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An expensive basement update

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Q. I just found out my basement isn’t legal, even though we bought the house this way. I got three quotes for the work to legalize it, and was surprised at how much it will cost, around $2,000 with the permit fees. I don’t understand why I need it in the first place or why it costs so much. Can you enlighten me?

A. It may cost you even more in the next few months if you wait too long. The building codes change regularly, approximately every three years, and even though the last change eliminated the need to have an escape well along with an enlarged escape window, the next code, coming out this spring, will reinstate the requirement. The average cost of an escape well retrofit is about $3,000, and includes cutting a much larger opening in the concrete foundation wall and adding a 5.7-square-foot opening. Because of the time it takes for the permit process, it may already be too late, but try anyway.

    Legalizing a basement, like any other part of a building, is a process. There are specific building codes for different kinds of habitable spaces, all intended for safety and survival, particularly from fire and toxic gases. Basements are considered living spaces if there is even one finished wall. The building codes refer to a basement, separately from other floor levels, mainly because of limited escape and the fact that a basement is usually thought to be more of an unfinished storage or utility room, but it may often be adapted as another finished living level.

    As habitable finished space, there must be resistance to igniting of materials around and above fueled heating equipment, along with the ability to take in outdoor isolated air for the flame and to exhaust safely.  You might think this is obvious, but there rarely is correct energy code compliance for the air intake in the initial installation, especially in older homes. Code officials often expect a prescribed energy analysis multi-page document, called a “Rescheck,” and need to know ceiling height and height below exposed beams.

    So, more than you would expect goes into providing the correct information for a permit. You have to provide a survey of your property to the preparer so that a site plan, with zoning calculations, can be in the plan set. This is done so that the inspector sees where he will be inspecting when he arrives, but it also identifies other structures that may need additional permits. Yes, you may also discover that other things you assumed were legal are not, even though the people you trusted and paid were supposed to have told you about it. An accurate basement plan must show all walls, windows and doors plus the location of plumbing, heating equipment and utility panels and meters. Most buyers assume the basement was always legal, or that anything inside the home is rightfully theirs to do whatever they want with, but now you know that’s not always true.

© 2020 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to yourhousedr@aol.com, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper,  architect.