Is it illegal to have a Bedroom in the Basement?
Perhaps your family is growing, or your teenager wants more privacy. Or maybe you need a place for overnight guests. Thinking through your options, you realize there is unused space in the basement. If you just tidy up the storage a bit, you would have room for a bed. Maybe you could even put up a new wall.
But wait… something in the back of your mind says you can’t have a bedroom in the basement. Is that true? And if so, why?
Here we’ll take a look at the truth about basement bedrooms, and how you can make your space work to suit your needs.
Table of Contents:
1. Is there really a law?
In a word, no. It is not illegal to have a bedroom in the basement. That said, there are certain requirements that the bedroom must meet in order to be up to code.
Poor construction and cut corners can expose a home and its occupants to many dangers, including collapse of the structure, toxic chemicals, electrical problems and fires. These dangers can be caused by faults in the structure itself, or by outside forces —including natural disasters, such as tornadoes and earthquakes.
Regional groups began to form in the early 1900s to devise a set of standards that, if met, would greatly reduce the risks to a building and its occupants. Eventually the groups combined to form the International Code Council, and in 1997 they issued the first International Building Code. Today the organization issues a new edition every three years.
But while the ICC presents a very comprehensive code (hundreds of pages), its standards are only recommendations. Local jurisdictions use the International Building Code as a template, which they can adjust as needed to suit their population.
Cities, counties and states can each have their own building codes, so a particular project can be subject to multiple sets of rules and regulations. In addition to the IBC, there is the International Residential Code (IRC), which adds guidance specific to homes. Individual trades, like electricians, have their own codes as well.
In short, there may be a number of different overlapping codes that apply to a particular home. How are they enforced? By requiring permits for building and remodeling projects, and requiring inspections by local agencies to ensure the work has been done appropriately.
2. What is a bedroom?
Before we can determine the rules for a bedroom, we have to define what a bedroom is. Easy, right?
As it turns out, though, the legal definition for a bedroom is a slippery thing.
The International Building Code, for one, does not provide a definition for a bedroom—it just explains the features a bedroom must have.
Real estate agents, too, need to know what they can call a bedroom. Houses with more bedrooms usually sell for more money, so it’s in the seller’s best interest to call as many rooms “bedrooms” as possible.
Sticking a toddler bed in a closet won’t make it a bedroom. The real estate industry looks for the following features to define a bedroom:
A. Minimum size. States vary, but 70-80 square feet is an acceptable minimum size in most cases.
B. Minimum horizontal measurement. Is a narrow hallway a bedroom if it’s 80 square feet? No. Bedrooms need at least seven feet in length AND width.
C. Two openings for egress. “Egress” just means “getting out.” The door to the room is one, but the second can be a window of suitable size and distance from the floor.
D. Ceiling height. A bedroom’s ceiling must be at least seven feet tall—for at least half of the area of the ceiling. An attic room whose ceilings slope toward the floor can still qualify.
E. Window size. A common minimum size for a window is 5.7 square feet.
F. Temperature control. Bedrooms need a heat source (not just a space heater) and a means of cooling—though cooling doesn’t need to be air conditioning; it can just be a window that opens sufficiently for ventilation.
What about closets? While many people have heard that a bedroom must have a closet, it’s not actually a requirement. It might give a clue as to the intended use of a room, though. A “bedroom” that lacks a closet might be intended as a “bonus room” or an office.
3. What does a bedroom need?
For an inspector, the main issue is not whether a room is a bedroom, but whether an area that is used for sleeping has appropriate safeguards. After all, people may spend a large amount of time unconscious in the room, unable to react as quickly to a dangerous situation as someone who is awake.
That’s where the ICC comes in again. The main requirements for bedrooms in the building code has to do with egresses, or emergency exits. In addition to the door to the room, a basement bedroom needs an emergency exit, whether that’s a door to the outside or a window.
For safety, occupants must be able to open the door or window without tools or keys. For a window, there are also size and placement requirements. The opening needs to be at least 5.7 square feet, and the window must be at least 24 inches high and no more than 44 inches off the floor.
A window in the basement? If the room is below grade—below ground level—the egress window must open into a window well, and that has size requirements, too: nine square feet of floor space and at least three feet long and wide, plus a permanent way to climb out (steps or a ladder) if it’s deeper than 44 inches. All of these specifics are intended to help firefighters get in and out if your life is in danger.
In addition to an escape route, your basement bedroom needs proper smoke alarms, and there may be additional requirements for outlets.
4. Making it work
If you want to put a bedroom in your basement, you probably can, as long as you’re willing to spend a little to make any necessary adjustments.
If you just want to put a bed in the basement for an occasional guest, and you already have an appropriate emergency egress door or window in the sleeping area, plus smoke detectors and adequate ventilation, then your work is nearly done.
If, however, you want to build a new permanent bedroom, you’ll need a permit, and you’ll need to do conform to code. An egress is required not just in the basement but in the bedroom itself. You can find a contractor locally to install a ready-made window well system for just this purpose.
Make sure the room is big enough for a bed, side table and dresser, and that there is adequate heating and cooling in the space. If you have a septic system, make sure you don’t exceed its capacity in number of rooms! And install smoke alarms inside and outside the room, plus a carbon monoxide detector on the level.
It may be tempting to ignore regulations or cut corners, but those decisions can be costly in the long run. The room ultimately needs to be safe and comfortable for anyone who will sleep there. And when it comes time to sell, you’ll want to make sure you can count the basement room as a bedroom, and that it’s up to code for future occupants.
Once all the boxes are checked, you can sleep soundly knowing your new basement bedroom is done right.