Bonus Rooms - Additions
By Bill Ross, AHIT Sr. Technical instructor
The term “bonus room” is one of those phrases Home Inspectors hear from Real Estate Agents to describe a room addition, or remodeled area of a home to make it sound like a positive spin on the area, when in fact it is essentially negative. It typically refers to a room that is substandard in some way that does not meet the building code requirements for habitable rooms, such as a patio enclosure or basement conversion, a garage that has been converted to a living space, or an attic with an added room, etc. Calling it a “bonus” room” is a way of saying that it creates an added feature to the property, while not being included in the listing as a bedroom, living room, or family room. Appraisers typically disregard such rooms in arriving at the assessment of the property.
The fact that a room has been represented as non-conforming does not mean that it will not be used in exactly the same way as a real habitable room. Bonus rooms should be inspected for the same issues of safety and habitability as the rest of the property. Key considerations are fire, health, and safety issues, fire separation from the garage, fire egress, natural lighting and ventilation as well as a heat source required for each habitable living space. A habitable room is considered one where you live, eat, sleep and cook.
Although home inspectors are not performing a code inspection per se, the basis for building codes is always related to fire, health, safety, as well as structural issues.
Inspectors must know the basic codes in order to determine if there is a fire, health, safety or structural issues present in the home. Every home inspector should have a copy of the latest Code Check books to use as a reference when performing home inspections. All the latest International Codes are listed in a very basic format; all the answers to almost any code question can be found right at your finger tips.
Let’s look at a few issues that inspectors should be looking for when inspecting these so called “bonus rooms,” add on, remodels and so forth.
FIRE ESCAPE & RESCUE WINDOWS
One of the first considerations with any room that may be used for sleeping purposes is to inspect for a “Secondary Means of Escape or Rescue.” In addition to the main entrance to the sleeping room, there must a second window or door opening to the exterior, it must be operational, it can not be painted shut, nailed shut, etc. Window sells should not be higher then 44 inches off the floor. Windows net openings must be a minimum of 5.7 square feet clear opening, with a minimum width of 20 inches and a minimum height of 24 inches. The 24 inches in height was designed to allow enough room for a fireman to enter with an oxygen pack on his back.
Inspectors should check for security bars improperly installed on bedroom windows, most are bolted to the exterior framing; this prevents any means of fire egress. There is a quick-release bar that is approved for emergency release, it requires no tools to release the bars, just pull, push, or turn the knob and the bars swing open. Inspectors very seldom fine these release auto release mechanism installed. People die from smoke inhalation inside the bedrooms because there is no escape.
LIGHTING AND VENTILATION
Aside from egress, windows and or skylights are required for natural light in a habitable room. Inspectors will sometimes find a room with no windows present, most codes require glazed openings to be a minimum of 10 square feet or 10% of the floor area, so lighting is required. Also required is natural ventilation, habitable rooms must have at least 4% of the floor area or 5% & 5 square ft. as with all codes this can vary, the point is some lighting and ventilation is required.
GARAGE AND PAITO CONVERSIONS
Most codes require a garage with each home, when it used as a living space they lose the garage area which is normally required when the home was built. One problem with converting a garage to living space is that the garage slab normally does not have a vapor barrier under the slab; this can cause moisture problems, dry rot and possibly mold problems. Also the owner may have cut a door into the home from the garage which enters a bed room; this is a safety hazard as fire doors can never be cut into a bedroom. Even If the door has an auto closer on it, this still can not be cut into a bedroom fire wall. If the room is being used as a bed room regardless of it having a closet or not, it is still considered a bedroom. A hole cut into the attic from the garage is also never allowed. You are never allowed to cut through a fire wall.
Another common conversion area is the patio conversion. The floor or slab is again a potential moisture problem. Patio conversions might also block the fire escape or rescue window leading from a bedroom window. The addition could also block the natural light and ventilation requirements that were installed when the home was built. In addition to these problems is the fact that most of these non-permitted additions will have improperly installed electrical wiring which presents another safety hazard. They also will normally lack a permanent heat source.
Attic spaces and lofts are often converted into habitable rooms. The minimum dimension for any habitable room by most codes is 7 feet, with a total minimum area of 70 square feet. Again, it is common to find a lack of proper lighting, ventilation, improper electrical wires, and improper plumbing and heating, unsafe stairways leading to the attic area or converted room. It is common to find any number of these fire, health and safety in these non-permitted areas.
Another common defect in all these added rooms or so called bonus room is insufficient number of electrical receptacles, and sub standard wire. The wiring for these rooms is often done by non-professional or side jobs. Because there is no permit, they will often cut corners and end up with serious safety issues for the family or residence living there. Some issues to look for are, unprotected wiring, open splices, missing junction boxes, and overloaded, double-tapped circuits are also common. With the insufficient number of receptacles installed, it could lead to the excessive use of power strips and extension cords. These devices actually contribute to more fires, and more deaths, then wiring defects inside the walls. Extension chords can never be used on anything permanent.
Smoke detectors are required, older construction, one per floor at entrances to bedrooms. One in each hallway with bedrooms. New construction, one in bed rooms and hallways including 1 in basement, all installed to the electrical system, battery back up. One goes off, and all go off. Inspectors should watch for the lack of smoke detectors when homes remodel and have no permit smoke alarms are often missing or disconnected.
All habitable rooms require a heat source capable of maintaining a temperature of 70 degrees at a point 3 feet above the floor level, some codes require 68 degrees. Codes require a heating source to be provided as part of the building when the home is built. Portable electrical space heaters are not considered a permanent heat source, they can overload the electrical system and they can be unsafe to operate.
Another area where home inspectors find non-permitted workmanship is on decks and balconies. Most common defects are, missing flashing over the ledger board and installed under the siding, toe nailing the ledger board and floor joist, missing metal hangers, brackets and connectors. It is common to see uneven steps; steps can not be more then 3/8 of an inch difference between them. Also, balusters spaced more then 4 inches apart, improper hand rails, hand rails too high or too low. Another problem is the use of the wrong type bolts and metal brackets, as a minimum, most codes require that they at least galvanized double dipped or stainless steel. Many decks have wood to earth contact, proper clearances should be maintained.
These are only a few areas where the inspector should be looking for unprofessional workmanship, fire, health and safety issues, There are many other areas of the inspection that require the home inspector to look for fire, health, and safety issues regardless of it being originally built or it has been altered, remolded, updated, or installed without the use of a building permit. Inspectors should note any defects in their inspection reports, note that it appears to be unprofessional, or handyman workmanship, and then defer it for review by a Licensed Professional or a qualified contractor, for review for repair/replace as needed, to insure the safety of the home for the occupants.
Also, remember codes can and will be different from one city to another and from one county to another. Regardless of the code or when it was built, the standards require the inspector to note all fire, health, safety and structural issues. The standards also state that it is in the opinion of the home inspector to decide what he thinks is a defect, fire, health or safety issue, inspectors should not let other people at the inspection influence their decision to disclose what they think is a problem. When writing your report, remember to use the D. E. D. method of report writing. D, detect the problem or issue. Note it in the report. E, evaluate the problem or issue, must note any fire, health, safety issue, note all implications on what you are reporting on. D, defer or give your client some direction to follow. Recommend a licensed/qualified contractor for review for repairs/replacement as needed.
Back to Industry News >>