Several states that perennially have been susceptible to severe natural disasters have the weakest residential building code and enforcement systems for life safety and property protection.

That conclusion comes from the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS), based on its analysis of regulations and processes governing residential construction in the 18 states most vulnerable to catastrophic hurricanes along the Atlantic Coast and Gulf of Mexico (see chart). “I’m concerned that there are not more statewide mandatory codes in these states, and hopefully we can shine a light on this,” Wanda Edwards, IBHS’s director of code enforcement, tells Builder.

The Tampa, Fla.-based institute developed its ranking using three criteria: the application of statewide building codes and the extent to which states allow for local exemptions; the breadth of a state’s code-enforcement system; and whether contractors are required to be licensed.

On those bases, Mississippi, which IBHS notes “has virtually no regulatory process in place for building codes, no statewide code, no mandatory enforcement, no programs or requirements for inspectors, and very few licensing requirements,” by far ranks lowest among the states whose code and enforcement systems were evaluated.

In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina all but wiped out Mississippi’s coastline. The storm caused at least 235 deaths and displaced more than 1 million residents. Every county in the state was declared a disaster area. Since then, there have been attempts by the state to shore up its patchwork licensing and enforcement procedures. But loopholes remain open.

The Mississippi State Board of Contractors, the state’s licensing authority, requires residential contractors working in the state to apply for licenses. The state waives this requirement for contractors with unlimited licenses in Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, South Carolina, and Louisiana, with which Mississippi has reciprocity agreements. The Home Builders Association of Mississippi’s website includes a hotline where consumers can report unlicensed builders, who can be subject to fines up to $5,000.

Marty Milstead, the HBA’s executive vice president, tells Builder that his state adopted the 2006 International Residential Code (IRC) last month, at which point that code became the minimum standard municipalities with existing building codes must follow. But towns in Mississippi that previously hadn’t been enforcing building codes—which Milstead says include several where there’s a significant amount of home building going on—aren’t required to adopt the 2006 IRC.

“ We’ve never been able to get the traction we need in the legislature to get [statewide] building codes passed,” Mike Chaney, Mississippi’s insurance commissioner, told the Sun-Herald newspaper, which serves Biloxi and Gulfport. In fact, a majority of readers responding online to the Sun Herald’s article expressed opposition to stricter building codes, which several readers equated with higher insurance premiums. Even Chaney was quoted as stating that any mandatory codes should allow local entities to opt out for at least six years.

Milstead points to other “issues” with the state’s contractor licensing, which he says “doesn’t include general liability insurance.” Mississippi also has “a lot” of rural counties that don’t issue permits, and where contractors can build up to two homes per year without being licensed. The Mississippi HBA has proposed a bill that would require licensing across the state. “But we’re a long way from that becoming a law,” says Milstead.

IBHS Ratings by State: Highest to Lowest
State  Total Adoption of Code Universality and Weakening Provisions Enforcement Officials Contractor Licensing
Florida 95 48 22 25
Virginia 95 48 24 23
New Jersey 93 49 23 21
Massachusetts 87 46 23 20
South Carolina 84 45 18 21
Connecticut 81 40 24 17
North Carolina 81 40 22 19
Rhode Island 78 44 19 15
Louisiana 73 48 15 10
Maryland 73 43 15 15
Georgia 66 31 15 20
Maine 64 33 22 9
New York 60 37 23 9
New Hampshire 49 39 0 10
Alabama 18 0 0 18
Texas 18 18 0 0
Delaware 17 4 0 13
Mississippi 4 0 0 4
Scale 0-100
Source: Insurance Institute of Business & Home Safety

IBHS rankings were weighted based on the following variables:

  • 50 percent for variables that relate to adoption and enforcement of building codes;
  • 25 percent for variables that measure code official certification and training; and
  • 25 percent for variables that relate to on-site implementation, as measured by contractor and subcontractor licensing.

Room For Improvement

Conversely, Florida—whose lax, and in some areas nonexistent, building codes were exposed in 1992 by Hurricane Andrew, which caused $30 billion in property damage and left 250,000 people homeless—ranks first in its code enforcement processes by IBHS. The Sunshine State follows the 2006 International Residential Code and mandates code-official certification and training. Florida also requires licensing—via an examination and continuing education—of general, plumbing, mechanical, electrical, and roofing contractors. “Mechanisms are in place enabling the state to discipline a contractor for a variety of violations, including noncompliance with the code,” IBHS notes.

Two other states, Virginia and New Jersey, achieved scores exceeding 90 (out of a possible 100), even though, in Virginia’s case, certification and training are not prerequisites for being hired as a code official; and contractors in New Jersey are not required to take a test in order to be licensed by the state’s Department of Community Affairs.

Indeed, IHBS found areas for improvement in each state it looked at. Maine, for one, has adopted the 2009 IRC as well as a plumbing and electrical code. But that adoption lacks teeth, says IBHS, when Maine towns with fewer than 4,000 people—which equates to one-third of the state’s population—don’t have to follow those codes.

After Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans, Louisiana required mandatory code adoption and enforcement. But the state still doesn’t require mandatory licensing for electrical, mechanical, or roofing contractors.

Laissez-faire Texas, which finished third from last on IBHS’s ranking, is even less regulatory. There is no statewide code or enforcement in Texas, and no statewide program for certifying inspectors or licensing contractors. But the state does require homeowners seeking to obtain windstorm insurance to meet specific building codes.

IHBS’s analysis shows some progress, too. Last November, Alabama—which ranks next to last on the insurer’s list—provided its Energy and Residential Board with the authority to adopt a statewide residential code. The state also created a process that could lead to approval of the 2009 International Residential Code by 2012, even though it is unlikely that the state would force local municipalities to follow it.

John Caulfield is senior editor for Builder magazine.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Tampa, FL, Gulfport, MS, Providence, RI.