How must/can I modify my basement to legally use it as a bedroom?
February 21, 2013 11:44 AM   Subscribe

I am planning to convert my basement into a bedroom for one of my brothers to use. I was thinking all that was needed was carpeting and paint, but one of my friends recently told me that I may need to have some kind of modification to the basement windows or walls so that there's a fire escape route apart from the stairs. Is this the case? I've had a hard time finding a definitive legal reference as to what I need to do to have someone legally sleep in my basement.

Here's the essential information about the house:

Location: Livonia, Michigan, USA
Year Built: 1968
Style: Two story
Size: 1760 square feet, not including basement
Basement size: Approximately 800 square feet

Can you tell me what (if anything) I have to do in order to legally have someone sleep in my basement? Assuming there is something I need to do, any idea what the cost might be?

Thanks Mefites.
posted by Vorteks to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Egress is the relevant word that might help you in your googlings. Here's a place to start.
posted by mollymayhem at 11:56 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am not a lawyer, but I know from my experience renting apartments in Iowa that it was a legal requirements for *landlords* in that state to have two means of egress (escape) for each bedroom. Since I was living in a converted attic with a single staircase to the ground floor, they provided a box with an emergency-fire-ladder thing that could be hooked onto a window to meet their obligation.

I suspect that the laws are very different for what landlords (who charge rent) have to do compared with a private citizen who uses different rooms as bedrooms for (non-rent-paying) family members. I would suspect--although I am NOT a lawyer--than you can use your rooms however you want if you're not charging rent. So one thing to get straight is whether your brother will be paying you rent, and if not, whether you are legally required to do anything at all to use the basement.

However, even if you're not required to provide a second means of egress, it might not be a bad idea to bite the bullet and put windows in before you paint and lay down carpet. Making your renovated bedroom downstairs "conforming" (usually this means windows that are large enough to escape in the event of a fire plus sometimes a closet) means that you are much more likely to recoup your costs when you sell the house, as you can market the house as having an additional bedroom.

In Colorado, I was told by my real estate agent that adding in windows to a basement below dirt level would cost around $3,000 per window. I live in a relatively high-priced area, though, so it might be less in Michigan.
posted by iminurmefi at 11:58 AM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

It looks like you're in Michigan, US. You can visit your local building code office for more information. Here's a link for you:

The cost to extend a regular basement window to an egress (the last I checked) was 4-6k, but that was awhile ago and included changes to the foundation (which is always expensive).
posted by RogueTech at 11:59 AM on February 21, 2013

Best answer: The short answer: Call your local building department and ask to speak with a building inspector. They're usually pretty nice about citizens coming by to ask questions -- it's part of their job. (And in fact, I've been to the building dept. in Livonia; they were nice folks.)

Also, while there is no legal requirement to do this, it might be nice to do some radon sampling down there before you move forward. It's cheap and you can do it yourself -- you can get the kit from Lowe's for under $20, and the kit will include the instructions.
posted by pie ninja at 12:01 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @iminurmefi - My parents and several of my sibilings are moving into my house. In the short term, my mother will be paying me a "rent" payment for the entire family that will also cover my brother (although it's my understanding that immediate family paying for living expenses is handled differently than other landlord/renter arrangements). In the long term, I intend to move out of the house in 2-3 years and rent the entire house to them in a more formal arrangement.
posted by Vorteks at 12:02 PM on February 21, 2013

Essentially, you need a window that opens in such a way that a person could escape out it if needed. There are very specific code requirements for this. Read the code and/or check with your building inspector, and make sure your contractor pulls a permit for the work. This likely will have property value and thus property tax implications (more bedrooms, higher property value).

Impossible to estimate costs without seeing the house, but expect to spend thousands.
posted by ssg at 12:02 PM on February 21, 2013

Best answer: It does appear that Michigan's residential code requires emergency egress routes from basement sleeping areas. Lots of detailed requirements: R310 EMERGENCY ESCAPE AND RESCUE OPENINGS.

You will probably also want to talk to your local building inspector and/or current planning.
posted by Kpele at 12:03 PM on February 21, 2013

I will post this here because I already searched for it, but pie ninja has the right practical answer: call a contractor or just the county building inspector directly and ask what they'll let you get away with.

Michigan building code, effective 2011:
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 12:04 PM on February 21, 2013

Also, don't look on this as a hassle, look on it as a potentially life-saving measure.

If you do it right, you might add an extra, legal bedroom to your house. Sweet!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:06 PM on February 21, 2013 [9 favorites]

Best answer: We built bedrooms in our basements and had them permitted. The first step was to visit our development services office. They had a special early evening homeowner time we could come. The building inspector was very helpful in letting us know which codes were to be followed. They even had brochures specifically about basement and garage conversions.

Some notes:
1. egress is the most important thing, It's about a first responder being able to get in to help as well as getting someone out! There is a minimum opening size as well as a minimum distance between bottom window sill and the floor. We had to have a custom wood window made to fit our opening. A vinyl slider would not have been big enough. Also, we wanted the window to hinge up, that was a no-no and we had to change it.

We had to put a step in to meet the minimum. the fact that we had an exterior exit to our basement helped as well.

3. ceiling height: not as big a deal as we thought!

4. bedrooms require windows and a closet where we live (no matter what floor they're on.)

5. handrails! We had four inspections and then one gal said, "your handrail needs to be changed (the existing one didn't have rails) So we had to add a new handrail. Every inspector has their own "thing" they focus on so be prepare for multiple "final" inspections.

it wasn't too hard to draw our own plans and have them approved. However, our city allows homeowners to do their own plumbing and electrical if the unit is owner occupied. That may not be the case in your situation (or if you're renting to tenants.)
posted by vespabelle at 12:39 PM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I am an architectural designer well versed in building code. This is not professional advice. Please see my comment in this thread.
posted by Specklet at 1:28 PM on February 21, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! As suggested, I contacted the Livonia building department (I had no idea they would answer homeowner's questions directly). Their answer, in part, was as follows:
A basement egress window would be required to be installed, within the bedroom, to specification and code. 5.7 sq. ft., proper size openings, a maximum of 44 inches off the floor to the opening, proper safety precautions at the outside well, operable from the inside without any special knowledge or tools and so forth. A window would be required for each bedroom proposed.

A basement finished after about 2000 requires an egress window. The bedroom egress window would qualify for the basement finish also, as long as there was no locking hardware on the bedroom door.


A window, in normal circumstances, would cost about $3100 to $3500 approximately.
posted by Vorteks at 2:30 PM on February 21, 2013

Since there is so much talk about egress and size of egress, I thought I'd pass on this anecdote I heard from my contractor: basement egress has to be of a size that fireman can fit through with an air tank. That can help you visualize how large the opening must be.....

Also, if you are installing an egress window, dig the hole yourself. That can save you a couple hundred bucks.
posted by lstanley at 7:09 AM on February 22, 2013

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