5 Common Building Code Violations

Check your home for these potentially hazardous situations

Prevent accidents and make your home safer by fixing these five common code violations—bad GFCIs, an improperly located smoke alarm, an incomplete handrail, bad bathroom venting and missing deck flashing.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Correct code violations for a safer home

Building codes go a long way to assuring you that you live in a safe house. But unless you check, you never actually know whether parts of your home need upgrading to meet the current code. This is especially true when you move into a new home. 

Some common, and potentially dangerous, building code violations are hard to locate and even harder to fix because they’re buried behind finished walls. These include improper framing, excessively cut and notched studs and joists, and inadequate connections between building materials. However, the following common violations are easy to find.

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Violation 1: Missing or defective GFCIs

Ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) protection is now required for outlets in the kitchen, bathroom and garage and for all outdoor circuits. It cuts power to a circuit if it detects a current change, protecting against electrical shocks. Test for the presence of GFCIs by plugging a GFCI receptacle tester (about $15 at home centers) into an outlet in each of these areas (photo “violation” below). It’ll detect whether there’s a GFCI on the circuit and other wiring problems, such as reverse polarity and open grounds.

Test for Missing or Defective GFCIs

A GFCI tester detects a bad GFCI as well as other wiring problems.

Violation: Incorrectly wired GFCI outlet
Solution: Close-up of GFCI
Solution: GFCI circuit tester
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Violation 2: Handrails without returns

Codes require handrails to have “returns,” meaning they need to turn and end at the wall (photo “Solution” below). Returns keep items such as sleeves and purse straps from getting caught on the end of the rails and causing a fall. Handrails need to be placed 34 to 38 in. above the nose of the stair treads and must be 1-1/4 to 2-5/8 in. thick.

Handrail Violation and Solution

Stairways are high accident areas. Up-to-code handrails are important for safety.

Violation: Handrail without a return
Solution: Handrail with return
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Violation 3: Improper bathroom venting

Bathroom exhaust fans should vent to the outside—either through the roof or the side of the house—not into the attic (photo “violation” below). Stick your head into the attic to see how yours is vented. Venting the warm, moist air into the attic can cause rotting in the roof framing and sheathing, and may not properly rid the bathroom of moisture, leading to mold and mildew.

Bathroom Venting Violation and Solution

Venting to the attic dumps a lot of moisture into that space. In cold weather the moisture will condense on the underside of the roof and potentially cause rot.

Violation: Bath fan vented into attic
Solution: Bath fan vented to outdoors
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Violation 4: Missing deck flashing

Flashing needs to be installed between the deck ledger board and the house, and the ledger needs to be firmly attached (photo “solution” below). A building inspector we talked to said incorrectly installed ledgers are the main cause of problems in do-it-yourself decks because the ledger may pull loose from the house. These decks can actually collapse, especially when loaded with people.

No Deck Flashing and Proper Deck Flashing

The deck/house joint is a common place for rot. Not only will the rot weaken your deck. It’ll also weaken structural members in your home, which will require an expensive repair.

Violation: No flashing, deck joists rotting
Solution: Proper flashing and no rot
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Violation 5: Misplaced smoke alarms

Codes require a smoke alarm on each level of the house and outside each bedroom (photo “solution” below). Codes require new homes to have a smoke alarm in each bedroom, hard-wired with a battery backup and interconnected so if one activates, they all go off. Ceiling-mounted alarms should be installed at least 4 in. away from walls, and wall-mounted alarms 4 to 12 in. down from the ceiling.

Correctly Position Your Smoke Alarms

Smoke alarms are critical life-saving devices in case of fire. Position them according to directions.

Violation: Alarm too low
Solution: Mount alarm at the proper height
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Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • Hammer
  • Miter saw
  • Brad nail gun
  • Socket/ratchet set
  • 4-in-1 screwdriver
  • Adjustable wrench
  • Drill/driver, cordless
  • Drill bit set
  • Jigsaw
  • Pry bar
  • Non-contact voltage tester
  • Utility knife
  • Tin snips
  • Wire stripper/cutter
  • Wood glue

You'll also need a GFCI circuit tester and bottle jack.

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.

  • New GFCI
  • Roof vent
  • Metal flashing