Uses Seeking information regarding habitable space in a basement

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#1
I just found this forum, and I hope that my inquiry is appropriate for you all.

I am looking to better understand how one would prove a negative in a scenario where a local building inspector is treating a basement area as habitable space.

Where can one look for guidance on what constitutes a habitable space, beyond the definitions set forth in statutes, ordinances and the like? The definition of a habitable room or space under many laws seems to contemplate how the space is used or intended to be used. What objective factors can one point to which would tend to establish that a space is not habitable?

I understand that as a practicality, it is typically easiest to check with local officials for purposes of determining how they make a decision. However, where there is fundamentally a disagreement with the interpretation of the local official, what sources would you use for guidance? Thank you.
 

Gedunker

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#2
I'm neither a building official nor an attorney, so take this for what it's worth.

If it doesn't have two (2) means of egress that meet state/local building codes, it is not habitable. A basement with typical foundation windows (~18" high, for example) will not meet egress requirements. There are other requirements (ability to cook, bathe, independently heat to a certain ambient indoor temperature come to mind), but those are less obvious for, say, a passer-by to observe. Without a cellar door or window large enough to meet egress requirements, I'd say the basement is not habitable.

Just my $0.02. Your mileage may vary.
 

DVD

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#3
I'd say it depends on a lot of things. If you can enter the basement then there must be some level of building codes to make sure it doesn't fall on your head, but like Gedunker said, to be habitable typically means you're going to air condition or heat the place and maybe/maybe not have an egress window. If you're not going to heat/condition the basement then it should be sealed from the rest of the house. At least sealed in terms of insulation from the rest of the house. In the end it all comes down to the adopted building code. Maybe you can define the basements use. For example bedrooms are required to have an egress window or door. If there is no window you could call it anything else, but you can't list it or use it as a bedroom.

At the same time the county appraiser/assessor may or may not consider the basement as livable space for tax reasons. That all depends on your state tax laws. I lived in Kansas where you could have a finished basement, but it was never included in your home appraisal.
 

JNA

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#4
Another consideration - floodplain management ordinance -
at or above the Flood Protection Grade
 
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#5
Thank you each for your input. Allow me to clarify slightly. There is available and adequate egress. That is not at issue. The municipality is treating it as habitable (not for tax reasons). I'd like to prove that the space does not meet the definition of a habitable space. I do not believe that there are any floodplain issues that come into play.
 

gtpeach

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#6
Thank you each for your input. Allow me to clarify slightly. There is available and adequate egress. That is not at issue. The municipality is treating it as habitable (not for tax reasons). I'd like to prove that the space does not meet the definition of a habitable space. I do not believe that there are any floodplain issues that come into play.
I have no idea what it does, but there is an appeals commission for building code issues.

Also, keep in mind that different agencies define things differently. What habitable means to the real estate department is different than what it means to the building official is different than what it means to zoning officers, etc. So some of this question depends on why you want it to be de-classified as habitable.
 

DVD

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#7
At this point you might just need to ask the inspector what the city definition is or what element of the basement makes it habitable. From what I'm seeing if you have an egress window then it might be considered habitable space.
 
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#8
I have no idea what it does, but there is an appeals commission for building code issues.

Also, keep in mind that different agencies define things differently. What habitable means to the real estate department is different than what it means to the building official is different than what it means to zoning officers, etc. So some of this question depends on why you want it to be de-classified as habitable.
I am aware that there is an appeals process. What I am looking for is some guidance on how to best set forth the case that the area does not meet the definition of habitable space for building code purposes. It seems much easier for a municipality to assert that something is habitable and require the aggrieved party to prove that it is not.

It is my baseline assumption that a basement, as a whole, is not habitable space, absent more. While having adequate egress is necessary if one does intend to use the basement as habitable space, that alone would seem to be slim proof that it is in fact habitable, standing alone.

I am also aware that different agencies will define things differently in their own context. However, I am looking for guidance on what might be well-accepted standards that help refine beyond what tend to be rather broad definitions.

At this point you might just need to ask the inspector what the city definition is or what element of the basement makes it habitable. From what I'm seeing if you have an egress window then it might be considered habitable space.
While this is a reasonable suggestion, that avenue has not proved fruitful in this circumstance.
 

Gedunker

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#9
The state decides which building code issues are important to it and the legislature adopts that code that best meets the states needs (possibly with amendments, such as seismicity issues where that is important). Municipalities may amend the state version to a stricter version, but only with the state's prior approval. So, baseline, the state is making the call whether "basements" are habitable. That would be one place to start if you are in a pissing match with your local code official.

Frankly, I don't understand why you start from the position that a basement is not habitable to begin with. If a client wants a habitable space below grade, the architect or engineer is going to do what's necessary to satisfy the client. Again, off the top of my head, the designer is going to consult the adopted state code (and any local amendments) to determine what will make that below-grade space habitable per the state. As I mentioned in my initial reply, that will include egress, ability to independently control ambient air temperature (minimally heat, but possibly also cooling), restroom and cooking spaces, sleeping quarters. When you have those, you have habitability.
 

DVD

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#10
It might be easier to ask what is it the city wants you to do that you don't want to do? Are they asking for extra drywall, egress, or some other requirement because the space is habitable?

Things I would look for:
- The inspector should having something (most likely in building code) that forces the basement to go from unfinished to finished (I'm not using habitable because an unfinished basement is still habitable space)
- If the inspector is requiring specific items like an egress window or extra drywall there will be a code that says it's required.
- You would have to find the code exception that says your not required to do these things because you don't meet a certain threshold or definition whatever that may be.
 
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#11
The state decides which building code issues are important to it and the legislature adopts that code that best meets the states needs (possibly with amendments, such as seismicity issues where that is important). Municipalities may amend the state version to a stricter version, but only with the state's prior approval. So, baseline, the state is making the call whether "basements" are habitable. That would be one place to start if you are in a pissing match with your local code official.

Frankly, I don't understand why you start from the position that a basement is not habitable to begin with. If a client wants a habitable space below grade, the architect or engineer is going to do what's necessary to satisfy the client. Again, off the top of my head, the designer is going to consult the adopted state code (and any local amendments) to determine what will make that below-grade space habitable per the state. As I mentioned in my initial reply, that will include egress, ability to independently control ambient air temperature (minimally heat, but possibly also cooling), restroom and cooking spaces, sleeping quarters. When you have those, you have habitability.
It might be easier to ask what is it the city wants you to do that you don't want to do? Are they asking for extra drywall, egress, or some other requirement because the space is habitable?

Things I would look for:
- The inspector should having something (most likely in building code) that forces the basement to go from unfinished to finished (I'm not using habitable because an unfinished basement is still habitable space)
- If the inspector is requiring specific items like an egress window or extra drywall there will be a code that says it's required.
- You would have to find the code exception that says your not required to do these things because you don't meet a certain threshold or definition whatever that may be.
I understand that my inquiry is somewhat confusing. The municipality is requesting removal of a wall on a non-enclosed space that is otherwise an unremarkable unfinished basement that is not fit to used as a habitable space due to available height.
 

DVD

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#12
I might not understand it entirely after all we're solving problems over the internet. It all comes down to what code are you in violation of? The inspector should have or be able to give you that. A lot of times during inspections they just tell you to fix it without telling you the code. It would take to long to tell everyone ever code that needs correction, but they can still show it to you if you ask. If you have a violation letter of some kind it should list the code right there. If the wall has no permit than the answer is get a permit for it. It sounds like you might have built a finished room in the basement and walled off a useless part of the basement - then I might not be understanding the problem. Depending on how much space is in the useless area you can't just wall it off. There should be a door or crawlspace access to get in there. Can't have you hiding the dead bodies behind the walls now can we.
 
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#13
It all comes down to what code are you in violation of? The inspector should have or be able to give you that. A lot of times during inspections they just tell you to fix it without telling you the code. It would take to long to tell everyone ever code that needs correction, but they can still show it to you if you ask. If you have a violation letter of some kind it should list the code right there.
I do have the code upon which they are relying, and I believe that the ultimate question in this situation is whether or not the space in question is considered a "habitable room". I believe that more current laws tend to be phrased in terms of "habitable space", but this one specifically references "habitable room". To the extent that this might have affected anyone's response, I apologize.

If the wall has no permit than the answer is get a permit for it. It sounds like you might have built a finished room in the basement and walled off a useless part of the basement - then I might not be understanding the problem. Depending on how much space is in the useless area you can't just wall it off. There should be a door or crawlspace access to get in there. Can't have you hiding the dead bodies behind the walls now can we.
The concerns that you raise are not present here. The area on either side of the wall is still usable space, and there are no permitting issues.

The backward nature of this inquiry is not lost on me, and I appreciate your continued engagement in the discussion.

I continue to be in search of any list of factors which would be generally relevant to the inquiry of whether a space that would otherwise be just part of a basement be treated as a habitable space/room.
 

DVD

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#14
I don't think there' much more any of us can do to help. It's too specific to your house and your city. Building codes are usually pretty basic to you will build it this way in terms of type of wood, stud spacing, etc. and you will require a window or exit here and there. Maybe throw in a little extra for fire protection or protecting you from fumes in the garage. There are parts that will require finish for whatever reason, but generally if a basement is finished or not isn't very material as long as it's protected from the elements and it might need air conditioning based on the design. I can't think of a reason why a wall could not exist outside of not having a permit, not being built properly, or blocking access to something. If you think about it you could slap up a wall in the middle of your bedroom as long as you can get to both sides of the now divided room and you no longer call it a bedroom.

Because habitable to me invokes things like air conditioning and finished walls the only other scenario I can think of is if you finish a portion of the basement by putting up a wall which may require some consideration like the now "habitable" room need A/C or there needs to be some extra protections to divide the habitable space from the unfinished space.

Sorry, at this point I'm just grasping at straws for ideas to help so I'll just say good luck.
 
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