What Is a Legal Bedroom in NYC?

A lot of arrangements can pass for bedrooms in the classifieds. Hallways, closets, breakfast nooks, and even this basement stairwell (featuring “a special ergonomic space for your mattress with a gentle 45 degree angled slope”) have been listed by optimistic landlords in search of not-so-discerning tenants. Even among the less outlandish, listings regularly feature terms such as alcove, railroadflex/convertible, or junior to denote varying degrees of the almost (but not quite) bedroom. This is confusing to renters, but can be even more problematic for buyers, who not only need to figure out the livability and usability of a space, but also its legal status for purchase, renovation, and resale purposes. Let’s take a look at what constitutes a legal bedroom in New York City, exceptions to the rule, and considerations that buyers and renovators should keep in mind. Ready for a case study, too? Head on over to our look at how two different renovators dealt with bedroom space.

What constitutes a bedroom in New York City?

This is a tricky question, given various caveats and updates to the (not easy-to-read) New York Administrative Code over the years. Relevant provisions can be found in the Housing Maintenance Code, the Multiple Dwelling Law, the Building Code, and the Residential Code. In brief summary, the following requirements must be met in order for a space to be a legal bedroom in a multi-family dwelling constructed after April 18, 1929:

– A minimum of 80 square feet total and no less than 8 feet in any dimension (per NYC Housing Maintenance Code 27-2074).

– At least one window with a minimum of 12 square feet, which can overlook public areas such as a street or park, as well as private spaces like a yard or plaza on the same lot. A window that opens up onto a balcony also counts, and skylights count as windows in some jurisdictions (per NYC Housing Maintenance Code 27-2058; Building Code 27-732).

Two means of egress, for example via a window and a door. You must be able to open the door and window from the inside without the use of keys, tools, or special skills (per Residential Code R310).

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What are some exceptions to the rules?

Many exceptions and caveats exist: for example, in apartments with 3 or more bedrooms, half of the bedrooms can have a minimum of 7 feet (instead of 8) in any one dimension. And if a bedroom is in a basement or on the top floor of a converted dwelling (such as a brownstone with multiple apartments), it must have a height of 7 feet; similarly, in bedrooms where there is a sloped ceiling, there must be a 7 foot height clearance over at least one-third of the room.

And contrary to popular opinion, a bedroom does not need to have a closet to be legal.

What doesn’t meet the legal requirements?

Kitchens, foyers, bathrooms, water closets, dining spaces, or passageways are not legal bedrooms. If you must pass through it to reach another part of the apartment, it is not a legal bedroom (we’re looking at you, railroad apartments!). 

While new developments must comply with these regulations, there are also plenty of buildings in New York City that predate and therefore may be exempt from these requirements.

Adding or removing a bedroom?

If you do buy an apartment with the intention to add or remove bedrooms, confirm that it’s a possibility before committing to the purchase. You can do this by consulting with the building’s board, as well as an architect and/or engineer. Keep in mind that you’ll need to secure the permission of the Department of Buildings (DOB) and that of your condo/co-op board as well. It often takes months to obtain all the permits necessary, so be sure to build that into your timetable.

Keep these points in mind when you are trying to find the suitable number of bedrooms:

– You may not personally need all bedrooms to meet legal requirements, if you are willing to use other types of spaces (such as offices, dens, lofted spaces, or accessory storage) as sleeping areas.

– If you’re getting creative with potential use of space, be cognizant that while the City’s square footage requirements might seem overly generous for your needs, egress requirements are largely in place for very real fire safety needs.

– If you do add or remove bedrooms, you will need to obtain all the necessary permits. If you make changes to the floor plan without proper filings at the DOB, you may be required to undo these changes if you’re subject to an inspection or at resale.

– If you choose to remove bedrooms, keep in mind that there may be a negative impact on the overall value of your home. But while resale value is important, it is equally vital to configure the space to suit your own needs.

Even if you decide that the legal status of your bedrooms is not a concern as long as you can make the space work for you, it is helpful to be aware of the precise legal classification as a homebuyer and owner. This knowledge can assist you in making a good offer, planning for renovations, and pricing correctly when you decide it’s time to move on. For more on adding and removing bedrooms, see how two Sweeten renovators used this information in their own home renovations.

Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, scope, and style. Follow the blog for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation on Sweeten.

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