Building Ordinances & Codes: Definition, Types & Purpose

Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

Sellers, buyers, landlords, tenants and investors in real estate need to be aware of local building codes. In this lesson, you'll learn what building codes are, some common types, their purpose and importance.

Building Codes Defined

A building code is a set of regulations that are enacted by either state or local governments regulating the construction, renovation and repair of buildings and other structures that humans may occupy. We use the term ordinance to describe a regulation passed by a municipality, such as a city, village or town. All the ordinances related to building and construction are collected together into a code.

Content & Process

Building codes address the minimum standards necessary for new construction, renovation and repair of buildings. Topics include, but are not limited to, foundation, roofing, grading, structural support, ventilation, heating and air, electrical, plumbing and drainage.

Most codes require a building permit to be obtained before new construction or a substantial renovation can commence. Applying for a building permit is known as pulling a permit. Typically, only the owner of the real estate or a licensed contractor can pull a permit.

Getting a permit is only half the battle. A code enforcement inspector will ensure that the work complies with the building code by inspecting the work. If it doesn't, the inspector will indicate why the project doesn't meet the code, and the builder will have to remedy the issues to come within compliance.


Building codes come in different varieties depending upon the type of construction and subject they are seeking to regulate. Many of the building codes adopted by governments in the United States are based upon model building codes drafted by the International Code Council (ICC). The ICC has created the following model codes:

  • International Building Code, which applies to construction of new buildings of nearly every type
  • International Residential Code, which applies to new construction of one and two-family dwellings as well has townhomes that are no more than three stories high
  • International Existing Building Code, which regulates the renovation, alteration or repair of existing buildings

Purpose & Importance

At a broad level, building codes serve a vital purpose in our modern urban society. They are enacted to protect the general health, safety and welfare of the people that occupy the buildings. The codes ensure that the buildings they reside in, work in and visit are safe.

Building code compliance is important not only for occupants, but also for sellers, real estate investors and landlords. A building that fails to comply with a building code may hinder its sale because buyers may not want to take the risk of an unsafe building or take on the expense of bringing the building up to code. In some cases, a building may not even be legally sold for occupation if it's not code compliant. Likewise, landlords must comply with building codes, or they will not be permitted to legally rent their properties.

Real estate investors looking to flip a building must ensure that all renovations or additions undertaken during the flip are code compliant. This can cost significant sums of money and time, and as smart investors know, efficient use of time and money makes the difference between a profitable flip and a loss.

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