Feedback on Building Inspectors

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The purpose of building inspectors is to protect the public by ensuring that buildings are safe.

I wish to take exception to a single sentence in Les Scher’s chapter on “Building and Health Codes” (see “Meet Local Building Codes When You Build Your Own Home“), mainly for the attitude it expresses. The author states, in connection with the building inspector, “The most important part of his job is collecting the fees and that is his primary concern.” While that may, unfortunately, be true in some cases, I look on inspectors as a resource and as potential friends … who are nonetheless capable of giving me quite a bit of trouble and must be treated with respect.

Basically, electrical, building, heating and plumbing inspectors are there to protect the public. Their job is to ensure that a building is safe and that no part of it endangers anyone’s life. If their work has been done correctly, you’re assured that any house you buy will meet a certain standard in regard to the fundamentals.

If you’re building your own home, the inspector will force you to do it right and make the structure safe. His supervision means that the finished product–while it may be an aesthetic nightmare–is at least habitable and, in the long run, capable of being sold to someone else–as it will be eventually, since houses typically outlast their builders and first owners. And, even if you don’t give a hang about whoever may live there next, careful use of increasingly scarce timber to fabricate a home that will last a hundred years or more makes good ecological sense.

As for the inspector himself … well, work with him, riot against him, get to know the guy if you can. Tell him what you’re up to and let him see that you’re concerned about doing the job right. Ask his advice. In my experience, inspectors tend to be older people, and the elderly are flattered by having their opinions sought.

I’m not suggesting hypocrisy (not everyone soaks up knowledge with the passing years) but many such officials have been around for a while and will likely tell you what you need to know or will gladly refer you to someone who can. Chances are the inspector deals mostly with building contractors–maybe he was once a contractor himself–and both he and they are often long-established members of the community. Need a 6 X 6 timber for a support beam? Ask Mr. Inspector where to procure one. He’ll probably know which farmers sell wood on the side, if there’s no sawmill or lumberyard in the area. Be courteous and gracious. Simple!

It’s true that many inspectors tend to be conservative–some to extremes–and that can be a problem if you’re into novel techniques of construction which differ from what is customary in the area. It’s fine by me, though, since I’m not interested in new housing methods. I just want to be able to sell a place quickly and at a profit if and when I change jobs (and not all my job changes have been by my own choice).

If, however, you happen to be a longhaired freak–as some of my best friends are–and into radical living styles, you’ll have to come to terms with the fact that getting a house built, inspected, and approved means a fair degree of involvement with straight bureaucratic types. A good approach is to keep a low profile when you have to work with such people. If you’re in a really conservative area, grow the hair back later when the building is done. And if you think you’ll be compromising your principles … look, what are your objectives? Do you want a confrontation with the inspector over appearances and lifestyles, or do you want to get the house in? The wheel turns better if you don’t make a point of taking the grease out of the bearing.

Put yourself in the inspector’s shoes and think about what his job must be like. How would you react if you were he and had to deal with you? The guy who builds his own place is often–by definition–a pain in the neck, and the official’s experiences may well bear out.

Recently I went to a nearby city to get advice on plumbing and sewer codes, and walked into a major gripe session with the secretary and two inspectors complaining at length about the problems they’d just had with some contractor, and planning to let him sit awhile as a reward. Meanwhile, I stood there–me, a taxpayer–cooling my heels for some 20 minutes and waiting for service. Finally the secretary turned to me and asked gruffly, “Well, what do you want?” I grinned and said, “Hey, aren’t you glad it’s Friday?” (It was Monday morning.) All three burst out laughing and proceeded to tell me all about the troublemaker as if I’d never heard a thing.

Finally the inspectors asked, “Well, what can we do for you?” And I said, “Look, I got a problem with some plumbing ’cause I bought this old place and if you ever saw it you’d have a heart attack, and I want to take care of it by spring but I work for the state like you guys do and you know how well they pay so I’m doing a patch job for the winter and what can I do for the short term?” And they told me how to work out a temporary repair, and who could do the job for me but wouldn’t call them in to check it. In short, they helped me circumvent the law, yet warned me about why a shortcut would catch up with me in the long run. A most pleasant experience.

Yeah, I know, that’s the ideal. Some inspectors can’t be worked with or reasoned with. It’s the Army way or not at all, and if you’re doing the job yourself and screwing some local contractor out of his livelihood, that is not the Army way. Look, nobody ever promised you your belly would always be full. If the guy is a real corker, you can always get a good story out of your experience with him.

Above all, remember that the inspector–difficult or not–is there for a sound reason. I was reminded of that fact recently when we completely rewired our old farmhouse. We’d never done wiring before, but when I got a shock in the shower I figured the time had come to start learning. The local library supplied the books, and I got to know four electrical inspectors in county, local and nearby city offices, spreading my inane questions among them equally. All proved extremely helpful and were very free with advice on how to interpret code requirements, how to handle unusual circumstances, where to get special supplies, and what they were especially keyed to look for on a do-it-yourself job.

I’ll admit that I was pretty uptight about what the inspectors might do to me when they came out to check over my work, but a friend of mine taught me to look at it all from another point of view. “Look,” he said, “they’re your pals. If you did something wrong, it’s their job to find it and make sure one of your kids doesn’t get killed. They’re paid out of your taxes to prevent some idiot from doing a sloppy and unsafe job.”

He was right, of course, and the care we’d taken paid off. The inspector spent a half hour at our place and said, “I couldn’t improve on your work.”