Homeowners who are building, renovating or adding on to houses sometime think of Mt. Lebanon’s inspection process as a bother—something that can be a source of aggravation and slow the project down. People who think like that need to think again.
Inspections—and there can be more than 10 required during your project depending on its scope—are meant to ensure that your house will be stable and safe, preventing you and your family from harm and avoiding problems that will require costly fixes down the line. Mt. Lebanon is not unique in this respect. In Pennsylvania, as in most of the country, houses must conform to building codes to ensure safety.
Unfortunately, some contractors do not familiarize themselves with the building code, which is easily accessible by contacting the ICC International Code Council directly or meeting with the building inspectors. Some also fail to ask questions of the inspections team, request the requisite inspections at the various stages of the project or see that their subcontractors follow code.
Chief Inspector Joe Berkley has seen many homeowners experience delays and unnecessary expense with their projects resulting from some contractors’ lack of knowledge, ineptitude and occasionally, purposeful disregard of the code.
The footer inspection is the first required inspection and is designed to see that the foundation of the house is deep enough, the soil is good enough, that there is good load-bearing capacity, that the reinforcement rods are placed properly and that the foundation does not slope more than 10 percent. If the footer for a project is not done correctly, the house may eventually shift, causing foundation cracks, windows and doors that don’t open properly and other problems.
On one project, the contractor failed the footer inspection three times. It passed on the fourth try; then 18 months went by with not a word from the contractor or the owner until they called for a final inspection. That inspection revealed that the project had many crucial code violations, including the lack of an emergency exit window. “With all of the code issues, they basically gutted the structure and started over,” says Chief Inspector Joe Berkley. “Unfortunately, the second contractor they hired was not a good choice either. They are now on their third contractor, and we have had code issues with them.”
In his more than 20 years with Mt. Lebanon, Berkley has seen a number of such final-inspection disasters, most if not all of which would have been easily avoidable if the contractor had complied with code and worked closely with inspectors through the process: downspouts running into footers, wetting the concrete and causing erosion that could cause the footer to settle; steel beams that are not bolted, impacting a house’s stability; Fourteen-foot garage doors on 15-foot garages, making it impossible to install wall bracing and prevent the structure from moving out of line.
“One time they had to tear a roof right off and put a new one on,” Berkley says.
If you’re thinking about improving your property, it’s a good idea to review your plans with the inspection office before you get started. The other issue that does not get much consideration are the zoning requirements, which are available on the municipal website. Also, the inspectors can let you know if what you propose is in line with Mt. Lebanon’s zoning ordinance. If it sounds like a “go,” you can apply for a building permit—Mt. Lebanon issued 585 permits last year. It may take several calls and or emails to the contractor or architect to make the necessary corrections to the drawings before a permit can be issued. Once you receive the permit, the permit card will indicate which inspections are required for your project; read it and be sure your contractor follows through. Then place it prominently in your window. If you don’t, you can be sure one of your neighbors will call Inspections to be sure you have one. It’s also very important to have the stamped approved drawings on the site, so the contractor is familiar with any changes that have been made to the original design.
Reputable contractors who work frequently in Mt. Lebanon usually are familiar enough with the code to know how to apply for a permit and when to request inspections for things such as roof drains, framing, insulation and drywall. They need to call the county for plumbing and call MDIA, our third party electrical inspector for electrical inspections. Keep in mind, though, that the homeowner—not the contractor— is ultimately responsible. And you will not get reminder calls from the municipality. “Unless we get a call, there’s nothing we can do,” says Mt. Lebanon Building Inspector Rodney Sarver. He adds that if your contractor calls for something like a framing inspection and the mechanicals, plumbing and electrical are not completed, you will be charged for a re-inspection fee.
The framing inspection is critical to the structural integrity of your house—and it has to be done prior to the plumbing and electrical inspections because it is often the plumber or electrician who notches or bores the studs or floor joists, weakening them. “If we would do a framing inspection and pass it and then the plumber bores holes in three floor joists to install the toilet or tub, the plumber has created a situation that most likely would have failed the inspection,” Sarver says. “We need to see that work after all of the cutting, boring and notching is done.”
Of course, you won’t need to go through any of this if your planned project doesn’t fall within the Zoning Code guidelines, something you will find out in the initial meeting with Berkley. If what you want to do doesn’t initially seem possible, don’t give up hope—yet. The inspectors will work with you or your contractor to suggest code-friendly alternatives. If that doesn’t work, you can file an appeal to the Mt. Lebanon Zoning Hearing Board and present your appeal to them for the Zoning Code variance. The board meets every four weeks to hear requests. Berkley, who serves as staff liaison to that appointed board, can guide you through this process, as well.
Variances are granted on a case-by-case basis. Receiving one can be difficult, although last year the Zoning Hearing Board granted 10 and denied only four. One request was withdrawn. Filing an application costs $175 for residential properties of up to four units, and $700 for all other cases. The board typically will make a final decision the night of the hearing. For denials, they are required to issue the findings of fact within 45 days of the hearing.
Berkley knows of cases where a variance has been denied, and the homeowner and architect went back to the drawing board and made the project work within the constraints of the ordinance, an effort that possibly could have been made in the first place.
Residents often ask inspectors to recommend a contractor, something municipal employees are not permitted to do. “We do not keep a list of contractors good or bad,” Berkley says. “Ask around. Ask your neighbors. Word of mouth is usually the best recommendation for a contractor.” Before you make a final choice, you may want to Interview several contractors, check their references and see examples of their work.
Under the Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act, home improvement contractors are required to register with the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office. The law requires written contracts when a project cost exceeds $500. Contractors who violate the act are subject to civil and criminal penalties. You can check the registration status of a contractor at the state attorney general’s website, www.attorneygeneral.gov. Registration is not, however, an indicator of the contractor’s competence or reliability.
When you’re ready to start your project, you or your contractor can pick up and drop off permit applications at Mt. Lebanon’s Customer Service Center, 710 Washington Road, or download the forms from the municipal Web site. To schedule an appointment with the inspection office, call 412-343-3408. Find more information about building permits, variances and the zoning hearing board online.
And one last thing: Berkley recommends that you do not make final payment to your contractor before the final inspection is completed. Otherwise, your contractor may have moved on to his next project and you could be left digging into your pocket to pay for final details that were not completed according to plan.