Counties Without Building Codes? (Here Are the Details)
Whether you’re making improvements to an existing home or it’s new construction, building codes can squash your plans. In some cases, building codes force you to alter your design significantly. While in more severe scenarios, you can’t move forward with the work at all.
There are fifteen states which do not have statewide building codes. Greenlee county in Arizona, Delta County and Montesuma in Colorado, Appanoose in Iowa, Scotland, Douglas, and Miller counties in Missouri, Emeralda county in Nevada, and Marfa and Terlingua in Texas are the most popular counties with no building codes.
Across the country, building codes vary from state to state and county to county. Restrictions can go from none at all to somewhat lax to super-rigid and strict.
Why Are There Building Codes?
Typically, building codes are in place to protect occupants, hold builders accountable, and ensure people meet specific construction standards. Building inspectors review various home-improvement projects, renovations, and new builds to ensure you do the work to code.
Whether renovating an old building or starting on a new structure, you need to follow local building codes. Building codes seek to provide the minimum standards for the health and safety of a structure’s occupants. They are also concerned with the public welfare of those both inside and outside the building.
What Do Building Codes Govern?
These codes ensure safety by regulating the architectural design and the materials used in the construction. Building codes also set standards for use and occupancy, as well as the location of new structures. These laws also govern the maintenance of old structures.
Architectural drawings must accompany most building permit applications. These drawings ensure that professionals have vetted the proposed structure and deemed it safe for habitation or business.
What Types Of Building Codes Are There?
In many cases, building codes serve to address public health and safety concerns. Codes also function as environmental protection in areas where natural disasters are common.
In particularly historic areas of the country, some building codes regulate what buildings’ exteriors can look like, regardless of the interior.
For example, the French Quarter in New Orleans is well-known in part for its significant architecture. Building a glass-walled high-rise building would look tragically misplaced among the wrought-iron balconies.
In this case, historic code regulates usable materials and finishes. Buildings must be restored to their original look, even if newer and “better” (safer, greener, cheaper) technologies exist.
If you demolish interior fireplaces, you must erect faux chimneys. Windows must have a particular pattern to the pane and be a specific size.
Though many contractors and designers find this frustrating, maintaining architectural significance to a historic area can increase a home’s value.
Some parts of the United States are incredibly prone to natural disasters. In an effort to keep insurance premiums low and inhabitants safe, some local building codes help fortify against catastrophe.
In Mississippi, building code is generally free of regulation. The coastal areas, however, have specific codes that make buildings wind and flood-resistant. These codes include raising homes above Base Flood Elevation, a marker that determines the expected height of floodwaters.
Seismic codes ensure that buildings can withstand earthquakes. FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the NEHRP (National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program) suggest these codes. Surprisingly, they are not always uniformly adopted into local building codes by earthquake-prone areas.
Why Do Some Counties Not Have Building Codes?
If building codes have such an important role, it begs the question, why do some places not have them?
Most urban areas have extensive building codes aimed at keeping residents in close quarters as safe as possible. When you get out into more rural areas, however, that is less of a concern.
Many locales with nonexistent building codes are unincorporated areas of the country. Unincorporated towns are not governed by any municipality, so there is nobody to set or enforce a building code. These areas tend to be sparsely populated and offer no municipal services.
Living in an unincorporated area means that you can build houses to your liking, including in ways that defy building code. People who want to live off the grid, in a tiny house or an earthbag home, can do so in peace. Homesteaders who seek to be self-sufficient also benefit from a lack of building codes.
Those who seek to live in an area without building codes are not necessarily irresponsible. Some are interested in a less traditional way of living that can be cheaper or more eco-friendly. These homes are no more inherently dangerous than conventional building methods if constructed correctly.
Counties Without Building Codes
Fifteen states in the United States don’t have statewide building codes. Instead, these codes are left to the jurisdiction of local towns and municipalities. Some of these areas are known only rarely to enforce code, and others are unincorporated areas that are genuinely free.
Greenlee County is the only county in the state without residential building codes. Coconino County is known to be friendly to alternative natural structures. However, Arcosanti Urban Laboratory is an experimental city with no building codes established by law. Despite this fact, local engineers do adhere to the teachings of those who designed the community.
California is notoriously for being arguably one of the most expensive states to build a home. Fortunately, there are some areas will somewhat lenient building codes. Three localities have adopted a Limited Density Rural Dwelling Code: Mendocino, Humboldt, and Nevada Counties.
Wonder Valley has some building codes established, but they don’t enforce them aggressively. This county is home to a number of abandoned cabins and homestead, many of which are inhabited by families.
There are 15 counties in Colorado that are considered open with little to no building codes. Delta County, in the Western part of the state, is one. Montezuma is another, with no residential building code for their unincorporated areas.
There are eight open counties with no building codes in Iowa. Including Appanoose County, home of several houses made from reclaimed steel shipping containers.
The state of Mississippi has very free building codes, except for coastal areas. These counties have codes that protect against wind and flood damage from frequent hurricanes.
Scotland County is home to a village of about fifty people living in tiny houses. The Ozarks are a popular place for homesteaders due to relaxed building codes throughout the area. Douglas County has plentiful rainfall and groundwater, which is essential to living without a municipal water source.
Miller County is another area that does have building codes, but they are not really enforced. There are a number of families living off the grid here and most of them did not secure permits or adhere to local building codes. It’s possible that the local authorities may start enforcing codes in the near future, but for now it’s not the case.
Esmeralda County has no building codes, but the land is relatively expensive for the area.
Art enthusiasts flock to Marfa, home of quirky installation art that flourishes in the notably lax enforcement of local building codes. Terlingua, an abandoned mining district, is home to at least one individual living off the grid. This area has no building codes at all, and it’s likely that this won’t be changing anytime soon.
Brewster County has a population of 9000 residents with a relatively low population density, but the largest of any county in Texas. While crime rates are high, there are no building codes in this Mexican border town.
Other no-code states include Alabama, Arkansas, Hawaii, Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming. They are all said to leave the regulation of building codes up to local entities.
What is the difference between a zoning code and a building code?
While a building code regulates how you construct a building, the zoning code regulates how you can use it.Communities have different “zones” for different kinds of buildings. One area may be zoned for single-family homes only, another for multi-family dwellings. Another location may be zoned commercial only so that no residential building permits can be issued there. Zoning codes also specify some physical limitations on buildings in an area. These can include parking requirements, the height of the building, and the exterior facade’s look.
What are the downsides to an area with no building codes?
Localities can use building codes as leverage. If they are passive during your construction, but they don’t like what you’ve built, they can bulldoze it.In an unregulated area, there is no enforcement when your neighbors live in a way you don’t like. They may live in run-down shacks, let garbage pile up, or surround themselves with a junkyard of old cars. One way to remedy this is to buy enough land to have ample space between you and any neighbors.Building without codes can create unsafe conditions if you don’t bring professionals in to do the work. For example, shoddy electrical can cause a fire that can spread to other homes or wilderness areas. Even without building codes, professionals should handle skilled trades to ensure safety.In areas that rarely enforce building codes, there is still a stiff financial penalty when they decide to enforce the codes. There’s usually a fine for building without a permit or building a house that’s not up to code. Worst case scenario, they will tell you to tear it down and start over.
If You Build It, They Will Come
Building in an area of the country with no building code or a selectively enforced one is risky. Make sure you do your homework before starting any significant construction project. Gather all the information about local ordinances, enforcement, and penalties.
If you’re embracing an alternative form of building, a lack of building codes may help make your dream a reality. But remember, the safety of yourself and others is paramount. Dream big and build safely!
Stacy Randall is a wife, mother, and freelance writer from NOLA that has always had a love for DIY projects, home organization, and making spaces beautiful. Together with her husband, she has been spending the last several years lovingly renovating her grandparent's former home, making it their own and learning a lot about life along the way.
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