The United States, as has most of the world, has made stricter and stricter building codes over the years. However, the United States does not have any national building codes the states or local cities make their own rules. I have found the states or areas with the strictest building codes also have the highest prices. The harder it is to build or repair homes, the more expensive they become because people stop building, and when they do build, they have to raise the price for it to make sense. So what areas have the strictest building codes in the US?
How do building codes change over time?
100 years ago there were basically no building codes. Anyone could build whatever they wanted, wherever they wanted with some minor restrictions. Over time, the government decided that houses and commercial properties were not safe enough and there needed to be standards set for construction and even repairs. Some cities, states, and counties choose to have stricter codes than others and the federal government has let local governments make those decisions.
You can see how building codes have changed over time by looking at houses built in different eras. 100 years ago some houses were built with amazing carpentry and we often hear “they don’t build them like they used to”. There were also many houses that were built like shacks that have since fallen down. I have bought many of those shacks as a real estate investor and am surprised many of those houses lasted as long as they did.
You can see improvements in houses by looking at houses from different eras. Houses that are 100 years old may not have any windows in the basement where egress windows are now required. Houses from 50 years ago had very little insulation whereas houses now are required to have a minimum amount. You used to be able to put three layers of shingles on a roof and now most areas only allow one. Areas close to the coast may require hurricane glass and reinforced structures.
The stricter building codes make houses safer and more energy efficient but they also make them more expensive.
What areas do not have building codes?
Believe it or not, there are still some areas in the US that do not have building codes! These states do not have building codes:
- North Dakota
- West Virginia
While these states do not have standard building codes, the local cities and counties usually do. I live in Colorado and while there is no standard building code for the entire state, Denver and Boulder have some of the strictest building codes in the nation. Louisville, where the Marshall Fires occurred in 2021 requires fire sprinkler systems in all new houses although they did remove that requirement for houses destroyed in the fire!
Here are some counties without building codes (from https://offgridgrandpa.com/states-and-counties-with-no-building-codes/):
- Delta County in Colorado
- Montezuma County in Colorado
- Arcosanti Urban Laboratory in Arizona
- Brewster County in Texas
- Wonder Valley in California
- Marfa County in Texas
- Terlingua Texas
- Miller County Missouri
In these areas, you might be able to get away with building whatever you want as long as you are not in a city with more strict codes but remember codes can always change!
What areas have the strictest building codes?
I found it interesting but not surprising that the areas with the strictest building codes tend to have the highest prices. When you look at the list below the most strict areas are definitely the most expensive as well.
1. San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA 1.18 18
2. New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 1.04 57
3. Providence-Warwick, RI-MA 0.93 14
4. Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 0.73 22
5. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 0.73 48
6. Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA 0.68 18
7. Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 0.66 16
8. Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL 0.66 35
9. Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ 0.64 11
10. Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA 0.60 18
11. Madison, WI 0.60 13
12. Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 0.48
13. Albany-Schenectady-Troy, NY 0.47 10
14. Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, CO 0.41 16
15. Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, OH-PA 0.32 10
16. Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH 0.30 44
17. Indianapolis-Carmel-Anderson, IN 0.30 14
18. Scranton–Wilkes-Barre–Hazleton, PA 0.30 10
19. Syracuse, NY 0.25 11
20. Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI 0.24 22
21. Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton, PA-NJ 0.22 14
22. Nashville-Davidson–Murfreesboro–Franklin, TN 0.17 12
23. Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 0.17 49
24. Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT 0.14 14
25. Portland-South Portland, ME 0.13 16
26. Kansas City, MO-KS 0.13 17
27. San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX 0.10 10
28. Buffalo-Cheektowaga-Niagara Falls, NY 0.05 12
29. Harrisburg-Carlisle, PA 0.01 15
30. Lancaster, PA −0.01 14
31. Columbus, OH −0.01 17
32. Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX −0.04 16
33. Pittsburgh, PA −0.06 56
34. Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI −0.10 48
35. Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI −0.10 94
36. Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA −0.12 27
37. Worcester, MA-CT −0.23 16
38. Cleveland-Elyria, OH −0.28 19
39. Grand Rapids-Wyoming, MI −0.31 24
40. Rochester, NY −0.38 26
41. Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia, NC-SC −0.38 12
42. Cincinnati, OH-KY-IN −0.38 26
43. Detroit-Warren-Dearborn, MI −0.42 60
44. St. Louis, MO-IL −0.51 37
You can read up on how they made the list and what the numbers mean here: https://realestate.wharton.upenn.edu/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/w835.pdf
Why do tougher building codes make it more expensive to build?
You will find that the most expensive places in the world and the US tend to have the strictest building codes. It is not real estate investors that push up prices as many people claim, it is the government. The harder it is to build and repair houses, the more expensive they are going to be when they are built. The harder it is to build houses, the fewer houses that will be built which will also cause an imbalance in the housing market driving prices up even further. You will also find fewer investors in these areas because it is hard to build, expensive to own, and a pain to do business in those areas.
Building codes do make houses safe and more energy efficient but they also make houses more expensive at a time when houses are becoming less and less affordable. If you are pushing for stricter building codes and more energy-efficient homes, you are also pushing for higher prices. While homes in the US seem to be out of range for many people thanks to high-interest rates, remember the US actually has the 5th most affordable housing in the world.