- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 9, 2005

When homeowners decide to finish their basement with a recreation room or spare bedroom, they might find they will need a lot more money than they had expected. Building codes in most jurisdictions require an emergency exit from the basement to the exterior. In homes with below-ground basements, owners would need to cut out the foundation, excavate a stairwell and put in a window or door to the window well.

Basements that are partially aboveground usually already have a door or window. If not, often, one must be added for the remodeling to comply with current building codes.

Most consumers pay little attention to changes in building codes by their local or state government, but those changes can result in increased costs for some home remodeling or building projects.

These costs can be minimized when homeowners and contractors understand the building code requirements before planning for a project has begun.

Until the International Residence Code was established in 2000, most states adopted building codes that were common to their region.

Tom Matzen, associate director of the licenses and inspections division of the Department of Environmental Resources in Prince George’s County, says existing codes were merged into a nationwide building code,”and the 2000 IRC code was published.”

“In the past, building codes were regional, so there was a focus on wind issues in areas with hurricanes, earthquake protection in other areas and on snow loads in other states,” he says. “Other than the weather focus, most of the code elements were similar, so there were not a lot of adjustments made to merge the codes into one.”

Virginia adopted the International Residence Code of 2000, which went into effect Oct. 1, replacing the Council of American Building Officials Code of 1995, which had set building requirements for one- and two-family homes, says Brian Foley, chief structural engineer for land development services for the Fairfax County government. Virginia will be adopting the IRC of 2003 sometime later this year.

“We recognize that some of the changes in the code can have a significant financial impact on homeowners, but we also feel that these changes increase the safety of the people living in these homes,” Mr. Foley says.

“We’ve made a big effort in Fairfax County to publicize the new code, which requires that owners who want to finish their basements must have an exit from that level,” he says. “It definitely increases life safety to have more than one exit from the home, especially in homes which are overcrowded.”

Changes in the building code affect only new construction and any section of an existing home that is being remodeled.

Chip Gruver, president of Gruver-Cooley Corp., a custom home and remodeling company, says, “Usually, when changes to the code occur, they are safety-related items that sometimes result in more money being spent by the builder or the homeowner.

“Sometimes these changes also affect aesthetics and can reduce the choice offered to customers, such as an adjustment in the required width of handrails on the stairs,” he says. “It will probably take several years for all the architects and builders and contractors to get used to all the code changes which have taken place. It hurts at first, but in the long run, everyone will adjust to the new requirements.”

The code changes in Virginia that are likely to affect the most homeowners are the new rules for finished basements.

The requirement for a finished basement in the 2000 IRC is for an emergency exit to be at least 5 square feet, with window sills 44 inches or fewer above the finished floor. Bedrooms in finished basements also require an emergency exit, but basements with bedrooms are required to have an exit only in the bedroom, not in the other areas of the lower level.

A basement with a sprinkler system is not required to have an emergency exit, so in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, where new homes and additions are required to have sprinkler systems, creating a basement exit is not necessary.

“It recently cost a client of mine about $4,000 to create an egress for a finished basement,” Mr. Gruver says. “It’s not always simple to do this project, although the easiest method would be to build a window into a window well and add a ladder so someone could climb out of the window well.

“But to create a true egress, adding a set of steps and a welled exit, [it] could be as high as $12,000 or more, depending on how it’s done. Jobs like that require excavation, waterproofing and an area-way drain,” he says.

Developing a finished basement on a new construction project is usually less expensive because the builder will factor in the need for an exit in the initial plans.

However, there are additional construction costs associated with creating the stairs, railing, drainage and window or door that would not be incurred in a project with an enclosed basement without an exit.

The District and Maryland both follow the 2000 IRC.

In Virginia, all amendments to the code are made on a statewide basis, but in Maryland, local jurisdictions are allowed to amend the IRC to meet local standards.

“In Maryland, the state adopts the codes but allows for local governments to make amendments to the code,” Mr. Matzen says. “For instance, in Prince George’s County, all single-family homes must be sprinklered, although that isn’t required by the 2000 IRC. We probably have 40 pages of changes, all of which are more restrictive than the IRC. We won’t ever make changes which would reduce the level of safety in homes.”

On April 1, Montgomery County will adopt the 2003 IRC with some local amendments. Prince George’s County follows the 2000 IRC but will be adopting the 2003 version this spring.

“There are a few important changes from a structural point of view in the 2003 version,” says George Muste, manager of residential review and inspection for the Building Construction Division of the Department of Permitting Services in Montgomery County.

“Consumers can check the Permitting Services Web site for information on the code first,” he says. “We recommend that they work with a contractor who regularly deals with Montgomery County to be sure the code standards are met.”

One change in the 2003 IRC in Montgomery County is the standards established for building a sunroom.

“We now have a specifically mentioned allowance for window glazing, and sunroom additions have now been defined structurally with design parameters,” Mr. Muste says. “This can actually make it easier for consumers and contractors to build a sunroom addition.”

Two other changes that may affect homeowners and builders now that Virginia has adopted the 2000 IRC are wind-bracing requirements and new rules affecting construction projects on or near a lot line.

“The wind-bracing requirements in IRC 2000 are stricter than in the past, which means that newly constructed homes and additions will need more reinforcement in the exterior walls,” Mr. Foley says.

“An addition has to have a certain level of rigidity, which may mean that it has to have less glass,” he says. “Some elements of this new code may seem strict, but there are actually lots of options to provide rigidity and other architectural solutions to meet the standards.”

Virginia chose to amend the IRC 2000 requirements on construction of buildings within three feet of the property line.

“When a home or an addition is built within less than three feet of the property line, the fire rating of the exterior wall must be one hour and no openings are allowed, except for crawl-space vents,” Mr. Foley says.

“Within three to five feet of the property line, the fire rating stays the same, but the code does allow up to 25 percent of the wall to have openings,” he says. “These restrictions mean that contractors may need to use a different type of drywall and may not be able to put in as many windows as they want on that one wall which runs parallel to the property line.”

Consumers may feel overwhelmed by the volume of rules and regulations affecting their homes, but each jurisdiction has guidelines designed to assist them and their contractors in understanding the code for residential buildings.

Prince George’s County consumers who request information from the Department of Environmental Resources can receive handouts on a variety of home-improvement projects, and the office is in the process of placing this information on its Web site.

“It’s virtually impossible for consumers to really understand all the requirements of the code, and we are cognizant of that,” Mr. Matzen says.

“When homeowners come into this office, we work with them and try to explain the requirements and anticipate other issues which may come up with the project,” he says.

Deciphering the IRC can be difficult for consumers who don’t have experience in the construction field, but most county offices have developed written materials that can assist do-it-yourselfers with simple projects.

“If a homeowner is doing the work themselves or working with a small contractor, they can find rules and approved plans through their county government,” Mr. Gruver says. “Most of the guidelines are fairly user-friendly.”

“For bigger projects, it’s wise to hire a professional architect and to be prepared that the project may take a longer time and at a greater cost than anticipated,” Mr. Gruver says. “But in the long run, it’s best to be sure that the information needed to complete the project to code is in the hands of the person who pulls the permit, usually the contractor or the owner who decides to subcontract the work.”

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