Golden Gate ASHI Inspectors say California Building Code Changes Potentially Increase the Size of Bay Area Homes

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Golden Gate ASHI Inspectors say the minimum ceiling height for habitable space has been 7 feet 6 inches for many years, but California code changes in 2012 allow for ceilings to be as low as 7 feet. If a home has a finished room with a ceiling lower than 7 feet 6 inches but higher than 7 feet, it may now count as living space, which could increase home values when selling or refinancing.

Golden Gate ASHI Inspectors say a recent change in the California building code may make homes larger, at least on paper. The minimum ceiling height for living rooms, bedrooms, and other living space has been 7 feet 6 inches for many years, but the California code changes effective January 1, 2012, allow for residential ceilings to be as low as 7 feet, although some Bay Area jurisdictions, including San Francisco and Oakland, have amended the new code to keep the old ceiling height standard.

Existing Rooms. If an existing room has a ceiling lower than 7 feet 6 inches but higher than 7 feet, it may now be possible to consider it living space. The “added” space resulting from this code change could increase home value when selling or refinancing. In order to qualify, the room must have adequate windows for light and ventilation. Additional requirements for heating, structural components, and other systems may also apply.

Is It a Bedroom? The “added” space might count as a bedroom, if it has at least 70 square feet and no dimension less than 7 feet. It must also have a smoke alarm and an exterior door or an ‘escape and rescue’ window large enough to meet current standards. Building code does not require a closet, but some Realtors® and appraisers consider a closet part of the definition of bedroom.

Converting Unfinished Spaces. Previously, converting space with a low ceiling was often impractical due to the high cost of structural changes to increase ceiling height. The change in building code may eliminate this hurdle. In all other respects, requirements for “added” space are the same as for any addition or alteration, requiring a set of plans prepared by a qualified architect showing how the new space complies with current requirements for light, ventilation, heating, fire protection, insulation, and California’s Title 24 energy standards.

About Attics and Basements. Developing attics and basements presents challenges beyond headroom, including insulation and structural adequacy. A converted attic may constitute an added story that requires a foundation upgrade or may trigger other local requirements. In basements, adequate drainage is a concern as a certain amount of moisture may be acceptable in an unfinished basement, but is unacceptable in living space.

Coordinating Improvements. When planning any significant alteration, consider additional upgrades that can be highly cost effective when coordinated with other work. Improvements to consider include seismic upgrading and updating electrical, water, and sewer services.

Get professional advice. All additions and alterations are subject to approval by the local building department. A qualified independent home inspector can evaluate a property to determine feasibility of adding living space before design work begins. Some inspectors also review contracts, perform progress inspections, and help assure quality and safety on the job site. The Golden Gate Chapter of the American Society of Home Inspectors (http://www.ggashi.com) is the best resource for finding a qualified home inspector. To find an inspector outside the Bay Area, visit http://www.ashi.org.

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Gail Requa

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