I recently attended a seminar about changes to the California Building Code by representatives of the American Society of Home Inspectors, Golden Gate Chapter www.ggashi.org. They had some great news for homeowners: Most of the US permits 7 Ft. ceilings in dwellings as legal living space, except California. That will change on January 1, 2011. That’s when California will allow 7 ft. ceilings statewide, although local jurisdictions can make their own rules within certain limits.

How can you take advantage of this change?
If you have a finished room with a ceiling lower than 7 feet 6 inches, but at least 7 feet it can be counted as living space once the code takes effect.

Is it a Bedroom?
For a room to counted as a bedroom it must meet certain standards besides ceiling height:
–The room has to have at least 70 square feet and no dimension less than 7 feet.
–It needs adequate light and ventilation.
–It cannot have a door opening into a garage.
–It may also need a window large enough to meet current standards for escape and rescue. Each building department will have a different opinion of what that standard is so check with your local department.
–The building code doesn’t care whether a bedroom has a closet but appraisers and real estate offices may consider a closet part of the definition.
–In some communities, adding a bedroom triggers other requirements, such as parking. Again, check with your local building department.

Finishing an existing space.
If your basement has 7 ft. ceilings but isn’t finished, you will need a permit to convert it to living space. Converting this space, as opposed to excavating or otherwise increasing ceiling height has substantial savings. Here are the main factors:
–You must submit plans and obtain a building permit. You will also need permits for electrical work and possibly plumbing and heating.
–Work with a qualified architect for the design. They can help you reduce errors and costly change orders during construction.
–New space must be insulated and comply with California’s Title 24 energy standards.
–New space must have light, ventilation and a permanently installed source of heat.
–Access to the space from the rest of the house must meet current requirements; this can entail expensive changes to stairways. Most old basement stairs are too steep, do not have enough headroom and are often too narrow.

If the new space is a bedroom, there will be additional requirements:
–An egress window will be required.
–Electrical outlets and light must be controlled by arc fault (AFCI) breakers.
–A wired-in smoke detector is required.
–Depending on layout and type, standard gas appliances, such as a furnace or water heater, that rely on gravity for venting exhaust gases cannot be in a bedroom or bath.

Converting an Attic.
The new ceiling height also applies to attic spaces but if it’s not already finished some rules apply:
–This counts as adding another floor. The foundation may need to be upgraded to support it. Engineering is usually needed for this.
–Attic floors are not usually designed to support living space. Installing larger floor joists can cut into the headroom and may cause changes to the ceilings below.
–Headroom is measured to the finished ceiling — not to the bottom of the roof rafters. Few older homes have rafters large enough to accommodate the insulation required for a new living space, so the roof framing will need to be reconfigured or separate ceiling framing installed.
–50% of the area must have the minimum 7 ft. height. So if you have sloping ceilings the space that is shorter than 5 ft. doesn’t count toward the minimum room size for a bedroom.
–Occupied attics need an escape and rescue window.

How will the added space affect an appraisal?
According to East Bay appraiser David C. Levine, any added space would be reflected in an appraisal, but if the ceiling height is lower than in the rest of the house, the value per square foot will also be lower. If the space is existing, with its legal status changed only by the new code, the appraisal might not be any different because even non-conforming space is already given some value.

Will added space affect your property taxes?
If the space is already there and you don’t do any significant upgrades, your property taxes will probably not be affected. If you develop a new space under permit, it will be assessed at current rates just like an addition.

For more information on the new building code go to: http://www.bsc.ca.gov/default.htm