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New Building Code could see remodeling costs soar

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of July 5, 2012)

A recently implemented version of the Florida State Building Code, which could add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of certain remodeling projects, is causing widespread confusion and concern among Realtors, homeowners and homebuyers who plan to remodel, builders and even local building officials.

The angst is focused on the 2010 version of the Florida Building Code that just went into effect on March 15th, which requires whole-house upgrades in some cases when certain limited renovations take place.

Enforcement of the new code has the potential of hugely raising costs for homeowners purchasing existing homes they plan to renovate and homeowners with remodeling projects in mind.

There have been phenomenal bargains on older homes on the island in recent years, with property going for as little as 50 cents on the dollar compared to peak prices. But buyers of existing homes can run into unexpected costs if they plan to upgrade the property.

The good news is most whole-house upgrade requirements under the new code that will be triggered by partial renovations are logical, beneficial and scaled according to the home’s value. Even though they add expense and may cause some people to put off remodeling, they make sense and result in a better, safer house.

For instance – starting with the most basic and widely-applicable provision – any house that is reroofed on the island or anywhere else in Indian River County has to meet code requirements for nailing patterns if the existing roofing material is torn off.

“They will allow you to roof over one layer of shingles,” says County Plan Examiner Dennis Koerner, a 16-year veteran of the county building department.  In this case, the code doesn’t kick in.

But if the shingles or existing metal or tile roofing are removed, the roof sheathing – 4-foot by 8-foot sheets of plywood in most cases – has to be nailed to the roof frame with 2 ½-inch nails that are no further than 6 inches apart.

If the sheathing was originally nailed down on 8-inch or 12-inch centers, nails have to be added to the pattern to conform to the current 6-inch requirement. If the sheathing was stapled down or attached with shorter nails, the entire roof has to be re-nailed.

The expense of re-nailing is not great – $50 or $100 for nails and a few hours labor for a guy with a nail gun – and it results in a structure much more resistant to hurricane winds that can sometimes penetrate into attic space and blow an entire roof.

The next roof-related requirement in the new code only applies to homes with an assessed value of $300,000 or more. If a house is valued at $295,000, the owner doesn't have to install the upgrade – though they might want to anyway.

If a house with an insured or ad valorum value of $300,000 or more is reroofed and the old roofing material is removed, the contractor or homeowner’s engineer has to determine how the roof frame – trusses or rafters – is fastened to the walls of the house. The new code requires strong metal straps to resist wind pressure and lock the roof frame onto the rest of the structure.

If the wall/roof-frame connection is not up to code, new hardware has to be installed or nails added to existing hardware at the point where the frame rests on the exterior walls.

In many cases, retrofitting new hardware requires cutting away a strip of sheathing just above the eaves and then installing new plywood to fill the gap after the upgrade is complete.

That can get expensive, but the code includes a sort of failsafe to keep the cost within reason.

“You are not required to spend more than 15 percent of the value of a roofing job to upgrade the tie-downs,” says top county building official Jose Guanch. “If you tie down a couple of key points and the cost comes up to 15 percent of the whole job, you are done.”

Another level of whole-house upgrade is required by the new code for homes with an assessed value of $750,000 or more. This is the worrisome provision for high-end homeowners and island real estate agents offering existing homes for sale. In some cases it can lead to substantial expenses unrelated to the remodeling or renovation that triggers it.

“If a remodeling project that costs more than $50,000 is done on a house with an assessed or insured value of $750,000 or more, the exterior building envelope has to be upgraded to meet the new code,” says Reinhard.

That means installing impact resistant windows or storm shutters, along with new doors, if the old ones are not up to code.

“That can be a $30,000 expense” on a typical island house, says Carl Lachnitt, owner of CAL Builders.

“We are out doing jobs like that all time,” says Ray Reinhard, vice president of HBS Impact Glass. “It is mostly homes in the Moorings, John’s Island and other Indian River Shores neighborhoods where values are high.”

Since actual value is greater than assessed value, the requirement mostly kicks in for homes worth $1 million or more.

“It hasn’t been a negative, for the most part,” Reinhard says. “In some cases we are out there replacing a bunch of sliding glass doors, and that runs over $50,000, so they end up replacing the windows, too. But many of the more expensive homes already have storm shutters or impact glass, and if they don’t, the windows may be worn out and need to be replaced.

“Where it can come as bit of surprise is if we are replacing the windows and the homeowner finds out they have to replace the garage door too.

“Another place it can be a hindrance or annoyance is if the homeowner is doing a $100,000 kitchen addition and that triggers the requirement for new windows and doors.”

Guanch says he sympathizes with homeowners’’ concerns about interior remodeling projects triggering a requirement for new windows.

Guanch says he does not believe the triggering provision applies when a swimming pool, out-building or other project separate from the house is undertaken, but Indian River Shores sees it differently.

“If you spend $50,000 on a project in Indian River Shores, you have to bring the whole house up to code, regardless of what the project is,” says CAL Builders General Manager Lee Griffin. “We have had a couple of jobs where people were doing a pool and had to upgrade their windows and doors.”

Two other cost-determined upgrades only apply to homes in FEMA designated flood areas and homes seaward of the coastal construction line.

“If a house in a flood zone is below the level required by the new code and you spend 50 percent of the value of the home remodeling it, you have to bring it up to the proper elevation,” says Koerner. “If a house seaward of the coastal construction line is not on pilings and you spend 50 percent of its value on a remodel, you have to put pilings under it.”

Because the cost of retrofitting a pile foundation is prohibitive, houses on the beach end up being torn down instead of extensively remodeled, but some houses are raised to conform to new elevation requirements.

“We raised a number of houses that flooded during hurricanes Francis and Jeanne,” says John Carroll, whose Vero Beach engineering firm offers a consulting service for homeowner trying to determine what a remodeling job will entail under the new code.

The $50,000 and 50-percent-of-value triggers are determined by the dollar amount listed on the building permit issued by the county, and Koerner says the county watches for undervalued projects.

“If it looks like the number isn’t accurate, the engineering division flags it and we ask for documentation,” he says.