by Nick Gromicko, CMI®
A room must conform to specific requirements in order for it to be considered a bedroom or sleeping room. The reason for this law is that the inhabitant must be able to quickly escape in case of fire or another emergency.
Why would a homeowner use a non-conforming room as a bedroom?
Some of the reasons include:
- to earn money from it as a rental. While they run the risk of being discovered by the city, landlords will profit by renting out rooms that are not legally bedrooms;
- to increase the value of the home. All other considerations being equal, a four-bedroom house will usually sell for more than a three-bedroom house; and
- lack of knowledge of code requirements. To the untrained eye, there is little obvious difference between a conforming bedroom and non-conforming bedroom. When an emergency happens, however, the difference will be more apparent. If you have any questions about safety requirements, ask your InterNACHI inspector during your next scheduled inspection.
Homeowners run serious risks when they use a non-conforming room as a bedroom. An embittered tenant, for instance, may bring their landlord to court, especially if the tenant was forced out when the faux bedroom was exposed. The landlord, upon being exposed, might choose to adjust the bedroom to make it code-compliant, but this can cost thousands of dollars. Landlords can also be sued if they sell the home after having advertised it as having more bedrooms than it actually has. And the owner might pay more than they should be paying in property tax if they incorrectly list a non-conforming bedroom as a bedroom. Perhaps the greatest risk posed by rooms that unlawfully serve as bedrooms stems from the reason these laws exist in the first place: rooms lacking egress can be deadly in case of an emergency. For instance, on January 5, 2002, four family members sleeping in the basement of a Gaithersburg, Maryland, townhome were killed by a blaze when they had no easy escape.
The following requirements are taken from the 2006 International Residential Code (IRC), and they can be used as a general guide, but bear in mind that the local municipality determines the legal definition of a bedroom. Such local regulations can vary widely among municipalities, and what qualifies as a bedroom in one city might be more properly called a den in a nearby city. In some municipalities, the room must be above grade, be equipped with an AFCI or smoke alarm to be considered a conforming bedroom, for instance. Ceiling height and natural lighting might also be factors. The issue can be extremely complex, so it’s best to learn the code requirements for your area. Nevertheless, the IRC can be useful, and it reads as follows:
- EMERGENCY ESCAPE AND RESCUE REQUIRED SECTION: R 310.1 Basements and every sleeping room shall have at least one operable emergency and rescue opening. Such opening shall open directly into a public street, public alley, yard or court. Where basements contain one or more sleeping rooms, emergency egress and rescue openings shall be required in each sleeping room, but shall not be required in adjoining areas of the basement. Where emergency escape and rescue openings are provided, they shall have a sill height of not more than 44 inches (1,118mm) above the floor. Where a door opening having a threshold below the adjacent ground elevation serves as an emergency escape and rescue opening and is provided with a bulkhead enclosure, the bulkhead enclosure shall comply with SECTION R310.3. The net clear opening dimensions required by this section shall be obtained by the normal operation of the emergency escape and rescue opening from the inside. Emergency escape and rescue openings with a finished sill height below the adjacent ground elevation shall be provided with a window well, in accordance with SECTION R310.2.
- MINIMUM OPENING AREA: SECTION: R 310.1.1 All emergency escape and rescue openings shall have a minimum net clear opening of 5.7 square feet (0.530 m2). Exception: Grade floor openings shall have a minimum net clear opening of 5 square feet (0.465 m2).
- MINIMUM OPENING HEIGHT: R 310.1.2 The minimum net clear opening height shall be 24 inches (610mm).
- MINIMUM OPENING WIDTH: R 310.1.3 The minimum net clear opening width shall be 20 inches (508mm).
- OPERATIONAL CONSTRAINTS: R 310.1.4 Emergency escape and rescue openings shall be operational from the inside of the room without the use of keys or tools or special knowledge.
- WINDOW WELLS: SECTION: R310.2 The minimum horizontal area of the window well shall be 9 square feet (0.9 m2), with a minimum horizontal projection and width of 36 inches (914mm). The area of the window well shall allow the emergency escape and rescue opening to be fully opened. Exception: The ladder or steps required by SECTION R 310.2.1 shall be permitted to encroach a maximum of 6 inches (152mm) into the required dimensions of the window well.
- LADDER AND STEPS: SECTION: R 310.2.1 Window wells with a vertical depth greater than 44 inches (1,118mm) shall be equipped with a permanently affixed ladder or steps usable with the window in the fully open position. Ladders or steps required by this section shall not be required to comply with SECTIONS R311.5 and R311.6. Ladders or rungs shall have an inside width of at least 12 inches (305 mm), shall project at least 3 inches (76mm) from the wall, and shall be spaced not more than 18 inches (457mm) on-center vertically for the full height of the window well.
- BULKHEAD ENCLOSURES: SECTION: R 310.3 Bulkhead enclosures shall provide direct access to the basement. The bulkhead enclosure with the door panels in the fully open position shall provide the minimum net clear opening required by SECTION R 310.1.1. Bulkhead enclosures shall also comply with SECTION R 3126.96.36.199.
- BARS, GRILLS, COVERS, AND SCREENS: SECTION: R 310.3 Bars, grilles, covers, screens or similar devices are permitted to be placed over emergency escape and rescue openings, bulkhead enclosures, or window wells that serve such openings, provided the minimum net clear opening size complies with SECTIONS R 310.1.1 to R 310.1.3, and such devices shall be releasable or removable from the inside without the use of a key, tool, special knowledge, or force greater than that which is required for normal operation of the escape and rescue opening.
- EMERGENCY ESCAPE WINDOWS UNDER DECKS AND PORCHES: SECTION: R 310.5 Emergency escape windows are allowed to be installed under decks and porches, provided the location of the deck allows the emergency escape window to be fully opened and provides a path not less than 36 inches (914 mm) in height to a yard or court.
In summary, non-conforming bedrooms are rooms that unlawfully serve as bedrooms, as the occupant would lack an easy escape in case of emergency.