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Frontier Land

Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED AP, Criterium Engineers
Occasionally, I will get calls from a prospective buyer of a condo in Maine who lives in Massachusetts or some other ‘from away’ region of the country. When questions arise related to building codes or licensing of contractors or inspectors, I often respond light-heartedly, “Welcome to Frontier Land”.
In the movies, ‘Frontier Land’ is where the hero is on his own with little help from the law. Of course I am exaggerating but let us consider the issues.
Maine does not license or certify its residential or commercial general contractors. Some of the skilled trades are licensed but not the general contractor who is ultimately responsible for the quality and safety of Maine’s homes. Legislative measures to license Maine’s contractors have been successfully defeated by various construction industry lobbying efforts, most recently in 2004. Undoubtedly, someday this situation will change but Maine’s self-reliance traditions can be difficult to overcome.
Maine does not license or certify its home inspectors. This fact is often confusing for out-of-state buyers as the inspectors in their state are all licensed by the state. In addition, the home inspection brochures they pick up at a local Maine real estate office or web site have words such as ‘licensed’ or ‘certified.’ Under closer review it will be found the referred licenses are for radon or pest inspections, but not the home itself.
The term ‘certified’ is even more misunderstood. The state certainly does not certify home inspectors, so a good question to ask is, “Certified by whom”? There are many home inspection associations across the country that ‘certifies’ their dues paying members. They are not all equal. The joke in the industry is that in Maine one can be a hair dresser one week and a home inspector the next. The joke, of course, is that a hair dresser needs a license.
Maine does not have the ‘lemon laws’ that protect home buyers in neighboring states, such as Massachusetts, with regard to undisclosed issues affecting the quality of a condominium. Maine’s real estate motto should be Caveat Emptor.
Now to make matters worse, Maine does not require any of its cities or towns to have residential or commercial building codes. Most condominium developments would be governed under commercial code. Fortunately, most communities do have a building code with competent code enforcement officers but adjacent communities may not have the same code making a patchwork quilt of codes throughout the state.
In 2004 Maine passed the Maine Model Building Code requiring any community that wishes to adopt a building code or upgrade its present code is required to adopt the International Building Code. Unfortunately, the law does not require a community to have a code or update at a specified date or update when the IBC code changes (the current code is IBC ‘06).
Recently, I was asked to participate on a building code focus group panel of design professionals sponsored by the State of Maine Planning Office. I pointed out that most communities in the greater Portland area have adopted IBC 2003 but towns further out have a strange mix of codes.
As an example, three outlying, adjacent towns have three different codes, i.e. Buxton (BOCA ‘96), Windham (  BOCA ‘99 ), and Gorham ( IBC ’03 ). Imagine a contractor having three condominiums projects in these communities at the same time. When the contractor moves his crews from site to site does anyone think that the crews jump out of their trucks and pull out the relevant code book for that community?
Of course it is the responsibility of the design professionals to insure that construction documents meet the local codes but the possibility for mistakes is obvious, especially for out of state designers.
So what is a Maine condominium board to do? When my firm begins a transition study the board will ask “Has the building been built to code”? The problem with the question is that we can always find code violations in even the best built facilities, just as you can find a ‘holding’ penalty in any football play. The real question should be “Is the building safe and will it meet its expected maintenance schedules”.
To address these issues, technical experience is needed. Sometimes a board can find that expertise within its own community, but more often than not the services of a professional engineer or experienced property manager will be required.
All of this does not mean that there are not some very good home inspectors or high quality builders in Maine. It means the buyer must be very careful in his/her due diligence. It means asking more questions when the real estate disclosure statements are vague on certain important issues. It means seeking references and asking about qualifications.