What Makes a Bedroom a Legal Bedroom?

Eric Stewart September 15, 2022


Defining a legal bedroom may seem simple, but despite clear building codes the process is wrought with grey areas.  Requirements differ from county to county, so it’s always safer to check with a Realtor or appraiser before you sell your home!


Building inspectors, appraisers, real estate agents, and potential buyers may have differing opinions and perspectives that affect the definition of a “bedroom.”  Before discussing any disparities, however, here are the types of requirements covered by the International Residential Code (IRC) and used in defining a legal bedroom in Washington, DC:


  • Minimum ceiling height, room width, and floor area square footage
  • Private accessibility considerations
  • Lighting and ventilation specifications
  • Minimum stipulations for a window to qualify as an emergency egress
  • Number of electric outlets (minimum of two)


Single-occupancy sleeping areas must meet the following minimum size requirements:


  • At least 7’ in any horizontal direction
  • Minimum 7’ ceiling height
  • Minimum 70 square feet of floor area


In order to accommodate a second or third person using the space as a sleeping area, the room must have an additional 50 square feet of floor area per occupant (anyone over the age of one).


Private Access

For a single-entry room in Maryland, Virginia, or Washington, DC to count as a bedroom, it must be accessible without passing through another bedroom.  This also ensures each bedroom has access to a bathroom without having to go through another bedroom.  There must be a door (or the ability to have one).  The key is privacy.

Lighting and Ventilation

Many individuals currently sleep in rooms such as dens or sitting rooms that may not count as a legal bedroom according to the IRC.  These regulations are intended to help keep the sleeper safe, by ensuring the occupant has adequate lighting and ventilation proportional to the room’s size.  For lighting purposes, a window’s viewing size must be proportional to 8% of the room’s floor area, with an opening no less than 4% of the room’s floor area for proper ventilation. However, either or both requirements may be reduced or waived if sufficient artificial light sources and mechanical ventilation are supplied.


A window is still required in single-entry rooms, however, to serve as an emergency egress.  A second door could count as an emergency egress if that door connected directly to the exterior; otherwise a large window is required in each bedroom.  This safety requirement is essential for all homes, and a bedroom may not be defined as such without it.  The minimum window requirements are:


  • At least 24” high
  • At least 20” wide
  • Minimum 5.7 square foot opening (width x height)
  • No more than 44” above the bedroom floor


These requirements are in accordance with the fire code, to ensure occupants could easily exit or be rescued in case of emergency.

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Dens and Basements

Designating a den as a bedroom can impact the market value, but doing so could also mislead buyers or be disputed by appraisers or lenders.  To qualify as a legal bedroom, a den must meet all of the above-listed requirements, including square footage, private accessibility, window specifications, and ventilation.


Basement bedrooms may be more difficult to classify as a legal bedroom unless they meet all code requirements for lighting, ventilation, and emergency egress.  In some cases, homeowners may have to install window wells in order to enlarge basement windows enough to qualify as an emergency egress.  The base of the well must be no more than 44” inches above the bedroom floor as well as no more than 44” inches below ground level.  Otherwise, steps or a ladder must be affixed to enable the window to open fully.  Depending on the height of the window well, a drain line may be required.


Within the DC and Virginia area, there are no legal requirements that a bedroom must have a closet.  Rooms without closets may not be a deal-breaker to buyers, especially if they are looking at similar older homes in the area that were not built with closets.  However, some appraisers may require a framed closet or permanently installed armoire to count the space as a bedroom within the home.  In Maryland, however, you must have a closet with a door in order for the room to be considered a bedroom.


For more information about local requirements, contact the Eric Stewart Group.  To learn more about this and other real estate topics, listen to the Pointing You Home every Sunday from 8-9am on WMAL AM 630 or 105.9 FM or access archived shows here.

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