EXCESSIVE CITY BUILDING REGS ARE NEEDLESSLY DRIVING UP HOUSING COSTS

Housing has been one of the two biggest problems in Austin in recent years. (Traffic, being the other . . . but you knew that.) Let’s talk about affordable housing.

I have been a residential and commercial REALTOR in Austin for over 40 years.  I am also a retired home builder and former general contractor.  During the 80’s Bust, I was the person who finished much or most of what Texas Commerce Bank repossessed in the Austin area. At different times, I was the Home builder Association’s liaison with the City Building Code Department and served on the Homeowners Warranty (HOW) inspector review committee where a small group of us tested, certified and oversaw the HOW building inspectors.  I guess I am saying that I am not a novice.

Admittedly, I have not remodeled a house in the past few years.  We are doing so now.  What a shock!!! I cannot believe the level of red tape and expense that the City has added in the last several years – all the while decrying the runaway cost of housing. At the risk of you zoning out, I would like to point out a few notable issues I have encountered:

  • The electrical.  We wanted to replace the old tan-colored plugs and switches and install GFIs.  The electricians swear to me that they cannot upgrade the switches and plugs without re-wiring for arc fault if they pull a permit.  With a permit, the City required a new meter box (they said it was NOW undersized), a new breaker box (they said the old breakers were unsafe), a new masthead (they said the old one was too low), and all new wiring (the old wiring was not on ARC Fault breakers).  It is a $10,000+ electrical contract AFTER we removed everything down to the studs so we could re-wire.
  • I wanted to replace the old atrium door. The city now requires a building permit to replace an exterior door, and the new energy code requirement means that instead of a good $400 door (which is in stock) we have to order a special door that takes 30 days and costs around $600-1300. Home Depot nor Lowes stocks anything like what the City code now requires.
  • Windows: this may fall under national code, but most of the bedroom windows were 2-0 x6-0s and are grandfathered unless replaced. If replaced, they have to be much larger.  It is a 100% brick house. This is a huge problem.  I have the same problem at my house. It is keeping me from installing better, more efficient windows. It seems like there should be a case made for grandfathering windows that once met code. (I have no problem with replacing the glass with safety plate, as required due to the close distance to the floor – that is not the hardship that tearing up brick walls and re-framing walls would be.
  • Termite treatment.  We had just treated for termites prior to finding out that we had to gut this house (two months ago). Now the city requires that we spray some kind of termite treatment on the bare studs before we sheetrock. Doing a pre-treatment is not a bad idea.  I used to do it for some buyers, but it is one more unnecessary cost that should be a free market buyer decision – like a cast iron tub vs. a cheap steel one. I use this as one example.
  • Trees- Reasonable tree regulation make sense.  We have gone past the point of reason. This house has an oak tree that the previous owner planted in the 70s. It covers the entire front yard and is protected as a heritage tree.  The plumber told me that if we replace the sewer line, we would have to take a tree permit and wait until the tree guy comes to look and tells us where we can trench.  OK.  I can live with that.  Then I find out that the trench could not be dug, but must be blown out with water or compressed air so that we do not harm the roots.  No word on how we were to fish the sewer pipe through the maze of roots. The sewer proved to be OK so I did not experience this, but others have.  I do not like the governor interfering in Austin codes, but on this I understand his point of view.  A little more moderation in enforcement seems due.

A while back we had a city code specialist speak at Stanberry & Associates.  I told him that I am of the opinion that excessive regulation is somewhat counterproductive. It is slowly driving more people to bootleg. People are flipping houses all over Austin.  Most are replacing the tan plugs and switches and exterior doors.  I guarantee you very few have done so with the require permits.  Those of us doing so legally are getting clobbered.

I have told this story to many people and they say that I should write a letter to the editor.  I think that would do little.  I know Austinites hear things like this every day, but the next time it comes up I hope you will re-tell some of this story.

I never dreamed that I would have to take a house down to the studs over the electric code  when the wiring was in no way hazardous fine and had been previously installed to code, or that it would cost over $1000 to replace an ordinary  sliding glass door.  And the city leaders bemoan the lack of affordable housing!

Jeff Stewart, CCIM        STANBERRY & ASSOCIATES                     jstewart@stanberry.com