What Happens If You Violate A Building Code In California?
As a California contractor, if there’s one nuisance that will crop up time and time again in your contracting career, it’s building codes. Considering the mountains of red tape and bureaucracy that you have to go through to even get your contractor’s license or get a project approved, the last thing contractors want is to deal with building codes.
These highly specific pieces of local legislation can often be archaic codes set in stone during the American Revolution – so it’s pretty easy to run afoul of them at some point in your career, no matter your role in the construction industry.
In those cases where you accidentally break a building code in your neck of the California woods, what should you expect? What consequences do you face and is there anything you can do? Let’s find out.
What Are Building Codes?
Building codes are, quite simply, a series of laws that dictate who can build what, where. These codes are a complex web of bylaws, regulations, environmental decrees and architecture rules that are set forth by California counties, cities and towns – often by all three.
As such, California building codes are incredibly complex. As a state renowned for its bureaucratic tendencies, the already-complicated world of building codes just gets more complex.
In general, however, California building codes are based on three things that are true across the state.
- Earthquakes and Seismic Activity: Due to California’s earthquake-prone nature, building codes across the state require structures to be built in a way that can withstand seismic activities. For instance, the California Building Code (CBC) has specific guidelines on seismic design categories based on the location and type of structure.
- Sustainability: As a leader in environmental initiatives, California’s codes emphasize sustainability and energy efficiency. The state’s Title 24 regulations, for instance, set forth energy efficiency standards for buildings that all contractors must follow, on any project.
- Health and Safety: As always, building codes are designed primarily to ensure public safety. These are the typical public safety provisions you’d see in most states’ building codes (except Missouri, probably). This includes fire safety regulations, egress requirements, emergency signage, and more.
How Do Contracting Violations Get Discovered?
How do violations get discovered? And how do they get reported? It’s pretty typical across the board – people who either work on the construction project directly, people who work for the construction company, or outside inspectors (usually municipal workers) are sent to inspect a job site.
Routine inspections are extremely normal in California. If you’ve worked on a job site for any extended period of time, you’ve probably run into an inspection. These usually come in three flavors.
- On-Site Inspection: Inspectors ensure that the ongoing work adheres to the state’s unique requirements while the job is going on. These are either local government workers – for example, in San Francisco, the Department of Building Inspection conducts these checks – or inspectors on the state or federal levels.
- After Completion: If you’re a Gen Con, you know that almost every job is examined post-construction to ensure they meet Californian standards. This can include checks for energy efficiency compliance, accessibility features, and more. These are again performed usually by local government but can include state inspectors as well.
- Public Reports: Vigilant Californians often report potential violations, leading to further inspections. This can be just some guy walking down the street, or the wife of a disgruntled employee who has seen violations firsthand. Usually, these are enforced locally – in Los Angeles, for instance, the LADBS allows residents to report suspected violations online.
What Happens If Someone Reports A Violation Against Me?
Let’s say you’ve violated a building code by accident. What can you expect in terms of consequences? How do the State of California and local governments respond to building codes? Here’s a few things you can expect.
Notice of Violation (NOV)
First and foremost, you will receive a Notice of Violation from either the local government or the state government, depending on who has jurisdiction over your job site, how serious the violation is, how many times you’ve violated codes, and how big the project is.
A NOV is a formal acknowledgment of the breach from the government authorities – it’s a sign that you’re in trouble and there are more consequences coming. It outlines the steps required for compliance, ensuring violators are aware of the necessary corrective measures. In some cases, violators might be given a specific timeframe to address the issues. If corrected, this may be enough to satisfy the violation and continue the project without further consequences.
Cease and Desist Orders
If violations pose immediate threats, California authorities can issue cease and desist orders, halting all construction activities until the issue is rectified. This is only used in cases where a construction site needs to be closed down immediately – usually when it poses a danger to public safety or the safety of workers.
Rarely does a cease and desist order come into play. In many cases, this is done preemptively by the company, once they’ve received notification of a violation in the form of a stop work order. More on that later.
Financial Implications in California
California’s enforcement is stringent. Violators can face substantial civil penalties:
- Fines: Significant fines act as a deterrent, discouraging potential breaches on both a local and state level. These can really add up quickly, and only become more expensive the more you break codes.
- Administrative Costs: Municipalities, counties, cities, and the state ensure violators bear the costs of enforcement of their codes. For instance, in San Diego, fines can range from $100 to $500 per day for certain violations.
- Legal Fees: And on top of all of these unavoidable fees, it’s very likely you’ll have to defend yourself in court. Good lawyers are expensive, and if you’ve violated a code, you’ll probably want a good lawyer.
Rectifying Building Code Violations Is Expensive
Correcting a violation always leads to inflated budgets, especially in California’s pricey construction landscape. I mean, you don’t plan to violate a building code, right? And if you do, you definitely don’t budget on getting caught.
Anytime you’re found in violation of building code, it means you have to spend the time and money to fix it – which only snowballs down the chain of budgetary planning. For instance, retrofitting a building for seismic compliance can be exorbitant. One more day of work can mean thousands more in costs on your end – so making building code mistakes can be extremely pricey.
Beyond the direct financial consequences of building code violations, there’s a massive opportunity cost associated with building code shutdowns.
Every day your site sits vacant is a day that costs you money, time, or reputation. A work stoppage means you are missing out on money you should be making – an often overlooked part of the equation.
The Building Code Violation Process
Once a building code violation occurs, it’s a long and arduous process of legal proceedings and – perhaps most critically to contractors – a long time without working on your project.
Discovery of Violations
The primary way a violation comes to light is when a building official inspects the construction project. This can happen at random intervals or when a specific construction phase is nearing its end.
If a violation is evident during the inspection, the building official must provide a written notice of the code violation to the involved parties.
Stop Work Orders
In many cases, the building official will issue a stop work order. This can be to prevent an unsafe work environment or to halt construction activities that are in violation of the building codes.
This can either come from the construction company, looking to avoid additional penalties or safety issues, but it can also come from external agencies like the State itself. In the case of a government agency issuing a stop work order, it’s deemed unlawful to keep working – and will lead to additional, severe penalties.
The municipality where the construction project is located might also initiate legal action to rectify or halt the violation.
They can even demand the removal or termination of the violation. Building code violations can also influence breach of contract litigation between a contractor and owner, indemnity actions, and negligence actions.
The party held responsible for a code violation can become a significant litigation topic, involving both common law legal doctrines and contract language interpretation.
Impact on Contractor’s License and Bonds
Building code violations can have severe implications for a contractor’s license and bonding capability. All contractors must be licensed, and part of the licensing conditions is that they maintain a bond set by statute.
Claims Against Contractor’s License Bond
If a contractor’s work doesn’t comply with the applicable building code, any party directly contracted with the contractor and harmed by this failure can claim against the contractor’s license bond. In California, this amount is at least $25,000, but for big companies, this will be a much greater sum.
Typically, property owners can make claims against a general contractor’s license bond if the work doesn’t adhere to the relevant building code. For subcontractors, claims often come from general contractors who need to undertake corrective work to fix their non-compliant violations of the building code. General contractors can often get financial relief from subs with no issue.
Failure to adhere to a building code can also lead to disciplinary actions against a contractor, especially in situations that result in bodily harm or involving contractors who have violated building codes repeatedly. For instance, a contractor’s license can be suspended or revoked if they depart from plans, specifications, or any building codes without the necessary consent. You may even face jail time in some cases.
Moreover, the Registrar can order restitution to rectify any building code violation or issue a corrective work order directing the contractor to complete the specified work within a set timeframe. As we covered earlier, these costs go far beyond just an extra day’s work to fix the issue.
If a licensed contractor doesn’t rectify a building code violation as ordered, they usually face a civil or even criminal penalty, which, if unpaid, can result in the automatic revocation of their license. In California, the CSLB doesn’t play around with licensed contractors violating the law. If you are found violating building codes and not following rectification orders, you won’t be a licensed contractor for long.
Violating a building code in California is a serious affair with extensive consequences, but it’s also something that does happen fairly frequently – and it is usually an accident or oversight.
For that reason, most building code violations for first-time or second-time offenders are usually pretty light and are more focused on restitution and rectification than punishment or deterrence. However, if you are a repeat offender, things just get worse and worse every time you violate a building code – until you can face criminal charges such as imprisonment.
It’s vital for individuals and developers to familiarize themselves with not only California’s building regulations but also to know their local and county building codes to a tee. The costs of a violation can be massive both in rote financial costs and in the costs of having to stop work and deal with the legal and bureaucratic fallout.
As always, an informed contractor is a successful contractor!