Modern building standards require sleeping areas, ‘bedrooms’, to have secondary egress methods in case of emergency. Most people commonly use the term emergency egress, and it most often occurs in the form of a window meeting specific size requirements in each bedroom.
Some homeowners decide to finish their basements, many without the required permits. As of 2004 most cities, boroughs and townships require a permit to legally finish a basement, although some only require permits if the finished basement will include a bedroom(s), a bathroom(s), etc. You need to check with you AHJ (authority having jurisdiction) to find out what they specifically require for the type of work you are planning to do. Many homeowners see the whole permit requirement as overburdensome, but permits are designed to ensure the work is done to code with safety in mind.
This is a basement egress window well commonly found in newer homes.
Getting a permit alerts the AHJ (city, township or borough) that you want to do specific work on your property, inside or outside your home; and it also puts the inspection process for the AHJ’s code enforcement arm into action. Most cities and townships in PA don’t perform their own code-compliance inspections but rather farm this duty out to third party companies certified by the International Code Council (ICC). The ICC is in charge of maintaining and updating the building code which gets updated every three years. For our needs, we are referring to the International Residential Code (IRC). As of October 1, 2018 in Pennsylvania, we are now on the 2015 IRC. Prior to that date, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was still on the 2009 IRC.
When you apply for a building permit, you pay a fee and submit paperwork to the city or township stating what work you want to perform. For cosmetic projects like painting, carpeting, replacing cabinets, modifying non-structural walls, etc., permits are normally not required. However, if you are adding a shed, rewiring or replumbing your home or finishing your basement, for example, permits will most often be required. Although we are on a Uniform Construction Code (UCC) in PA, some requirements still do vary slightly by city or township, so contacting your local AHJ before the work starts is wise. The UCC was passed over 15 years ago to ensure that all cities, townships and boroughs in PA are using the same basic residential code. Prior to that, most areas in PA had few to no building codes. Once a building permit is obtained and the work is started, the AHJ will most likely schedule one or more inspections. This ensures that the work is being done to code. For plumbing, wiring, etc., this inspection is normally done before wall coverings are installed.
During a home inspection it is wise for the inspector to point out to his client the areas of the property that may have been recently added/remodeled such as a shed, deck, sunroom or even a finished basement. The client would then be wise to contact the city or township before closing to verify whether proper permits were pulled and confirm the final code inspection(s) was performed. It is outside the scope of a home inspection, however, for home inspectors to check for permits. It appears that some sellers leave the “Additions/Changes” section of the seller’s disclosure blank when it is very apparent that some major changes were recently made. Sometimes the MLS mentions these big changes although the disclosure omits them completely.
I know of specific instances when the seller finished a basement, etc. with no permits; but in each case the townships or cities ‘got wind of this’, possibly when the new buyer got permits for something else. The current owners were then required to deconstruct the work that was done with no permits, such as unfinish a finished basement back to its original non-finished status. This is not what a new homeowner wants to deal with when buying a new home with an illegally finished basement.
One critical topic that many homebuyers and sellers, and even some Realtors, don’t know about pertains to emergency egress. The term emergency egress is not found in the code, but rather emergency escape and rescue opening (EERO) is used. The term says it all . . . rooms or areas of the home that may be used as sleeping areas must have multiple ways out in case of emergency.
The door or window provides escape from the room or home in case of an emergency like a fire, and it also allows for fire personnel to enter and rescue occupants via the same door or window. In most cases the EERO is a window to the exterior, although doors can serve this function as well. The door does not need to go directly outside but may run to a different area of the home. If the EERO is a window, it generally must be at least 5.7 square feet in size. This size allows a firefighter wearing full apparatus to enter and rescue the home’s occupants.
Beside the 5.7 square foot opening requirement there are also requirements for a 20 inch clear-opening width and a 24 inch clear-opening height. All three requirements must be met independently of each other. A 20 inch by 24 inch window does not meet the 5.7 square foot requirement. However, an exception to the 5.7 square foot opening does exist — if the opening is at grade or below grade, the opening size may be lowered to 5.0 square feet since a ladder will likely not be needed to access this area.
In everyday life we don’t think about the doors and windows in a home, but we need to plan ahead and be prepared in case a fire were to occur. If you get woken up at 3:00 a.m. and your home is filled with smoke, you likely will be in a panicked state and may not think straight due to the imminent danger. This is not when you should be planning how to escape the home. The building code is designed to have these safety features already built in for you before you ever realize that you need them.
If a fire was in your hallway or staircase, you would need an alternate way to escape. This is where EERO comes into play. Any room that can possibly be a sleeping area (bedrooms, habitable attics, basements whether finished or not, living rooms, family rooms, etc.) needs to have EERO. If you were sleeping in your basement and the staircase or the hallway just beyond the basement staircase was on fire, you could easily be trapped in your basement. With no properly sized window or door to the exterior, your chance of survival is minimal.
Windows should be less than 44 inches above the floor to allow children and short adults to escape. You need to be able to open windows (not painted shut), and they should stay up when opened. Sometimes when inspecting homes I find windows that are painted shut or the window’s bottom sash won’t stay up when opened. Either could prevent an adult or child from escaping. This is why home inspectors need to call these issues out and recommend repair. A window or door acting as a sleeping area’s EERO will do no good if the door or window won’t open. Also, bars should not be installed over windows for the same reason. Windows and coverings over window wells must not require a key, special tool or special knowledge about how to open and operate the opening. I occasionally find windows that are screwed shut in a way to help prevent a burglar from entering. This would prevent a child or panic-stricken adult from opening the window and escaping a fire.
Most new homes built in the last 10 years or so will typically have an egress window(s) or bilco doors installed in basements which would generally allow the basement to be finished in the future. In most homes older than that, there is often no sufficient egress existing in the basement. In older homes with daylight basements, for example, proper windows and door(s) will very likely already exist.
In summary . . . as home inspectors and Realtors we need to keep these requirements in mind when talking to our clients, especially if the client expresses interest in remodeling their new home to finish the basement or if the seller recently finished the basement before listing the home for sale. Checking with the local jurisdiction’s code/building department is a wise first step.
Matthew Steger, ACI, WIN Home Inspection
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