Repealing the federal building code

PRESIDENT Reagan's deregulation drive is about to reach the nation's housing industry, which is struggling back from recession. The possible effects of the White House plan to abandon the Federal Housing Administration's Minimum Property Standards merit the attention of anyone concerned with housing. Under the present timetable, the complex and voluminous set of regulations that dictate design, materials, and construction methods for most dwelling units in the United States will be abandoned at the end of this year unless Congress intervenes. With the national construction code out of the picture, the quality and safety of housing units would be subject to state and local regulations and to Mr. Reagan's favorite regulator, the marketplace. The federal standards were established to carry out the prov isions of the National Housing Act of 1934 and safeguard the government's investment in housing, as well as the interests of lenders and home buyers. The number and complexity of regulations have increased in step with (some say more rapidly than) the growth of the nation's housing industry.

Likely effects of federal deregulation, as seen by industry experts, include the design and construction of more innovative housing; increased growth for the modular, or prefabricated, housing industry; and, in many instances, reduction of building costs without sacrificing quality. Industry experts point out that many new housing ideas are stifled because the fact that they may not conform with federal regulations makes it too financially risky to incorporate them into structures.

But some point out that dropping of federal standards would require home buyers in some areas to be much more alert and informed in order to avoid problems -- especially in sparsely populated areas with few local and state rules. One advantage of having standards set on a national basis is that a highly mobile American population can count on finding housing almost anywhere in the US that conforms to general expectations as to design, quality, and safety.

Yet, leaders of some of the largest banking and housing organizations say they believe local and state rules today tend to be at least as demanding as the federal standards -- and easier to keep abreast of.

Others, however, suggest that, rather than wipe out the national code, the administration might better attempt to simplify and modernize it.

Certainly, no one wants prospective homeowners -- most of whom are at best not experts and at worst easily impressed by superficial features -- to be left with little more than the familiar warning: ``Let the buyer beware.''

This deregulatory move by the administration has had little public attention. No congressional hearings have yet been scheduled on the subject, but Congress should not let the federal standards be abolished without affording opportunity for careful study and public discussion.

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