What is a Bedroom?

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The definition of a bedroom has not been defined on either the national or state level. The federal government is hesitant to apply a national standard as each geographic section would have a different view of what constitutes a bedroom or sleeping area not to mention the standards each individual state may hold as a cultural norm. The State of Iowa was clear to say that the definition of what may constitute a bedroom was very broad. They were very reluctant to give a definition as they believed that what one person may call an office, another would call a bedroom. The State is not interested in creating a rule that would restrict homeowners if they did define a bedroom at the state level.

The Building Code Bureau for Iowa maintains that it is up to each county and city to define what a bedroom means to them. They believe that each county and city is entitled to their own social norms for what defines a bedroom for their particular citizens. Furthermore, the State reasoned that because it would be the local governments who would be enforcing the code, it should be the local governments who created their own definitions and their own code. The Bureau only polices less than 1% of 1-2 family residential areas, whereas county and city governments have the ability and would want to police the residential areas more than the state would.

In contacting the Dallas, Madison, Polk, and Warren counties, they have all agreed that a “bedroom” is defined as having a closet and an egress window. The four counties associated with DMAAR have adopted a similar view, but that is still subject to change. In talking with the Polk County and Dallas County Assessor’s offices, both stated that “if the room has a bed in it” it will typically be seen as a bedroom. Therefore, any office, den, recreational room, etc., could be seen as a bedroom in real estate as long as it can meet the egress window and closet requirements. Despite this, Dallas County’s Planning and Development department states that the bedroom must also have a minimum ceiling requirement of 7 feet and 6 inches and should be at least 70 square feet. Dallas County Planning and Development was the only county associated with DMAAR which gave strict specifications. Unfortunately, there is no clearly defined source on the closet rule, but most assessors require the closet to be a physical structure of the room, while some may allow a movable wardrobe to function as a closet.

Conversely, the egress window is clearly defined in several sources. The egress window rule is typically an adopted ordinance from the International Building Code (“IBC”) and/or the International Code Council (“ICC”). Both the IBC and the ICC are a body of rules and ordinances which states, counties, and cities may adopt in part or in whole and change to fit their location and needs. All four counties associated with DMAAR have adopted one or both of these codes in their entirety or in part. Nearly all have adopted the portion of the code regarding egress windows without changes.

What is a egress window?

An egress window is an exit window used for emergency escape and rescue. Therefore, the standard required is similar to the space needed for a fireman to enter the room with all of their gear. According to the IBC, for basements: Where there are one or more sleeping rooms, and emergency escape and rescue openings are required for each sleeping room and need to open directly into a public way, yard, or court that opens into a public away. The exact height, width, and depth requirements are attached with illustrations from the Des Moines City Planning Building and Public Works department which directly correlates with the information found in the IBC and the ICC. (IBC, Ch. 10, § 1029: https://law.resource.org/pub/us/code/ibr/icc.ibc.2009.pdf) (ICC, Ch. 3, § R310: http://publicecodes.cyberregs.com/icod/irc/2006f2/icod_irc_2006f2_3_sec010.htm)

The main exception is that if the basement room has an exit door or exit access door that opens directly into a public way or to a yard, court or exterior balcony that opens to a public way. Therefore, if the room has a sliding door, that is an acceptable form of egress and an egress window would not be necessary.

However, despite the somewhat vague but consistent application of the egress window and closet rule for a bedroom, each city has the ability to further define the county’s rules. For example, the city of Urbandale creates an addendum to the maximum height from floor to window sill. In the event that the height maximum exceeds 44”, the homeowner could use a “secured 18” deep x 36” wide x 24” maximum high platform to provide the maximum 44” sill height for emergency escape and rescue window in basements” (Urbandale City Ordinances) .

There is no clear-cut, black-and-white definition of what a bedroom is, however County Assessor’s office will have the most accurate information regarding the property, especially if they have been in the house checking bedrooms recently. Iowa law requires that all real property be reassessed every two years, occurring in odd numbered years. There are changes as to how people view the utility of various rooms and there are a lot of views people may have in regards to the use of a room. However, if the room does not have an egress window that meets the IBC or ICC dimensions and a closet, it is likely not to be considered a bedroom and therefore should not be listed as one. If there are questions, they should be directed to the County and the City. Each city could have a different requirement, therefore it’s best to check with both as the city may have a stricter requirement. 

Photo by Ali Inay on Unsplash

Iowa Association of REALTORS

This article was written as a collaboration of IAR Staff members or invited subject matter experts.