What is the technical definition of a bedroom?

Twice in one week we were asked, as we have many times before, “What is the technical definition of a bedroom?”.  And every time, we scratch our heads, look at the information we have on hand, check it twice and come back to the same unsatisfying answer… it depends!  Special thanks to Berkshire appraiser members who have weighed in for us recently and in the past; Brad Doerle of Richmond Appraisal Group and Chet Nicora, teacher and appraiser.  As Brad said, “the issue of a “legal bedroom” is typically determined through building codes”, but admits it can be subjective and there is a lot to think about with a bedroom, particularly when you get into private sewer systems and Title 5.”

There are definitions of the various elements of a bedroom in building, sanitary, septic and electrical codes and assessment and appraisal definitions are also subjective based on functional use of the property, what is typical in the area, and the age of the home.

The Basics:

  • Minimum size requirements (not less than 7 feet in any horizontal direction) and proper ceiling height (7″) are found in the state building code.
  • There should be two means of egress, one to the outside.
  • Regarding closets, if the lack of a closet reflects the era in which the house was built, that is fine, since closets did not become common until post WWII, at which time they were small (2′ x3’). In a new home however, lack of a closet would raise a red flag and rooms would not appraise as a bedroom if it did not have a closet as comparable styles do.
  • A “walk-thru” room (one that can only be accessed through another room) cannot be considered a bedroom because it lacks privacy.
  • An interior room cannot be called a bedroom because it lacks windows / outside egress entirely.
  • In terms of heat, Appraiser Brad states, “we only include “heated finished” space “above grade” in our gross living area and room counts”. Building code says portable heaters can’t be used to achieve compliance with the heat requirement.

What about basement bedrooms?

Basement space can only be considered a legal bedroom if it has proper egress.  As Brad pointed out, walkout basements, or those having larger egress windows (legal dimension are in the building code, but the rule of thumb is that a firefighter in full gear can get in and out of the window) can be considered in the appraisal. “However, as an appraiser, a basement bedroom does not get included in the above grade room count or gross living area of the home.  I am very cautious about basement bedrooms and will only call them a bedroom if the owner can illustrate proof from the local building inspector that it is a legal bedroom.”

Be Able to Sleep at Night – Don’t change the number of Bedrooms on Your Own

There are also health and electrical and sanitary / septic code codes that need to be satisfied, which may be different from each other.  If a REALTOR or seller, when looking at the tax record or appraisal report believes there is an error or mis-classification on the number of bedrooms, PLEASE seek guidance from the building inspector or appraiser.  You should never change the number of bedrooms shown on a listing based on only your own determination. As you can see it is a complex mix of many rules and regulations and changes should be legitimized before you offer it for sale contrary to the current classification.

All this time, you thought the definition of a bedroom was the place you lay your head at night?

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MA Building Code for residential one or two family buildings says: (in part)

“Habitable rooms shall not be less than 7 feet (2134 mm) in any horizontal dimension. Habitable rooms shall not be less than 7 feet (2134 mm) in any horizontal dimension. Portions of a room with a sloping ceiling measuring less than 5 feet (1524 mm) or a furred ceiling measuring less than 7 feet (2134 mm) from the finished floor to the finished ceiling shall not be considered as contributing to the minimum required habitable area for that room. When the winter design temperature in Table R301.2(1) is below 60°F (16°C), every dwelling unit shall be provided with heating facilities capable of maintaining a minimum room temperature of 68°F (20°C) at a point 3 feet (914 mm) above the floor and 2 feet (610 mm) from exterior walls in all habitable rooms at the design temperature. The installation of one or more portable space heaters shall not be used to achieve compliance with this section.”

“Where emergency escape and rescue openings are provided they shall have a sill height of not more than 44 inches (1118 mm) above the floor. Where a door opening having a threshold below the adjacent ground elevation serves as an emergency escape and rescue opening and is provided with a bulkhead enclosure, the bulkhead enclosure shall comply with Section R310.3. The net clear opening dimensions required by this section shall be obtained by the normal operation of the emergency escape and rescue opening from the inside. Emergency escape and rescue openings with a finished sill height below the adjacent ground elevation shall be provided with a window well in accordance with Section R310.2. Emergency escape and rescue openings shall open directly into a public way, or to a yard or court that opens to a public way.”

Mass.gov Building Code Information