While a Home Inspection is not a code inspection and older homes are built to codes that are maybe not as strict as more modern ones, a Home Inspection, performed by a Professional Home Inspector should be able to alert you to areas of concern with respect to your safety.
Different codes exist that defines the safety requirements in a number of locations in a home.
I predominantly inspect homes in Ontario, so general I defer to the safety portions of the Ontario Building code (OBC) and Ontario Fire Code Compendium (OFCC) where issues of Safety are concerned. Where these codes are of a lesser standard than the National Building Codes (NBC) or International Residential Construction Codes (IRCC) I utilise the strongest one for advice to my clients.
In many cases, you can’t use these codes to force a seller to make changes to bring their property “up to code” before they sell you the property. In certain cases however, the fact that the components are not to code, may affect the description of the property, which significantly affects it’s market value, and therefore what you may be asked to pay for the home. One area is a Basement Bedroom.
Of all the codes that defines safety none, in my personal opinion, is more important than the codes that define the means of escape from a Basement Bedroom in the case of an emergency. The reason for this is that people tend to sleep in bedrooms, and while asleep are less alert to hazards that might occur in the home.
Nothing in the realm of residential disasters, could be worse than waking up to the sound of a smoke alarm, alerting you to a fire, only to find that way out of the home barred by the fire and the means of emergency escape not being large enough to escape through.
So to go against all the principles we are taught as Home Inspectors I’m going to relate a few codes.
Ontario Building Code
The Ontario Building Code is one of the weakest codes in terms of Basement egress. According to the Ontario Building code (at time of writing) as long as there is an egress window or door to the exterior somewhere on the level, the requirements for egress have been met. There are still light and ventilation requirements for each bedroom that must be met in the OBC, but they are not really safety protections, so they are not relevant to this post.
Egress from Bedrooms (OBC 9.9.10 – 2012)
Egress Windows or Doors for Bedrooms (126.96.36.199)
1. Except where a door on the same floor level as the bedroom provides direct access to the exterior, every floor level containing a bedroom in a suite shall be provided with at least one outside window that,
a. is openable (capable of being opened – sic) from the inside without the use of tools,
b. provides an individual, unobstructed open portion having a minimum area of 0.35 m² (3.8 ft²) with no dimension less than 380 mm (15 inches), and
c. maintains the required opening described in Clause (b) without the need for additional support.
2. Except for basement areas, the window required in Sentence (1) shall have a maximum sill height of 1,000 mm (39 inches) above the floor.
3. When sliding windows are used, the minimum dimension described in Sentence (1) shall apply to the openable (area that you can climb through – sic) portion of the window.
4. Where the sleeping area within a live/work unit is on a mezzanine with no obstructions more than 1,070 mm above the floor, the window required in Sentence (1) may be provided on the main level of the live/work unit provided the mezzanine is not more than 25% of the area of the live/work unit or 20 m², whichever is less, and an unobstructed direct path of travel is provided from the mezzanine to this window.
5. Where a window required in Sentence (1) opens into a window well, a clearance of not less than 550 mm (22 inches) shall be provided in front of the window.
6. Where the sash of a window referred to in Sentence (5) swings towards the window well, the operation of the sash shall not reduce the clearance in a manner that would restrict escape in an emergency.
7. Where a protective enclosure is installed over the window well referred to in Sentence (5), such enclosure shall be openable (capable of being opened – sic) from the inside without the use of keys, tools or special knowledge of the opening mechanism.
What this means
According to the Ontario Building Code (remember this is the weakest of the building codes), if there is not a door that exists directly to the outside on the level of the bedrooms, then a window in the bedroom must exist that is big enough to escape through. When a sliding window is installed, the opening is measured as the largest the opening can be with the slider open, not the size of the window pane or the whole opening.
So in picture format:
Awning window: Opening must be higher than 15″ (380mm) and allow clear exit. The total opening must be greater than 3.8 sq.ft. (315 sq.in or 0.35 sq.m.) Casement window: Opening must be wider than 15″ (380mm) and allow clear exit. The total opening must be greater than 3.8 sq.ft. (315 sq.in or 0.35 sq.m.) Hopper Window: Not allowed as a basement egress window. Even if opening was sufficient, glass might shatter on exit and cause severe cuts Slider: Opening after window has been slid open must be wider than 15″ (380mm) and allow clear exit. The total opening must be greater than 3.8 sq.ft. (315 sq.in or 0.35 sq.m.) Sash window: Opening must be higher and wider than 15″ (380mm) and allow clear exit. The total opening must be greater than 3.8 sq.ft. (315 sq.in or 0.35 sq.m.)
There are two significant differences between the National Building Code, and the Ontario Building Code when it come to number of exit points.
Whereas a means of egress is required for each bedroom with the National Building Code, only one means of egress per level is required with the Ontario Building Code. Also, in the National Building Code, there is a requirement for the sill height from the floor to be no more than 1,500mm (59 inches). Here the Ontario Building code is tougher as it requires the sill height to be no more than 1,000mm (39 inches) form the nearest accessible level, but has a relaxation for basement bedrooms! (The law is an ass!) I would recommend a fixed ladder or built in cupboard (attached to the wall and not movable by the occupants) be placed at egress windows that allows an occupant to climb up to and out of any egress window.
Clear line of exit
Building Code (National and Ontario) article 188.8.131.52. establishes the general requirement that all bedrooms must have at least one window that is large enough to be used as an exit in an emergency. The specific requirements are as follows:
1. Except where the suite has a sprinkler, each bedroom or combination bedroom shall have at least one outside window or exterior door operable from the inside without the use of key, tools or special knowledge and without the removal of sashes or hardware.
2. The window referred to in Sentence (1) shall provide and unobstructed opening of not less than 0.35 m² (542 in² or 3.8 ft²) in area with no dimension less than 380 mm (15 inches), and maintain the required opening during an emergency without the need for additional support.
3. If the window referred to in Sentence (1) is provided with security bars, the security bars shall be operable from the inside without the use of any tools or special knowledge.
If a window well is required, it must be out from the window at least 550mm (about 22″) to provide safe passage. Awning style windows for example opening into a window well typically won’t work because they tend to obstruct clear passage unless the window well is unusually large.
Fire code extras
The Fire code has another set of requirements to ensure a Bedroom in the basement is safe, and therefore legal. If the property line is less than four feet from the house, then any bedroom windows must have a 45 minutes fire rating.
So if the basement room is less than 4 feet from the property line, and or the window doesn’t open wide enough and/or the window well is not large enough to allow escape, this basement room is NOT a bedroom and can’t be sold as such.
What about doors?
There is a lot in both the Ontario Building Code and Fire Code Compendium about commercial properties and fire door, but the requirements are buried in the gobbledygook of the laws for Residential properties. When the codes are ploughed through, it appears they do make common sense, but why the code writers can’t just write these codes in plain language, I have no idea.
Anyway here’s how they address the issue of doors:
Ontario Building Code 184.108.40.206. Fire Separation for Exits
(1) Except as provided in Sentence (5) and Article 220.127.116.11., every exit other than an exit doorway shall be separated from each adjacent floor
area or from another exit by a fire separation having a fire-resistance rating not less than that required for the floor assembly above the floor
(2) Where there is no floor assembly above, the fire-resistance rating required in Sentence (1) shall not be less than that required by Subsection
9.10.8. for the floor assembly below, but in no case shall the fire-resistance rating be less than 45 min.
(3) A fire separation common to two exits shall be smoke-tight and not be pierced by doorways, duct work, piping or any other opening that may
affect the continuity of the separation.
(4) A fire separation that separates an exit from the remainder of the building shall have no openings except those for electrical wiring,
noncombustible conduit and noncombustible piping that serve only the exit, and for standpipes, sprinkler piping, exit doorways and wired glass
and glass block permitted in Article 18.104.22.168.
(5) The requirements in Sentence (1) do not apply to an exterior exit passageway provided the passageway has at least 50% of its exterior sides
open to the outdoors and is served by an exit stair at each end of the passageway.
Every basement room that has an exit shall be separated from every other adjacent floor area or another exit by a fire-resistant barrier equal to or greater than the fire rating for the floor assembly above the basement room. If the basement bedroom is in a separate apartment, then the fire rating of the components between floors (as of writing) needs to be not less than 1 hour. Therefore any doors between the bedrooms also need to be fire-rate at not less than 1 hour. In a normal dwelling (House for example) the fire rating between floors is 45 minutes. Therefore the fire rating of the door needs to be not less than 45 minutes.
Don’t forget the fire code requires smoke detectors and CO detectors at all hallways adjacent to bedrooms. This is especially important in the basement as this is generally where most of the CO and Combustion producing appliances are located. e.g. Furnace, Water Heater and sometimes gas powered clothes dryers.
“Ahh! but the codes don’t apply because my house was built a long time ago!”
We hear this as home inspectors a lot. As I said earlier, most of the time it’s true. A lot of old electrical systems can pre-date code and be acceptable in code, if not respected as safe by your Professional Home Inspector. But when it comes to fire and safety codes, these are generally enforceable within a period of code change. If you modify the home in ANY way shape or form, including finishing the basement or repairing an existing finished basement, the code become enforceable IMMEDIATELY. In many cases, you may even have to have local jurisdictional building permits for the changes, although we see many homes that have been finished that probably don’t. Home Inspectors are not Permit Police, and any permits required for any work in the home should be inspected by you as the home owner.
Some Home Inspectors do try to access if permits were issued on older homes but with the local planning departments frequently hiding behind the privacy act, and refusing to allow information about permits out to anyone but the current homeowner, many of us are left frustrated in this area.