector. Meeting with the building inspector ahead of time when neither of you is under any pressure is a good idea, and allows you to clarify any gray areas. Look into your zoning laws ahead of time to see if there are any setback or variance requirements. Explain what size deck you plan to build, show a basic sketch of the deck, and ask if that sketch can be used to obtain the building permit. This preliminary meeting also gives you a chance to assess the building inspector's personality.

Keep appointments. You'll need to have several inspections while building the deck - one for the footings, one for the underlying structure (beams, joists), and the final inspection for decking, stairs, and railings. Don't make an appointment you can't keep. Squeezing in the building inspector between other obligations is not a good idea. You're not the only project the building inspector has to visit, and he won't appreciate you not showing up on time.

Don't hate the building inspector. If you feel the code enforcement officer is being unfair or abusing his power, try to look at it from his side first before filing a complaint. The reason building codes and building inspectors exist is because a contractor (or homeowner) did something stupid (either intentionally or due to ignorance), which caused a health, safety, or community aesthetics concern. The building inspector didn't make the rules. The building codes were created and approved by a planning board, zoning board, and/or homeowner's association. The building inspector is simply enforcing the existing rules, and his job is on the line, not yours. If you still feel the BI is being unreasonable, you can always file a complaint with his boss.

Good communication is key. The absolute #1 rule when working with a building inspector is the same as any other relationship: keep the lines of communication open, and be polite even if you think the building inspector is being unreasonable. He's not there to make your life miserable. Code enforcement officers are paid to make sure the building is constructed correctly and safely according to established codes.