Knowing where you live is critical to deciding how best to handle your construction projects. Most people don't make decisions about where they are going to live based on codes. They decide by the people they love, a job, or maybe by the beauty of the place. There are many reasons to move, but when considering alternative housing or new concepts, codes play a big role on what you are "allowed" to do. Many cities are like overgrown homeowners associations that are very very picky.
*No garden in the front yard
*Build 10 feet from the neighbors property
*One home per 10 acres
*You need a permit to change your siding son...
*You can't have a pile of dirt "there" during construction... you have 24 hours to move it
Are the types of things you may hear from an inspector. Certain types of non-traditional housing (domes, earthbag, strawbale, cob, geodesic, etc...) may require special attention with some code enforcement divisions. Keep in mind that there are 30,000 plus cities and counties in the U.S, and each one has it's own rules. If you're not in a city, then you are under the county jurisdiction. If you don't like the way your city or county handle things, you can find an unincorporated region of your county, bring enough people with you (15 in some states), and incorporate your own city with your own rules!
For those who are not that flexible, I see many things done. I know people in the construction business in one of the most intrusive cities in the country. They are told by certain city officials that it's too hard to get a construction license, and certain large construction companies have the city wrapped around their finger. I was in the roofing biz in Tulsa. There, typically for a roof to be replaced, no permit is required. In other cities, it is required. When builders change locations, it can be hard to get a licence, and to work your way into the industry in the new region. After the collapse of the housing market, a huge volume of construction workers had to find new lines of work. Many of them went into business for themselves. I see some cities, and have spoken to builders who know that pulling a permit and waiting on the city can turn a profitable job into a non-profit waste of time for them. For this reason, many builders stay off the charts. They find ways around the system to keep from dealing with the bureaucracy that causes them stress, and keep costs down to the paying customer.
If you start an outdoor project, and it takes a while, you can bet that Mr. Code enforcement will show up one day and slap a red sticker on your job, and you'll be caught up in red tape until you're broke. If you can't pay your contractor, they'll put a lein on your property, and you could lose it. So preparing adequately is critical to any construction project. If it's a big project, like building a new home, it's hard to skirt the system, and doing so could effect your home value, so it's best not to go that route. I'm talking more about remodels, siding, roofing, adding a small mother-apartment out back, etc.
The tip I'm giving you here that will save the big bucks is this:
Work fast! Don't get stuck partway done. Don't do weekend projects that look unfinished. Don't leave lumber cuts around. Don't do the diy project if it's big enough to need a permit, but you don't have real time to devote to it. Building codes are much more lax for DIY homeowners than they are for contractors. That's why homeowners who subcontract their own help and file permits themselves get lots of leeway that contractors don't get.
In the roofing business, every roofer knows that a roof that goes on in one day won't get rained on, the customer is happy, code enforcement won't have time to visit, and the roofer gets paid. For that reason, when I was managing projects, I always put enough guys on a roof to do the job and leave it cleaned up in one day. The early experience of 3 day roofs meant more customer complaints than you can imagine. So it's a no brainer.
As to my friends in other states I won't mention, for interior remodels, siding, tile, electrical, kitchens, counters, etc.... the one day rule is a good rule of thumb, but some remodels just take more than a day, and if you show up with 15 guys, everyone in the neighborhood knows it, and someone complains. If you've got a construction truck out front, here comes the inspector. So the trick they use is to rent a moving van. If you look like you're moving, but really building, that's the trick of the trade for today. A construction project that is finished is pre-existing as far as anyone is concerned. One that is in process is one that is subject to being stopped and subject to the wiles of the bureaucracy. Get in, get done, then get out.
There are counties that have few codes. There are many of them in Missouri. Some in Oklahoma: Okmulgee county for instance. I looked at land there. There is no code enforcement department in the county, so build what you want and don't expect intrusion. The county is sparsely populated. There are state regulations. For instance in Oklahoma, though there may be no codes to worry about, Department of Water quality is a state office that has jurisdiction over your well drilling and septic systems. If you build commercially, the Health Department has jurisdiction over bathrooms and foods, etc. Even if there are no codes or restrictions, you must also check with zoning laws about what you can or can't legally do. These are just U.S. issues I'm dealing with. Other countries have their own regulations, and knowing them can help you decide how to handle things.
Rural counties building process permits might look like this, to set up an address, access, and septic system. Then construction from there could be up to you! Remember, that incorporating your own town means your city corporation has jurisdiction, and not the county. That means you get to establish your own building codes with the others in your town. If you can gather a majority in any town, you might be able to make proactive changes as well. Getting involved and being a great communicator is key. Remember there are many Americans just as frustrated as you are with the "system," so getting old laws off the books and a modern system in place is critical. I would love to see more cities wipe the books clear and start over as a fresh incorporation for the modern age. With the development of a great "City App," maybe such a move could be simple and easy to initiate, and not so far fetched.
In the comments, I would love to hear your experience, particularly easy going counties and cities. If you're in a code-free zone, tell us where you are, and I'll pass the world along! :)