Homesteading With Code Requirements

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray
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When we built our current home in 1992, there were very few rules and codes that could damage or destroy our dream of doing most of the work in building our cabin ourselves. There were only two codes that we had to comply with, and they were the electrical code and septic tank permit.

The electrical code required an open wall inspection, closed wall inspection and final inspection and the septic tank installation had to be approved by the county health officer.

Today things have changed. Being able to build without numerous permits seems to be a thing of the past. We look back fondly at not having to endure lots of paperwork to build our home. Times like that are rapidly disappearing and those who build now must endure permits, inspections, delays and forced compliance. The dream of building your own home could be more complicated than just knowing construction techniques nowadays.

Then and Now

I recently had the opportunity to talk to a person who also has a dream of being their own contractor like we had done so many years ago. This person now must comply with codes and endless permits and the result is they are weighed down with bureaucratic paperwork which takes some of the enjoyment out of the experience of being your own contractor.

In our case, we had the shell home built by a local contractor because we lived back east in Pennsylvania and couldn’t get enough time off work to do that aspect ourselves. Back then, we were not burdened by expensive permits, bludgeoning codes and multiple compliance inspections.

We did our own electrical run and then had it checked by a licensed electrician. We also did our own plumbing along with the interior work. Having the electrical and plumbing checked by professionals was worth the extra cost and insured we had safe and functional systems installed. When we had our domestic well drilled, the drilling company took care of the permitting process as the permit had questions we were not capable of answering.

Repeated inspections slows down construction progress considerably because you must wait for step by step approval to proceed.

Curiosity recently compelled me to go on line and check out the current codes in our area. I was surprised with the detailed codes currently in effect. When the county first decided to adopt land use codes in 1997, they were construction friendly, but over several land use administrators and 19 years, they have been constantly revised and have become more restrictive. With all the permits and government control, it now has the tendency to take the edge off a dream for someone who wants to do the work themselves.

The Minefield of Codes and Permits

As the codes become more specific, they seem to take on a life of their own and those who are charged with administration would seem subservient to the codes. Their ability to favorably deal with those wanting to build themselves is stifled by the morass of rules they must follow.

For example, should you want to camp on your property during construction, you are restricted to 60 days and no more than 6 months per year. Your camper has to be inspected/approved by the county prior to placement. You also need a water source which can either be a well or cistern —  the latter has to be buried to a depth where it will not freeze. The frost line in our area is around 4 feet, so it may have to be buried pretty deep.

You would also need a septic tank with a minimum capacity of 1,250 gallons or larger. Any residence must be 600 square feet or more, which rules out a tiny home. Composting or incinerating toilets are not permitted unless the parcel can’t support a septic tank. Permits are  good for 1 year, so building in an area with a long winter means you must work fast or pay for more permits to extend for another year.

Bureaucratic Overburden

Plumbing, septic and electrical  inspections have to be scheduled which all take time depending on the inspector’s workload and availability and it slows construction down. Having land use codes are a good thing, but with each change of administrator, there seems to be a need to rewrite and “improve” upon the existing codes, which leads to more bureaucratic overburden.

When the codes become so specific and complicated, they no longer serve the people but instead promote procedural correctness it would seem to me they are no longer serving the landowner but instead the government entity. Overly restrictive codes would seem to me to stifle new construction instead of allowing for growth. It also seems easy to get carried away when developing codes to the point where they become too burdensome.

Codes Are Necessary but Should be Reasonable

There needs to be codes in place but reasonable codes which do not create a bureaucratic dilemma for those wanting to build. Codes are essential to maintain safe and reasonable land use from parcel to parcel, but when carried to the extreme, can inhibit new construction.

In the final analysis, even though land may be relatively affordable it would avail any person who wants to be their own contractor to determine the full code implication before undertaking construction.

As I now look back to when we built our cabin, I am so relieved we were not inundated by so many current requirements and restrictions. To not have codes or rules leaves the land and community residents without protection when abuse occurs and could adversely impact property values. So, while we need codes, we need codes without undue restrictions where the county can still regulate construction, but at the same time, promote building and not hamper it.

The lesson of this topic is that anyone preparing to build would be wise to check land use codes before even buying the land or start dreaming of building your own home. If you have no problem jumping through hoop after hoop, it probably won’t affect you.

If you are leaning toward a tiny home or small home, it may not be allowed or you may have to have to install a septic system that would be more suited to a commercial building than a small or tiny home. It may just be better to find a location that is more builder friendly than get bogged down in endless codes and rules.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their cabin lifestyle go Read all of Bruce’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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