Ask Lucas 014: What Makes a Room a “Bedroom”?
Larry from Massachusetts asks about the rules and regulations to create a bedroom or sleeping space in a basement or attic. What requirements help make a room into a “bedroom”?
Lucas: Hey, what’s up, everyone? This is Lucas Hall from Landlordology and Cozy. Welcome to the fourteenth episode of Ask Lucas. It’s a bite-size Q&A show where I answer your questions about landlording and property management. The way this works is very simple. You can leave a recorded question on landlordology.com/ask-lucas, and I’ll answer it in this podcast. Today’s question is from Larry in the Boston area, but first, I want to tell you a little bit about Cozy.
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Now, let’s hear from Larry.
Larry: Hey. I live in Massachusetts. I manage some property around Boston area and other areas in Massachusetts. I’m having a hard time getting specific answers from building department about if it’s legal to have bedrooms in an attic or a basement. I’m a little clear on the basement aspect; you have to have two egresses and generally you have to have it permitted to be allowed for sleeping space. However, it seems a little different with attics. It seems that if it has a direct stairway down to the floor below, even if it’s just one stairway and it has a window big enough for someone to go through, then it’s okay to have people sleeping up there, but there seems to be some kind of gray area around it. I want to find out if anyone knows, has better answer to that. Thanks.
Lucas: Hey, Larry. Thanks for your question. We’ll start off his answer with saying that each county or city usually have their own rules and regulations about what is permitted in basements and attics in terms of living or bedroom spaces. The best place to find this information is actually call your local county or city building inspection or building code enforcement office. Basically, just call them up and say, hey, listen, what do I need to do to convert my attic or basement to a living space or a bedroom and what are those codes? Perhaps your place might be grandfathered in if it’s old enough, but there still would be some recommendations in order to quality.
Generally speaking nationwide, I can give you some tips. These tips are ones that I’ve seen that are pretty consistent across the board for basements. There typically has to be two forms of egress in a bedroom, meaning one is typically the door that they use to close off the bedroom. Then the other one is a window of some sort or possibly another door. If it is a window and the window is below ground level, perhaps in a window well, let’s say, there has to be some sort of a ladder outside that window that allows the tenant or resident to climb out of the hole to get out in case of emergency. Also, there has to be a ceiling height minimum. In a lot of cities that are older, basements are maybe only six feet tall or less, and that wouldn’t suffice for a bedroom, so they have rules that say that it has to be seven feet or perhaps even eight feet tall. In that case, you’d have to dig out your basement to lower the floor level in order to meet that minimum.
Also, many times in basements they’re damp or they don’t have proper drainage through a sump pump or maybe the walls are leaking. If there’s a moist environment or improper drainage or the sump pump does not work correctly, then that would disqualify the basement as well from being a sleeping space. Also, I think just general good practices are a bedroom really isn’t a bedroom unless it has proper ventilation, has smoke detectors, CO detector within fifteen feet of the bedroom and a closet space. That doesn’t necessarily have to be a built-in closet space, but it could be a large wardrobe or something that you might provide those tenants. Then also privacy. It has to be able to get shut off. Perhaps you might be renting out your entire basement and it’s one giant room. As long as that room can be shut off, then that would be a private space. Otherwise, they have to have doors. It can’t just be a corner of a room.
In terms of attic spaces, I’ve actually never converted an attic space. I haven’t had the luxury of having a cool attic space that I could convert to a tenant room, but my brother did. He’s up in Jersey and he went through this process with the city and found out that only a percentage of the floor space and the square footage could actually be converted and finished in the attic. That’s to allow for certain ventilation, flows of air, and to help with the heat management in the house. They could only convert, I think it was seventy-five percent of their attic into finished sleeping areas and the rest of it had to be kind of storage or just left open.
There also has to be a typical ceiling height minimum as well in an attic. You can imagine that some attics are pretty short. Then two forms of egress. This is often where you’ll see large ladder scaling systems built in the side and that would help somebody escape from a multiple-story house. Then also, it’s a very good idea to make sure that that top floor has an open stairwell with a railing. It would not qualify as a sleeping area if you have a trap ladder door to get up there. That’s just ridiculous. It has to be reasonable.
Definitely check with your local authorities and make sure that you’re following the rules that are specific to the county that the house is in. Otherwise, you’re just shooting blind.
I hope that gives you some guidance. Thanks a lot. Have a great day.