Meeting Building Codes

Building codes vary, but generally the finished ceiling height in a basement must be at least 7 ft. Codes permit some lower obstructions — structural beams that can't be moved, for example — and building inspectors often are willing to compromise when contractors encounter minor height problems. Your best bet is to contact your local inspector while you're still in the planning stage. The inspector is likely to be more sympathetic when he gets consulted early in the process.

Once height requirements are met, there is still the question of doors and windows for emergency escape, or egress. Building codes typically require one emergency window (or door) in a basement that contains habitable space, though each bedroom needs its own. If you turn a basement into a family room or a home theater, you probably won't need the same number of emergency exits that would be required for a couple of bedrooms. Adding a code-compliant emergency exit can be expensive in a below-grade basement. Although products are available for just this situation, the builder may have to cut through concrete walls to create a larger opening.

Stairways also can be a problem. Building codes usually call for a minimum of 7 ¾ in. for stair risers and 10 in. for treads. Older stairways may not meet these requirements and might have to be replaced, adding to the cost of the project. Some contractors recommend new staircases anyway to make a remodeled basement more inviting. Another consideration: Adding a finished floor might have the unintended effect of lowering the first stair riser, creating a trip hazard. Eldrenkamp says inspectors in his area will accept a lower riser on the first step, but that's also a point to check with the building inspector's office.

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