A Property Maintenance Code Is Good for Your Town

A property maintenance code deals with the condition of existing housing and non-residential property, including commercial or industrial land uses.

It can be controversial in communities, but usually blanket opposition comes only among people who lean libertarian or who definitely don't want to comply for some reason.

I've been responsible for code enforcement, which means that the actual inspectors reported to me. It also means dealing with angry people who think I'm just making up the rules as I go along (definitely not true in about 95% of the cases) or that my judgment call (necessary in about 5% of the cases where the law doesn't explicitly cover the situation) isn't sensible.

In spite of the hassles and the need for wise administration, I strongly encourage any well-run municipality or county to think about adopting a property maintenance code and a compatible set of other model codes as well.

The property maintenance code moves maintenance of an existing commercial building and the surrounding property from an option to a legal requirement for a responsible property owner.

When it comes to maintaining your housing stock, we think the standard property maintenance code from the International Code Council is less effective than a housing code tailored specifically to your state or area, but it's far better to adopt this standard code than to have no local laws addressing the condition of existing housing.

Groups of code officials and also builders from across the world gather in committees to debate what should be required. For more information about how these codes are written, the top organization for publishing these standardized codes, the International Code Council (ICC), explains that on their website.

If your community wants to use this property maintenance code, your city council or other governing body simply passes an ordinance (or whatever you call your local laws) referring to the name, authoring organization, and year of the code.



They also set up a local enforcement mechanism, whether through writing that process into the local adopting ordinance or simply through administrative decision-making.

Ideally someone in your city government that is going to enfore that new code sits down and reads it thoroughly, picking up on any requirement that won't work because of a particular locally common building material, cultural custom, soil condition, or other peculiarity of your town.

Also your local expert and enforcement officer may notice that you need tougher regulations in some areas. For example, you might want to add seismic requirements if you're in an earthquake zone.

In that event, your city council just adds a list of exceptions to the ordinance adopting the property maintenance code. These could include a mix of both stiffer and more lenient provisions.

Often cities and towns won't update their requirements every time a new code comes out, which is approximately every three years for the most common codes right now.

So don't be shocked and outraged to find out that your city council is living by the 2006 version of the existing property maintenance code, just for example.

However, the easy updating is a major advantage of using a model property maintenance code as compared to developing your own code locally. While the latter is possible, it's a herculean task. You might do it once, but then doing it every three years (the current ICC interval) would get to be a real pain.

This type of code also helps deal with abandoned factories and vacant retail buildings or obsolete offices.

A property upkeep law also may address what are commonly called nuisances to some minor extent. It does prohibit accumulation of trash and debris both on the exterior and interior of a building.

A nuisance is those old barrels just sitting in the industrial yard, the junky loading dock behind a swanky retail stores, and all kinds of other messes on the rear of the property.

When towns and cities speak of their "nuisance code," it may be a collection of provisions from various adopted codes and local additions.


Other Building Condition or Construction Codes

We devoted a page elsewhere to why you should adopt a building code. A building code applies to new construction, and it is critically important to safety, even more than to appearance.



There are several other codes you can consider adopting, including the following. Note that the first three collectively are sometimes lumped in with the building code in conversation.

• Plumbing code. This code sets the standards for plumbing in residential and non-residential structures.

• Electrical code. The National Fire Protection Association has held onto the National Electrical Code and pretty much controls this one.

• Mechanical code. It's possible to enact a separate mechanical code that covers mostly your heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) systems.

Existing building code. This code governs both housing and commercial buildings that are not new construction. It allows a more flexible set of standards to encourage rehabilitation, repair, and re-use of existing structures.

• Energy conservation code. This code provides regulations for the municipality that wants to mandate energy conservation techniques and technologies, usually within new structures.

• Wildfire prevention code. The ICC has published a 2012 Wildland-Urban Interface Code that helps deal with reducing the danger of large wildfires near subdivisions and other urban development, as well as some other issues that happen when people build in or next to wilderness.

• Performance code. This is an approach, rather than a subject of regulation such as the other items in this list. The performance code is a flexible approach to construction. It allows any technique that "performs" to certain standards to be used.


Possible Conflicts Between Codes

You may adopt several codes from different sources. However, when you start adopting multiple codes because you become so excited after reading this page that you wanted one of everything, you need to be aware that you could be creating conflicting sets of rules.

So seek advice, make sure a local expert actually reads the codes, and think hard if you want to adopt more than three or four compatible codes. For example, a performance code could well be in conflict with a building code, and you may need to think about how your existing building code would interact with an energy conservation code, should you decide to add the latter.

One final note is that you are likely to hear so much about LEED® certification, a program of the U.S. Green Building Council, that you may begin to think LEED® is a code too. It isn't a code, in the sense of being a law. It is similar to a code in that it sets a standard, but it's an entirely voluntary standard.

A key feature is that the certifications have different levels, as in Silver, Gold, and Platinum. In addition, the requirements for meeting a certain level of certification are somewhat flexible; there's a point system. Things that the writers of this certification think are extremely important earn more points.

Of course a few places are experimenting with making a law that says that all new buildings of a particular description must meet the standards for LEED® certification! 

Related:
deteriorating row houses
Housing Decline

factory with rusty pipes
Abandoned Factories

urban residence in poor condition
Existing Building Code

This program emphasizes energy conservation, the lowest possible carbon footprint for the building, using recycled materials, and generally being green.

LEED also is just one brand of "green" certification; there are others, most of which charge lower fees to the applicant.

Costs of Code Adoption

Be aware that the code companies do charge for copies of the property maintenance code and any other codes you want to purchase. However, the popular codes cost about what you would expect for a comparable soft-cover technical book. Your code inspectors and any administrators can become members of a code organization, but membership usually is not mandatory for governments that adopt the code.

LEED® certification is fairly pricey, but it's the property owner who bears the cost. We figure they are paying to add to a marketing tool primarily.

But we're saving for last the cost considerations you're going to hear about when you adopt codes. That would be the cost to the builder and ultimately the building's owner. Some people will complain loudly that adopting a code will cause the construction of their building to cost thousands of dollars more.

My advice is to listen politely to all of that. Ask your inspection staff or whoever you plan to hire for enforcement for advice about the legitimacy of such complaints.

Ask other experts you trust, such as your own favorite carpenter, plumber, electrician, and so forth. These folks probably won't be lacking in opinions.

If it seems to you that a particular code provision is more about appearance than safety and function, certainly you can consider deleting that provision by reference when you adopt your code if you're a blue collar kind of place.

The property maintenance code shouldn't impose much in the way of costs that sensible property owners wouldn't be quite willing to pay. Basic upkeep helps property values remain stable or appreciate.

Of course, you also have to be able to afford the cost of a competent inspector and an enforcement mechanism, meaning a municipal or other court. If you're a small town, there may be opportunities to share an inspector with other nearby small towns.

But seriously, for safety's sake, provide for your town to receive the benefit of the countless hours of deliberation among national and international experts about what the building codes, and all other codes, should be.

To keep your city or town competitive in the marketplace of property values and rents, you need to force owners to pay attention through a property maintenance code.


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