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Frequently Asked Questions About Construction Law

Historic preservation laws in many cities and states limit the right of a building owner to make changes to a building that would affect its historic character. Some restrictions may apply to just one building, while others may apply to whole neighborhoods. Historic preservation laws are not limited to old, elaborate, or famous buildings. Preservation laws have been extended to ordinary homes, in ordinary middle-class neighborhoods that are considered to have some historic or architectural significance. If you are located in a historic preservation district, you may need legal advice as to what you can or can't do on your property.

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Frequently Asked Questions About Construction Law

Q: What is a building code?

A: A building code is a law or ordinance enacted by a local authority that sets out the minimum standards that must be met for building design, construction, quality and location. There are also specialized codes for plumbing, electrical and fire safety. Building codes also cover most remodeling projects.

Q: What permits do I need to get?

A: Every community has different requirements. You probably will at least need a building permit. You may have to obtain a special permit to build in a particular area. You should also be aware of any zoning or land use restrictions on the site where you plan to build.

Q: Do I have to use a licensed contractor on my construction project?

A: Licensing rules vary from state-to-state and sometimes between cities in the same state. In many communities, unlicensed contractors may not receive a building permit for work they do for someone else. Construction done by a person not licensed as a contractor may not pass inspection or receive a certificate of occupancy, which allows the use of a building.

Q: What is a mechanic's lien?

A: A mechanic's lien is a claim against the value of a building or property to secure payment for materials or services provided to improve the property. The lien makes the property owner ultimately responsible for all of the expenses incurred in improving a property. The owner is responsible for paying all subcontractors and material suppliers, even if the owner has already paid the contractor in full. If the owner does not pay off the lien, the lienholder may go to court to get an order enforcing the lien against the property.

Q: My contractor gave me a written estimate at the start of the project, but now he is billing me for more than the estimate. Can he do that?

A: Generally speaking, yes. An estimate is just that — the contractor's guess as to how much the project would cost you. Be sure before you sign a contract that you know whether the price quoted is an estimate or a firm price. You may, however, be suspicious if the estimate was significantly lower than the actual price charged. If you were induced to sign a contract by an estimate that bears no relation to the actual price, you may have a claim for fraud against the contractor.

Q: Is an oral construction contract legally valid?

A: Depending on your jurisdiction and the terms to which you have agreed, an oral construction contract may be valid. However, even if an oral construction contract is legally valid, it is not a good idea. There are too many opportunities for misunderstandings and too many potential situations that could arise in any construction project. Both parties are better off with a clearly written document that sets out, in detail, each party's rights and responsibilities.

Q: What is the difference between a building inspection and a home inspection?

A: A building inspector evaluates the building project, usually several times, at various stages of construction, to ensure compliance with local building codes. In some communities, a certificate of occupancy is given only after the home passes a final building inspection. Home inspectors generally evaluate an existing home as a part of the sale or purchase of the home. Home inspectors look at readily accessible systems and components, but they do not certify that a home is in compliance with the building codes.

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