Bedrooms Defined

Every night, you put on your pajamas and head to your bedroom for some shut-eye. But is the room you’re sleeping in really a bedroom? Just because that’s where you have your bed and where you drift off to dreamland doesn’t necessarily make it a bedroom, at least in the eyes of our local and state governments.

In Virginia, the minimum requirements for calling a room a “bedroom” are established by the Uniform Statewide Building Code, which follows the International Building Maintenance Code (IBMC) but offers a few amendments to that code. Throughout the Commonwealth — including our immediate areas of Arlington and Fairfax counties and Alexandria — a room must have an area of at least 70 square feet to be considered a bedroom. If more than one person occupies the room, add 50 square feet for each additional occupant. Ceiling height must be no less than 7 feet.

Emergency egress is also required, and must go directly outside. The exit (whether a window or door) must have a minimum area of 5.7 square feet, or big enough for a firefighter or other rescue personnel in full gear (including an air pack) to be able to carry you to safety. There is one exception to this rule: if the room is at grade level, the minimum size is 5 square feet. In addition, emergency exits may measure no more than 44 inches from the floor to the bottom sill. Also, bedrooms can not constitute the only means of access to other bedrooms or habitable spaces and can’t serve as the only means of egress from other habitable spaces.

In Fairfax County, at a minimum, there must be two means of exit — one of which must go directly outside — for each bedroom. So, for example, if your in-law suite in the basement is accessible by only a door leading to or from the outside, it’s not really a bedroom, but just a clever way of keeping the in-laws at a distance.

Just to make things really interesting, the IBMC also has lighting and ventilation requirements for all habitable spaces, including bedrooms. Get out your calculator and measuring tape for this:

  • Every habitable space must have at least one window facing to the outside. The total glazed area for every habitable space must be a minimum of 8 percent of the floor area of the room. So, if you have a floor area of 70 square feet (the minimum required and certainly small by today’s standards) your window area must be at least 5.6 square feet.
  • For ventilation, every habitable space must have at least one openable window with an area equal to no less than 45 percent of the minimum glazed area requirements. So if we use our example above, the openable area of our window must be at least 2.52 square feet.

The rules are pretty much the same in Washington, DC, as far as size and height requirements of emergency exits from bedrooms are concerned:

  • emergency exit area must measure no less than 5.7 square feet
  • height from the floor to the bottom of the window sill can be no more than 44 inches
  • minimum size of 70 square feet

Most real estate agents and home buyers expect a closet in a bedroom, as well. But in Virginia and the District, it’s not included in the building codes. That’s right—you don’t need to be able to hang up your shirts or store your shoes to call it a bedroom. The local building codes are there mainly for safety, not to make sure you’re guaranteed creature comforts. Many older homes (and there are quite a few in our area) don’t have closets in the bedrooms but were clearly intended to be sleeping areas. Some homeowners get around this by permanently installing an armoire.

So it’s not so easy to tell if a room is indeed a bedroom. If you have any doubts, call your local codes enforcement office and ask. Or call us…we travel with tape measures and calculators.

All information deemed accurate but not guaranteed.

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