Building Code Requirements for Bedrooms

Oriental wallpaper in bedroom
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As long as half of the ceiling is 7 feet tall, the height restrictions for a bedroom are met.

Homeowners often want to turn a den, office, or attic into an official bedroom. Who doesn't want the extra space for family or guests, even if it's small? Just call it cozy! (Besides, there are tricks for making a small bedroom seem larger.) And being able to call a room a bedroom will also add value down the road when it comes time to put your home up for sale on the real estate market. So it's just as easy as sticking a bed in that room, right? Not so fast, friends!

All things building-related are codified, and bedrooms are no exception. The International Residential Code (IRC), which is updated every three years, catalogues the requirements for a bedroom. It covers such things as square footage, ceiling height, electrical outlets, lighting and ventilation, closets, and emergency exits. The code is a model meant to be adopted by local governments (and about 90 percent of communities in the United States have done so) but some municipalities amend it, so the rules may vary from state to state. Oh, don't sigh at the bureaucracy of it all. These rules are designed to help keep occupants—who, after all, are likely to be zonked out in bed—safe.

Read on to see the stipulations outlined by the IRC. But bear in mind that realtors, home inspectors, appraisers, lenders, and home buyers may have their own opinions about what constitutes a bedroom—just to complicate things a little further.

Size

A single-occupancy bedroom must have 70 square feet of floor space, with a minimum of 7 feet in one direction. (In other words, an enclosed porch 5 feet wide will never qualify.) Furthermore, at least half of the ceiling must be 7 feet tall, minimum. Add more people using the space to sleep, and you have to accommodate with 50 more square feet for every person over the age of one.

bedroom fragment
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This space seems too narrow to qualify officially as a bedroom.

Access

You may not access a bedroom by passing through another bedroom. Each bedroom must have its own access to a hallway or communal space.

Egress

"Egress" means to exit. In case of emergency, the bedroom's occupant must have two possible ways of getting out. One of those, obviously, is the door. As exits, you can have two doors, as long as one leads directly outside. (Remember the previous point about not having access to a bedroom by passing through another?) Or you can have one door and one window. The IRC has certain minimum requirements for windows:

  • 24 inches tall
  • 20 inches wide
  • The window opening must have an area of 5.7 square feet
  • A window can't be installed more than 44 inches above the floor, to allow climbing out; it should also be no lower than 24 inches from the floor, to help prevent kids from falling out.
  • Windows must be easy to open from the inside without keys, tools, or specialized knowledge.

Fire codes vary by location, however, so check your local government to make sure you meet them.

Lighting and Ventilation

Although you can install artificial lighting and mechanical ventilation to meet the requirements for a bedroom, this is certain to turn the room into a depressing environment rather than a pleasant retreat from the world. Instead, meet the codes. A bedroom must have at least one window, and the total glazing area (meaning the glass area) of all windows must be at least 8 percent of the floor area. The open access space when the windows are open must measure at least 4 percent of the floor area. These lighting and ventilation requirements can be met by more than one window.

Electrical Outlets

A bedroom must contain at least two electrical outlets.

Heat

Bedrooms must have some source to keep them warm, whether it's a heating unit, a radiator, or a vent from the furnace. It must be able to keep the room at 68 degrees. A space heater does not qualify as an acceptable heat source.

Small bedroom interior.
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It has a window, it has heat, and it's just wide enough—this converted office makes the cut as a bedroom.

Bedrooms in Basements

No matter where in the house a bedroom is, it must meet all the safety regulations. The trickiest part is the window egress. If the sill is below ground, the window itself will need larger dimensions—9 square feet. To qualify a basement window as an egress, you may also have to install window wells to enlarge windows and allow access. The base of the well can be no more than 44 inches above the bedroom floor. If the base of the well is more than 44 inches below ground level, you must install a permanent ladder or stairs, but this can't set out from the walls of the well more than 6 inches. In addition, the well will need to be 36 inches wide and extend out 36 inches out from the window, to let someone pass in case of an emergency. Why is this spelled out in such detail? To accommodate firefighters who may need to get in and out to save lives.

Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarms

Each bedroom must contain a smoke alarm mounted on the ceiling or wall in the vicinity where people sleep. In some jurisdictions, homes with an attached garage or gas appliances must have carbon monoxide alarms in the bedrooms, though older homes aren't required to comply with this safety standard unless additions have been made.

Smoke/Carbon Monoxide Detector
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Smoke alarms are required by law in

Closets

Closets are built into homes as a matter or practice and convenience, not as a legal requirement. Although many home buyers typically expect a closet in a bedroom, the IRC doesn't mandate one. If you're converting a room into a bedroom and deciding whether to frame a closet for it, it's wise to consider the market in your area and the type of home you own. Victorian homes frequently have no bedroom closets, so the absence of a closet probably won't raise an eyebrow there; for a newer home in a subdivision, it's a different story. On the other hand, many real estate agents define a bedroom as having a window, a door that closes, and a closet.

Septic Systems

Now, here's something you probably wouldn't have even thought about. Some states, such as Massachusetts, won't allow a house to be marketed as having more bedrooms than its septic system is designed to accommodate. So if you have a septic system, verify the records on your home at your town hall and educate yourself about the requirements for converting a spare room into a bedroom.