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 your AHJ (authority having jurisdiction) to find out what they specifically require for the specific work you are planning to do. Many homeowners see the whole permit requirement as an overburdensome city or township but permits are designed to ensure the work is done to code and 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 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 3rd party companies certified by the International Code Council (ICC). The ICC is in charge of maintaining and updating the building code; the building code get updated every 3 years. For our needs, we are referring to the International Residential Code (IRC). In PA, we are now (as of 1 Oct. 2018) on the 2015 IRC. Prior to that date, the Commonwealth of PA 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 most often will be required. Although we are on a Uniform Construction Code (UCC) in PA, some requirements still do vary slightly by city/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.
This basement window was intended by the builder to be the basement's egress opening, however someone added a patio right outside the home after the home was built and now this window no longer opens. Someone would be trapped in the basement should an emergency occur blocking the basement staircase to the main level.
As part of a home inspection, it is wise for the home inspector to point out to his client 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 that the final code inspection(s) was performed. It is outside the scope of a home inspection, however, for home inspectors to check for permits. I know of specific instances where seller finished a basement, etc. with no permits. In each case, the townships or cities ‘got wind of this’ (such as when the new buyer got permits for something else) and required the current owner to desconstruct the work that was done with no permits, such as unfinish a finished basement back to its original non-finished status. Not what a new homeowner wants to deal with when buying a new home with an illegally finished basement, for example.
One critical topic that many home buyers 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 emergency (such as a fire) and 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 foot 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 20” clear-opening width and 24” clear-opening height requirements. All 3 requirements must be met independently of each other. A 20” x 24” window does not meet the 5.7 square foot requirement. An exception to the 5.7 square foot opening does exist, however. 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 these areas.
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 3am and your home is filled with smoke, you likely will be in a panic state and may not think straight due to the imminent danger before you. 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 (finished or not), living rooms, family rooms, etc.) need to have EERO. If you were sleeping in your basement, and the staircase or the hallway just beyond the basement staircase were to be on fire, you would 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” above the floor to allow children and short adults to escape. Windows should also be able to be openable (not painted shut) and 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 or so years will generally already 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, though, 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 when the client expresses interest in remodeling their new home, such as finishing a 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 the wise first step.
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© 2019 Matthew Steger
Matthew Steger, owner/inspector of WIN Home Inspection, is a Certified Level 1 Infrared Thermographer, an ASHI Certified Inspector (ACI), an electrical engineer, and a US Dept. of Energy Home Energy Score Assessor. He can be reached at: 717-361-9467 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WIN Home Inspection has provided a wide array of home inspection services in the Lancaster, PA area since 2002. This article was authored by Matthew Steger, ACI - owner of WIN Home Inspection in Lancaster, PA. No article, or portion thereof, may be reproduced or copied without prior written consent of Matthew Steger.