DELTA COUNTY COLORADO BUILDING CODES AND REAL ESTATE INSPECTIONS
Delta County, Colorado: A Buyer’s Guide to Residential Real Estate
Opinion article by Gary Hubbell, United Country Colorado Brokers broker, Crawford, Colorado
Delta County, Colorado, is one of the last bastions of truly conservative ideology, with 68% of the voters registered as Republicans. The sanctity of private property rights is quite possibly one of the most important tenets of local Delta County politics. To familiarize yourself with the region, the towns of Paonia, Crawford, Hotchkiss, Cedaredge, Delta, Austin, Orchard City, and Eckert are located in Delta County, an hour southeast of Grand Junction and north of Montrose.
Delta County, Colorado, is one of the last counties in Colorado, and possibly the United States, with no building code and no zoning laws. Yup, that’s right. No building codes and no zoning laws. As one local politician joked with a friend of mine, “I’d rather stand up in a public meeting and say the ‘F’ word than the ‘Z’ word.” If you’ve lived in communities with extensive, restrictive zoning regulations and onerous building codes, Delta County will seem like the Wild West in comparison. Please note that I’m commenting on the Delta County rural areas, not the various town boundaries. The municipalities in Delta County have a hodge-podge of codes. Hotchkiss, for example, just enacted building codes and hired an inspector. Congratulations, Hotchkiss. If you’re looking at residential real estate in a Delta County municipality, check with the town clerk to see what the codes are in that town. In any event, towns in Delta County that have building codes have enacted them fairly recently. If you’re looking at older construction, it may have been built prior to the enactment of building codes.
I’m not here to pass judgment on the local political system. I’m simply educating you as to the facts. Delta County does not regulate construction methods, and there is no county building inspector. Builders and homeowners are not required to adhere to the Universal Building Code (UBC) to complete a house, and not only are there no county building permits, there are no certificates of occupancy for residential or commercial construction. The only inspections, plumbing and electrical, are required by the State of Colorado.
While this political philosophy enables a great deal of personal freedom, which is the goal, it also creates a level of danger for a buyer who may unwittingly purchase a property that was built using unorthodox or substandard construction methods.
I lived in the Roaring Fork Valley most of my life, and worked construction in Aspen in my 20’s and my early 30’s. I’m a pretty fair journeyman carpenter, and I’m familiar with drywall, concrete, framing, insulation, plumbing, masonry, flooring, roofing, and trim work. I worked my way through high school and college working construction, and I’ve worked as a professional painter, a plumber’s helper on big commercial jobs, and my father was a stone mason, so I’ve got a good working knowledge of stone masonry. I’ve done a fair amount of site work and installation of water and sewer lines. I’ve worked on more than a few $10 million homes in Aspen and Snowmass, and I’m pretty familiar with standard building codes. So, now that you know my level of experience, I think I can speak with some authority about construction methods.
When you’re buying real estate in Delta County, particularly residential real estate, you must approach your inspection process very carefully. Please note that there are a number of top contractors in Delta County who do excellent quality work. Many local craftsmen travel to Telluride, Aspen, Snowmass, and other resort areas, where their work is in high demand. Painters, ornamental blacksmiths, glassblowers, drywallers, and all sorts of craftsmen and tradesmen make their homes in Paonia, Crawford, Hotchkiss, Eckert, Cedaredge, and Delta, and they travel all over the state doing top-quality work.
However, it may just be that you’re looking at one of those houses that was cobbled together with scrap materials by a ranch hand and a coal miner with a little spare time on their hands. That’s nothing against coal miners and ranch hands—I know and respect their work. That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re master carpenters doing top-quality work. There are houses in Delta County that are built around the shell of a 1971 trailer with aluminum wiring and a failing septic system.
Many property owners in Delta County have protested long, loud, and hard whenever the question of enacting building codes comes up. They insist that the imposition of building codes will decrease their property values. I find this to be puzzling and illogical. The sentiment is that building codes add an extra burden of unnecessary expense to the construction of a home. Pardon me, but I just don’t see it that way. I’ve worked on many custom homes, and I’ve built two homes for myself that sold at the top of the local market at the time. I built those homes according to the letter of the building code, and it simply wasn’t any additional burden or expense to me. I’m the kind of guy who tends to overdo things, however. If I think someone may want to add on an extra bedroom to the house sometime in the future, I put in an extra-large septic tank and leach field in anticipation of that future expansion. It’s a lot easier to do when the hole is open and clean than it will be 10 years from now.
In my experience as a real estate agent, it’s much more difficult to sell one of those homes that has been built without regard to the building codes. Sure, it saved the original owner some time and money in construction costs, but the shortcuts will cost the new owners much more in inefficiencies and waste. For example, I watched a guy build a house this past summer with 2×4 stud walls on two-foot centers. He didn’t put appropriate headers over the windows. Building codes call for 2×6 exterior stud walls on 16-inch centers, and sturdy headers over the windows. What’s the difference? First, there is structural integrity. A house built from 2×6 walls is simply stouter. Secondly, there is energy efficiency. Using common fiberglass insulation in 2×4 walls will result in only an R13 insulation value. An insulated 2×6 wall will yield an R19 insulation value. In this era of rising energy costs, I think it’s extremely shortsighted to save a few bucks on lumber and then end up paying thousands of dollars more in increased energy costs because of a poorly insulated home.
Another factor is safety. Building codes call for egress windows of an adequate size so that a person can escape a sleeping area. This means an operable window—a window that can be opened by a child in the event of a fire. I can show you a newly built house in Hotchkiss that has several windows on a second floor. All are solid pane windows; none are operable. If there were a fire in that home, someone would have to throw a heavy object through the window to escape through broken glass. The same goes for basements. I recently toured a house for sale with a basement the size of the main floor of the home. One of the real estate agents commented that it could be used for at least two bedrooms. Really? How well could you sleep at night, knowing that there were no egress windows AT ALL in the basement? Is that where you would want your children to sleep?
As a real estate agent, I simply cannot in good conscience counsel my buyers to purchase such a home unless the sellers are willing to make appropriate changes, and I will push for discounts in the purchase price reflecting the lack of adherence to building codes. The kicker is, however, that the seller will want full price in comparison to other homes on the market—homes that were built by professional builders according to building codes. It’s simply a rip-off for the consumer. How can someone possibly assert that building codes cause a decrease in property values? This is a classic example of wanting it both ways—some folks want to build things however they can tack it together, without any governmental oversight to protect the end consumer. When it comes time to sell, they want to get the highest possible price for a property that probably contains unknown and hidden defects that will be passed on to an unwitting consumer.
There can be hidden defects in Delta County residential construction that are almost impossible to verify. For example, building codes specify a certain amount of reinforcing bar (rebar) steel in footers and foundations. If the ground under the foundation settles, the rebar in the concrete keeps it from cracking and breaking—unless it was never put there in the first place. The only way you’d know the difference would be system failure. For lack of a few sticks of rebar and compacted footings, your entire house could be in jeopardy. Other examples in substandard construction are shoddy insulation, poor framing techniques (such as the flimsy headers I mentioned earlier), and poor wiring and plumbing. Building codes stress that white PVC pipe may not be used for domestic water supply. It emits toxic chemicals that shouldn’t be in your water. However, it’s cheap and easy to use PVC for domestic water lines—much cheaper and easier than copper pipe. After the drywall is hung, it’s very difficult to tell if someone took this shortcut. Do you want to drink water from lines that may be emitting toxic chemicals? I don’t. These defects are very difficult to detect until one of the systems fails, and when the failure occurs, the repairs can be very expensive.
Despite this lack of governmental oversight, the free market is addressing the problem. Many lenders will not lend on new construction in Delta County unless houses have been inspected. Conscientious builders are hiring inspectors to issue reports on the housing they’ve constructed. That’s why many real estate ads will mention “built according to code” or something of the sort.
It is true that housing is affordable in Delta County. Many homes for sale can be purchased for $100 a square foot or less, including the cost of the land. That’s a value, especially in the hot Western Colorado real estate market. When you consider the advantages of living in such a beautiful locale, the nice folks you’ll meet, the excellent schools, all the recreational opportunities, and the great local food and wine, it’s an even greater value.
So what can you do to make sure you’re protected when you buy Delta County real estate? Hire an inspector, each and every time. Ed Bliss is a particularly good home inspector based in Crawford. A former builder of high-quality homes, Ed will take a microscopic look at the home you’re buying. The sellers may want to choke him by the time he’s done, because he will find things they might not even know about. After you read a report from a good home inspector, you have a choice of how to address the problem—either by asking the seller to repair or address the problems, or to accept a price reduction. If they won’t do either, then you have to assess whether it’s worth it to proceed with your purchase of the property.
If you plan to build new construction, you need to have a prayer meeting with your builder and sub-contractors, and insist that quality materials, techniques, and UBC codes must be followed every step of the way. I personally love the advent of digital photography. You can ask your concrete contractor to photograph the rebar in the footings and email the pictures to you; you can request the general contractor to send you photos of the framing as it progresses. It’s always a good idea to document the positioning of water lines, buried electric and phone cables, septic systems, plumbing, and wiring before it all gets covered up. Insist on a regular inspection process so that you can document that your home was built according to building codes. In the event that you sell your home later, you can provide clear documentation that your property has intrinsic, proven value because of the quality of the workmanship, materials, and construction techniques.
As a buyer’s agent, I am solidly on the side of my buyers. I want to assure you that the home you’re buying is a quality property built according to codes. I invite and encourage you to hire a quality home inspector. I’ll be your advocate in pursuing discounts and repairs if the construction isn’t up to standards. While other real estate agents may gloss over a problem in an effort to make a quick sale, I want to build long-term relationships with my buyers.
The easiest purchases are of those properties who were built by quality builders with long-standing reputations as meticulous craftsmen. There are many quality homes in Delta County that were built right. Those homes speak for themselves. If you’re looking for residential real estate in Paonia, Hotchkiss, Crawford, Cedaredge, Orchard City, or Austin, give me a call, and let’s go find a high-quality home where you can enjoy all the best that the North Fork Valley has to offer.