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Why do I need building permits?
May 23, 2009 7:54 PM   Subscribe

From what source does the authority to require building permits and inspections derive? I've dealt with this whole process before, but every time I have to, I think, "But hey - it's _my_ property! I paid for it, I pay taxes on it, and I pay for the upkeep. As long as I don't build something that could potentially damage or destroy the property of another, why do I need 'permission' from the government?" I know there are lots of issues involved, but when did we, as a nation, give up the right to do what you want on your own property, and is there a way of getting that right back?
posted by Death by Ugabooga to Law & Government (26 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
"As long as I don't build something that could potentially damage or destroy the property of another, why do I need 'permission' from the government?"

That's why.
posted by gjc at 8:04 PM on May 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


As long as I don't build something that could potentially damage or destroy the property of another

For what it's worth, that's the key phrase. Building codes exist because, historically, lots of people have built things that ended up falling on/burning up other property and/or people.

I'm sure they've existed longer (and in some places, still don't exist) but a key example that pops into mind about government-mandated building codes on private property: the Chicago Fire. Essentially, Chicago was built up extremely rapidly, primarily with wood and similar materials. So, once a fire started, it would rage unchecked until it could be brought under control -- which distinctly did not happen in 1871. The resulting devastation and loss of life is difficult to fathom now, but we continue to live with one aspect of the aftermath: building codes that prevent the construction of wooden buildings within a very large area around Downtown Chicago.

Note, too, that you might not be the only person on your property, or you might someday sell your property to someone, so certain minimum standards seem reasonable. Heck, you might think you're overbuilding, but it turns out you're not, and your house will fall down on you. It keeps people you hire from building something that seems to be fine until five years later, when they've gone out of business and your roof caves in.

Finally, consider that engineering's successes are only successes until they fail; building codes are generally updated based on real-world failures to prevent similar failures from happening again. In that way, they provide a living, breathing guideline to ensuring you can learn from the mistakes of others not by doing all the research yourself, but by following the codes laid down by those who have already done it.
posted by davejay at 8:10 PM on May 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


From what source does the authority to require building permits and inspections derive?
According to Jefferson, governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.
is there a way of getting that right back?
Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

So if you want to install your wiring with reverse polarity, rise up in revolution. Or run for office. Or back a candidate who supports your right to electrocute yourself.
posted by Flunkie at 8:10 PM on May 23, 2009 [6 favorites]


I would posit that insurance lobbies would have something to do with building codes and code enforcement.
posted by torquemaniac at 8:15 PM on May 23, 2009


We, as a nation, never had a right to do whatever we wanted with property, so it wasn't something we ever gave up. At no point in our country's history has the government had a policy of ensuring a right to do what you want with your property. The state's police power was surprisingly developed under the English common law when we became a new nation, and we pretty much adopted the common law whole cloth, to the extent that it did not conflict with our new legal structure. The state has always had the power to regulate to ensure health, safety and public welfare.

But as a practical matter: your idea of what may damage your neighbor's property may not comport with your neighbor's - or the potential buyer of your neighbor's house. How will anyone know whether what you are building will damage your neighbor's property unless you tell people what you're building... say, by filing a plan, requesting a permit, allowing an inspection, etc.?
posted by dilettanti at 8:22 PM on May 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


1. You buy a house to which a previous owner has added a poorly constructed extension. It looks fine, but it's structurally unsound. He didn't have to apply for any permits or submit any plans because he owned the property, so hey - why would he need permission from the government? Fifteen years and two owners later, it collapses and kills your pet chinchilla.
2. Your crazy neighbour decides to build a four metre high fence on his property that blocks your light and view. It's on his land, so he can do what he likes, right?
3. Your other neighbour has also built an extension, and he likes to do his own electrical wiring, even though he doesn't have a license. No one ever inspects the wiring, as it's none of the government's damn business what he does with his own property. One night his house burns down. And so does yours.

Just for starters. Basically, in order to gain the benefits of living as a society, we relinquish some of our freedom. T'was ever thus.
posted by hot soup girl at 8:31 PM on May 23, 2009 [4 favorites]


Try traveling in Third World countries with inept and corrupt bureaucracies. Enjoy dodging the open pits in the sidewalk bristling with rebar; putting your foot through the glass dance floor; avoiding balconies because one collapsed and killed a handful of people in your city last night. All of this I saw first- or secondhand in Indonesia. Sound like paradise?

You might just as well say that drug companies are private, drugstores are private, so caveat emptor when it comes to tainted drugs. Same for canned food with botulism, cars with explosive gas tanks — all private enterprise. Yet we recognize that there is a common space in which we need regulation to keep basic safety assured. Like it or not, your building is part of that common space, as well-explained above.
posted by argybarg at 8:52 PM on May 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


So if you want to install your wiring with reverse polarity, rise up in revolution. Or run for office. Or back a candidate who supports your right to electrocute yourself.

Or a candidate who supports your right to do a wiring job hat won't harm you, but when you sell the property, will short out and burn the place down one night, killing the new owners.
posted by rodgerd at 9:48 PM on May 23, 2009


How do we know you're qualified to be remodeling and rebuilding on your property?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:48 PM on May 23, 2009


So if you want to install your wiring with reverse polarity, rise up in revolution. Or run for office. Or back a candidate who supports your right to electrocute yourself.

AC isn't really polarized.
posted by delmoi at 10:04 PM on May 23, 2009


delmoi: AC isn't really polarized.

Actually, AC outlets are polarized. The narrow slot is hot and the wide slot is neutral. Many do-it-your-selfers connect them backwards which can be a safety issue. Polarization of AC outlets is described specifically in the National Electrical Code.
posted by JackFlash at 10:25 PM on May 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


My freedom from is every bit as important as your freedom to.
posted by flabdablet at 11:08 PM on May 23, 2009


In a very strict sense, I believe your title in the US is fee simple, so you don't absolutely own your land -- certain rights (eg police power) are reserved by the state.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:12 PM on May 23, 2009


We, as a nation,

I guess that means America.

There are various other nations out here as well, and we all have various rules and "regulations", some of which are absurd, some of which aren't. Bottom line, rules and regulations exist for all kinds of reasons, some directly related to the fact that our forefathers cut corners, got greedy, or were just idiots.

Is there a particular regulation that's pissing you off? By all means, fight it.
posted by philip-random at 11:29 PM on May 23, 2009


The main answer is the police power. Why can cities ticket speeders? To protect the public. Why can cities ticket people who build unsafe buildings? To protect the public.

This question is getting a bunch of opinions and explanations, but the question "why can local governments legally enforce building codes?" is a question with a very specific answer, and most people who recently took a land use law class would give the same answer. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people, so I'll stand aside except to say that this exact question has definitely been fought out in the courts, so there are particular cases, with particular dates (e.g. Euclid v. Amber (1926)) that made this legal reality in the US.

I was also interested to discover in Wikipedia that "what is generally accepted as the first building code was in the Code of Hammurabi..."
posted by salvia at 12:13 AM on May 24, 2009


Where do you think property rights come from in the first place?
posted by paultopia at 1:59 AM on May 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


There is also a reasonable aesthetic element. Someone might find it reasonable to put a 12-foot neon sign in their yard or on their roof.

More to the point, I've also seen the results of dismal/zero standards in corrupt lands.

More to the point closer to home, there has been considerable debate in some California Bay Area cities (and I assume in other areas) about people buying older, decent properties in desirable areas and putting up McMansions that are built really, really close to the edges of property lines, look nothing like the houses around them--more floors, completely different design style, etc.

Beyond the appearance, if one of these things is built next to me, it may significantly impact the amount of light my house/yard gets, the views I have and it diminishes my privacy in the backyard (because people can see easily from the second-floor windows).

In the no-limits context, I could do any number of things as a response, either to have more privacy in my backyard or to make a resounding FU response to my neighbor.

"Oh, that neon sign on my roof that points right at your master bedroom and flashes all night? It's art. Property rights, dude."
posted by ambient2 at 3:53 AM on May 24, 2009


You don't really own your land. See allodial title.
posted by chillmost at 4:44 AM on May 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Saliva and I_am_Joe's_Spleen for the win.

You do not hold absolute title to your land. Assuming you own it, your title is in fee simple. The soverign, in the US the state which you reside, holds the allodial title (except Texas and Nevada). That is the ultimate title to your land. Texas and Nevada havel limited allodial title provisions, but Nevada is phasing it out. So the answer is you do not "own" your land--you hold it in the name of the sovereign.

And so it must be. We band together for security and safety. Otherwise a private citizen could deed absolute soverign ownership to another country and the land would become part of another country.

As for the right of the state to regulate comes from the police power, the power to regulate and police--it also eminates from the soverign personally, here in the form of the governor of your state.
In short, you have never held absolute title to your land. Take a look at your deed--you will see it has some interesting provisions. It grants you only the right to hold it in fee simple or fee simple absolute.

This makes sense if you think of the history of it all. Trace the title back and you will see it likely came from one of four sources--the Treaty of Paris of 1783 (where the English King agreed to give title to the U.S.), the Louisiana Purchase, the treaty that ended the Mexican War, or the Alaska purchase (Hawaii is a bit more complicated).

So you never had any title to "get back" from the government.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:59 AM on May 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


Piggybacking on Davejay, Chicago has in its history another example of what happens when building codes are non existent or non-enforced. Iroquois Theater Fire. It's absolutely horrifying.
posted by gjc at 6:20 AM on May 24, 2009


Seconding davejay. The Collinwood School Fire in Cleveland was another fire (early 20th century) that had a big effect on building codes.
posted by ubersturm at 8:36 AM on May 24, 2009


I'm fine with zoning and property restriction for the most part. But I would keep in mind that powerful interests can lobby for regulations that are especially beneficial to them. For instance, there have been some cases where eminent domain looks to have been abused. You can really affect local regulation. Go to town meetings, get on the zoning board; you have lots of opportunity to be involved.
posted by theora55 at 8:38 AM on May 24, 2009


But I would keep in mind that powerful interests can lobby for regulations that are especially beneficial to them. For instance, there have been some cases where eminent domain looks to have been abused. You can really affect local regulation. Go to town meetings, get on the zoning board; you have lots of opportunity to be involved.

Most definitely. Step in, be a voice. It makes a difference and the more people involved, the better.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:32 AM on May 24, 2009


As an architect and planner I'd argue that it isn't just a case of "powerful interests" lobbying for beneficial regulations that cause harm. Just as often it can come in the form of misdirected 'common sense' or unintended consequences.

For example, there is a strong argument to be made that modern zoning laws have been a key factor in weakening our cities by making them more car dependent and less walkable. Not because of some conspiracy or special interest, just because it was 'obvious' to folks for a period of time that no one would want a home near a factor or next to a pig farm, etc. The result is land divided up by allowable use, often in ways that are unsustainable and disconnect us from the activities that allow our existence.

There are ongoing efforts to change this, but their nature and town varies greatly by locality. In fact, zoning is one of the bastions of local governance across our country with vastly different opinions and approaches from place to place. It is a domain where any citizen can get involved even if not building on their own land, so I encourage you to do so.
posted by meinvt at 12:39 PM on May 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


To give a non-fire non-building-collapse example, you know how the government helps provide dwellings with electricity, and how when they couldn't provide enough for everyone in California, there were those "rolling blackouts?" And traffic lights went out and hospitals had to buy backup generators and whatnot? That is why the government has an interest in buildings being remotely energy efficient.
posted by salvia at 1:00 AM on May 25, 2009


How do we know you're qualified to be remodeling and rebuilding on your property?

How do you (or the government) know I'm _not_ qualified?

If it'd make anyone happy, I would sign something saying, "I built _this_ and _that_ and _the other thing_ based on my own common sense and experience. It won't be included in the sale price of the property, so feel free to burn it down/blow it up/plant flowers on it when you own the place. In the meantime, I trust my own judgment, experience, and abilities enough to risk my own neck using things I've built, so bugger off." I guess this is mostly me reacting negatively to the idea that I can't tie my damned shoes without the "gubmint" to make sure I do it right. The whole nanny state, etc. I just feel that I've paid my dues, and don't need to have my pony shed wind-tunnel tested and certified against meteor strikes and flaming toads falling from the sky to know that, yes, it will stand up to the weather and no, it won't blow over on the neighbors. For the record: It cost me $2,500 in engineers fees to get a permit to build an 18x22 foot metal pony shed because even though it was in a book of pole-barn plans that had been used successfully everywhere, it hadn't been stamped by an engineer in our county. The materials only cost me slightly more than that. When I wanted to build an attached, two-car garage with wiring, concrete floor, siding, shingled roof tied into the existing roof, etc. that I had "designed" using a $20 piece of software I downloaded off the web, it was "Stamp, stamp, that'll be $30. Here's your permit. Have a nice day." It annoys me to no end that we're being forced into buying off-the-shelf solutions that may or may not fit our needs because the bureaucracy assumes we're idiots.

Anyway, thanks for your intelligent, thoughtful replies to my question. May the force be with you.
posted by Death by Ugabooga at 7:40 PM on June 9, 2009


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