What Should Homeowners Know About Their Local Building Department?

October 24, 2011

Homeowners should know what to expect when their contractor submits a set of plans to the building department. While property owners may believe that a building department’s plan check engineers and inspectors are checking to assure a home is designed and constructed in compliance with applicable building codes, government regulations and applicable design criteria, this is not always the case.

Government officials employed by building departments will tell you that they check primarily for items that relate to health and safety. Often, however, criteria such as compliance with American with Disabilities Act, electrical, energy or building codes end up not being correctly executed after the final inspection is complete and the building certificate for occupancy is issued. Furthermore, regardless of what building department officials do or overlook, they are relieved, by law, of any liability for any act, or failure to properly inspect or for any omissions in the plans, short of fraud.

Prior to commercial or residential construction permits being issued, the construction drawings, which include various engineering and architectural details, must be reviewed and approved by a town, city or county building department’s engineers and plan check professionals. While the property owners have to pay for this service, and while building department officials may require revisions to the submitted drawings, ultimate approval does not mean the drawings are in compliance with applicable laws or standards, nor does it impose any liability on the building department or its officials for any failures or omissions. While this fact is set forth in the approved documents, many property owners and contractors are not aware of this. An actual building department approval stamp will state: “This review is intended only to verify conformity to the current edition of the Uniform Building Code. It does not relieve contractor of responsibility for requirements of project drawings and specifications.”

The building inspectors who come out to the job site are no different. Official building inspectors inspect the construction at various stages of progress, to determine whether the construction is in compliance with the approved plans. Furthermore, on the building permits themselves, the contractors who pull the permits sign a certification which reads: “I certify that I have read this application and state that the above information is correct. I agree to comply with all city and county ordinances and state laws relating to building construction.”

Essentially, what does this mean for homeowners? It means that the design professionals and contractors who are hired by a property owner are solely responsible for failure in design and construction. Just because the plans and construction were inspected and signed off by the building officials, does not mean the work was performed properly nor does it in any way insulate the designers or contractors from liability for problems with a home or structure.

Attorney Glen Van Dyke and his firm, Van Dyke Law Group has offices in Truckee, Eldorado Hills, San Francisco and Las Vegas. He has represented thousands of residential and commercial property owners and homeowners’ associations in the resolution of disputes over the construction of their homes or buildings. Property owners who have questions about possible legal issues concerning licensed contractors and designers in both California and Nevada can call 877-868-7013.

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