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  1. #1
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    Default What Turns Uninhabitable, Non-Living Space into Habitable Living Space

    My question involves real estate located in the State of: New York, Nassau County, in an Unincorporated Village of the Town of Hempstead

    I own a small cape cod and want every inch of uninhabitable space to be used efficiently. Doing so will free up the living space from items associated with activities not used on a daily bases and/or used seasonally. Therefore, I want to turn my unimproved attic and basement into extra, neat and clean, 'finished' space. The attic has a clearance of 7-1/4 feet under the peak and the basement as a clearance of 7-1/3 feet throughout; neither have any formal heating.

    Since I want to move upon retirement, having these spaces spruced up and presented as extra 'finished' space will help market the house. However, since I am not in a position to pay for major construction or the next owner's renovations, I do not want to create any violations requiring costly code fixes and I do not want a buyer to say I did not disclose such. Given this, I am confused as to what turns uninhabitable, non-living space into habitable living space and have questions.

    Is it the physical changes you make or how you label the intended use of these areas? If the former, how far can I 'finish' uninhabitable, non-living space before stepping over the line? If the latter, which labels are okay and which are not in order to keep a 'finish' space considered uninhabitable, non-living space? For examples: When is an office and office? Can I place my bill paying desk in a space without having to call it an office? What about my treadmill? Does creating a space for that make a gym? Does a gym constitute living space? What about hobby things? Is there a way to have this items on display and available for use in its own area without that space being considered habitable space?

    Ideally, I want to divide the attic into his and her's hobby spots with a separate space for out of season storage. I would replace the existing vents with windows, insulate, sheet rock, run electric, install doors, and finish the floor. I want to divide the basement into a walk in pantry, laundry, and utility/tool sections with sheet rock walls. The remaining open space will be for exercise equipment with a TV and maybe my bill paying desk with the computer. I would paint the cement block foundation, put in a drop ceiling, and finish the cement floor. So the big question becomes...

    What turns uninhabitable, non-living space into habitable living space? What do I need to know to avoid crossing over the line? If I do any of these things, particularly in the basement, will I have to 'fireproof' the furnace area. Thanks!

  2. #2
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    Default Re: What Turns Uninhabitable, Non-Living Space into Habitable Living Space

    If you want to convert non-living spaces to living spaces, you will need to get appropriate building permits, make sure your modifications are up to code, and undergo all required inspections.

    If it's your house, you can do what you want in your spaces - if you want to stick your desk in an unfinished attic and call it your "office", it's your house.

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Sep 2010
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    Default Re: What Turns Uninhabitable, Non-Living Space into Habitable Living Space

    As Mr. K says, the code sets requirements for habitable space (ceiling height, access, lighting, etc..). If you want to call it habitable space, i.e., make it a sleeping, living, cooking, working area, you need to comply with these requirements. If you want to call it a storage, closet, equipment room, you can usually get by with lesser requirements.

    Most places in the country require 7' 6" ceiling heights (over most of the room) to be habitable space though I've seen 7' as a minimum in some jurisdictions.

    There's no "permit" required to create habitable space, if you have a space that meets the requirement. However, if you have to do *ANYTHING* to the structure, wiring, etc.. then you will need permits and inspections in most places.

  4. #4
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    Default Re: What Turns Uninhabitable, Non-Living Space into Habitable Living Space

    Thanks for your thoughts and I'm sorry I've been unable to reply until now. Unfortunately, my computer crashed and it has taken me four days to recover my data and restore to factory settings. I'm still not 100%. Anyway both your replies are appreciated, gave me food for thought, and left me with additional questions; I hope either of you or anyone else reading this can help.

    Since I do not want either of my unimproved basement & attic spaces to become legal living space, I'm left wondering about the reverse implication of what was said. If the things I do fall short of meeting living space requirements, wouldn't that prevent them from being defined as living space; and, if so, wouldn't this mean I would not require building permits and inspections to do what I want to do. My thinking is if the two spaces do not meet those requirements then they cannot be considered living space, and my sprucing and organization of the basement and attic would not be subject to the code requirements of living space.

    I have been reading the ICC info available on line and trying to understand it as well as reading many postings on various sites of horror stories from people who did too much and then when they went to sell in the future where forced to have to do all sorts of costly construction to bring things up to code - such as, in the case of the basement, building a fireproof room around the furnace and hot water heater area. I don't want to go down that path and I don't know if my logic of keeping things short of this, is flawed.

    I want to organize the basement into separate sections - pantry/food storage section, laundry/slop sink section, general storage/exercise equipment section, and tool storage/utility (furnace/hot water heater) section. I intend on leaving all the overhead joist exposed as well as the cement block foundation and cement floor which at the most I would paint with Kilz or Zinsser to brighten the space up. I also intend on leaving the existing small basement slider windows in place. To separate these sections, I want to put up three or four sheet rock walls and install some closet doors to keep my dogs and cat out of most of these section. The pets would have access to the laundry/slop sink section which is at the bottom of the basement steps as I'd like to use this as kind of a place for them to dry off when it is nasty out before being allowed up to the main floor of the house.

    In a similar way, I want to organize and section off the attic with one side for all our hunting/camping/outdoor equipment and the other side the crafting/sewing and home file storage. I want to divide these halves with a closet opposite the top of the stairs for out of season clothing and luggage and such. And since we are want to have a ridge vent put on when the roof done, I want to re-installed insulation accordingly. And given that, I want to sheet rock the rafters and walls to the point of knee walls to protect the foil side of the insulation for accidental being punctured from the moving about of stored hobby equipment. I would leave access door/panels to get into the eves. The collar beams would be left exposed and as in the basement, I want to paint the walls with some Kilz or Zinsser to brighten it up. I want to replace the two louvered attic vents with two double hung double pane windows so we can put in some window fans to help with sucking hot air out of the house. On the plywood sub floor, I want to put down some of cheap self-stick vinyl floor to prevent splinters.

    To both the basement and attic, I want to run electric around for additional plugs and lighting. Right now there are dangling light bulbs in those old style ceramic fixtures with sockets and pull chains that were popular for basements and attics in the 40's. There will be no formal heat in either place as I have no intentions of adding heat ducts to my old "octopus" gravity feed furnace to either place.

    Is anything I'm proposing to do cause me to cross over the line in which any of this could possibly be considered living space and/or cause me to need any sort of permits/inspections? If so, what are the things I'm thinking of doing that would be consider "no-no's" to prevent any of those things?

    Thanks again for any insight anyone can give me.

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Oct 2007
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    Ohio
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    Default Re: What Turns Uninhabitable, Non-Living Space into Habitable Living Space

    For me the magic word has been "storage". Storage space can be insulated, sheetrocked, painted, lighted, ventilated and temperature controlled. Plumbing will generally be a step over the line however. A local architect would be a good source of information on the feasibility of your plans relating to local permitting. It could be worth a couple of hours of consulting.

    Good Luck!

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Jan 2006
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    38,867

    Default Re: What Turns Uninhabitable, Non-Living Space into Habitable Living Space

    wouldn't this mean I would not require building permits and inspections to do what I want to do
    the work you are proposing is of the type that requires permits, regardless what you are doing with the space. How the space is classified can determine what you actually have to do such as how many receptacles you install, if there is a light fixture requirement and such but make no mistake, the work you are considering requires permits.


    all plumbing work requires a permit

    all electrical work requires a permit

    any structural work requires a permit.

    installation of windows requires a permit anywhere I am familiar with

    the general construction you are suggesting requires a permit everywhere I am familiar with

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Mar 2008
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    Default Re: What Turns Uninhabitable, Non-Living Space into Habitable Living Space

    Building codes vary county by county throughout the USA.

    I'm a real estate investor, rehabber here in NY. As far as renovating basements are concerned, if I change the basement to habitble space, I have to provide egresses, a door, for exits in the case of fire or other emergenccy. My brother in law tried to get a permit to install a doorway to his basement, it was denied, because the municipality was strict about adding habitable spaces, because of the prevalence of illegal conversions.

    I had rehabbed attic spaces, and if the attic is NOT used, meaning just a crawl space, then normally 1x6" beams is up to code to hold up the roof. But once I convert it to space that I plan to go into, not living in it, even if I call it storage, then I have to convert the 1x6" beams to 1x8" beams. The architect I consulted said I don't have to tear the roof down and rebuild, but I can double up the beams, meaning nailing 1x8"s to the existing 1x6"'s.

    Even here, there is a distinction between usable storage vs. living. For living, I have to get a variance to install heating, whereas if it's just storage, I don't, but I can have electric outlets. However, for living, I have to get a municipal variance because of specified "land to building" square footage ratios, and adding living space may bring me beyond the ratio specified.

    In one case, I was considering doing a rehab in a small town some 40 minutes from my house, I'm not familiar with local regs, so I hired a local architect reommended by a local RE agent, and for $200.00, he went through the house with me, and told me what I had to do to add space, and for an additional fee, can prepare for and represent me at variance hearings. The prior owner at the place converted a garage to a game room without permits, and I was told to be up to code, I have to convert the double hung windows to one that opens out to conform to rules on egresses. The problem is if I don't get a permit, in which case property taxes would increase if I get one, but if they catch me years from now, they can dun me for back taxes and fines that I would owe them. This happened to a friend of mine in a nearby town who did an opening for a through the wall AC but did not get a permit like he was supposed to.

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Jun 2012
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    Nassau County, NY
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    Default Re: What Turns Uninhabitable, Non-Living Space into Habitable Living Space

    Thanks for the help. Now, let me see if I understand all of above, as it relates to what I'd like to do:

    1) I can finish the unimproved spaces of my basement and attic without fear of having to bring these spaces up to living space code PROVIDED these spaces are used for storage and the existing lumber used is the correct size;

    2) Regardless of the purpose of the product, if any new electric, walls, or windows are installed, I will need a permit; and

    3) Presuming permits are needed, inspections will be needed to complete the process, assuming the project passes.

    Assuming I've got the above correct, I'm left wondering a few things, should I decide to proceed as I have suggested:

    1) In the case of the basement, will sectioning it off into four different enclosed storage areas cause me to have to build a fireproof room around my furnace/hot water heater area?
    ~If so, what is it I'm suggesting to do that triggers this type of upgrade?
    ~If not, I'm just curious, what does trigger that sort of upgrade?

    2) In the case of the attic, I am puzzled by the need of a permit for these two windows, as all the framing I need is already there around the large louvered vents. All I have to do is unscrew the louvered units from their jamb and screw in the windows. Given there is no structural work being done to the externior wall of the storage attic, do I really need a permit for these windows?
    ~If so, unless I'm missing something, when I had all my old drafty windows replaced in 1984 with insulated windows, I didn't think you need a permit to do that and didn't get one, what makes what I want to do in the attic different other then my removing a louvered vent?
    ~And, if so, did I screw up back in 1984 and I should have gotten a permit to replace my windows?

    3) If decide section the unimproved basement and attic space and forego adding any additional electric, I am I allowed to replace the existing old overhead ceramic light bulb sockets which have outlets on them without a permit?
    ~If not, how is this any different from my replacing a light switch elsewhere in my house when they have worn out in the past or any different from my replacing a ceiling light fixture due to decor changes?
    ~And, if there is no difference, did I screw up over the course of the past 30 years and was I was supposed to have gotten a permit to replace old light switches when they broke or to change ceiling light fixture?

    Alternatively, if I go to plan "B" and do not construct any dividing sheet rocked walls in the basement or attic, can I sheet rock the existing open attic space that has 2x8 rafters, 2x4 exterior wall studs, and 2x6 joist which have loose plywood without having to get a permit, since I will not be doing an structural work?
    ~If not, why?
    ~And, if so, given the last posting, why?

    Thanks for any insight anyone can add to this thread.

  9. #9
    Join Date
    Mar 2008
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    Default Re: What Turns Uninhabitable, Non-Living Space into Habitable Living Space

    I read your post more carefully, noticed you are in Nassau County, and I did some rehabs in Nassau County, NY.

    1 You would most likely need a permit to upgrade existing uphabited spaces to other uses, such as for storage.

    2. If you intend to use these spaces that needs lighting, or power for a shop, where you'll need to add electric outlets, you'll most need to get a permit to extend your electric service, but to be on the safe side, check with a local electrician.

    3. Permanent heating is not allowed to be installed spaces unless it is habitable space. And habitable spaces counts towards the square footage whcih affects the land-building ratios. The prior owner of one of my rentals converted a garage to a finished game room without a permit (actually turned out not to be habitable space), he had electric added, but he was told permanent heating is against code, so portable heaters are used to heat up the game room.

    4. I had replacement windows installed WITHOUT permits by a window company. However, the louvers you mentioned are NOT windows, so you may need a permit to change from one form to the other. A contractor I used to do rehabs had a rule of thumb: "if the exterior is different in form after the installation before the repair vs after, a permit is normally required.

    5. In NYC, 3 families and up requires fireproof cinderblock walls aroung furnace rooms.

    6. If you add permanent walls, then to make it legit, you'll need to file building plans, and have plans on file. I don't know about Nassau County, but here in NYC, people had done rehabs without filing updated building plans, and getting permits, and because of this, some rooms have no windows, and confusing hallways resulted, and this had caused the deathj of firemen who got lost in the maze. There's been legislation proposed to file manslaughter charges if such unpermitted rehabs resulted in death. If such plans are filed, they would be denied.

    7. I live in a home bought at foreclosure where the builder added bedrooms and storage room in the basement not in the building plan. Code inspectors came by, cited me for code violations, with a demand the partitons be removed. I hired an "expeditor", who in turn hired an architect, and we had building plans filed to have the code violations removed, i.e., make the physical layout conform to the new building plans. My original plans was rejected and it was redone.

    Just to note that I was TOO CHEAP to hire people to do "code review" here in NYC before doing a rehab, and had I spent $200 or so at the time, I could've saved several thousand dollars later to then file the necessary permits, and redo the parts not done up to code. Gas pipes installed for the laundry room was of the wrong diameter, so it had to be ripped out, reinstalled, and the walls redone. This a licensed plumber filing for permits would easily do correctly. I had to file plans when I was selling the property because I took a wall down to create a dining room, and consequently changed the building room counts, and room counts affect appraisals, property taxes etc., not to mention a red flag to an "unpermitted" rehab.

    Also, if I file permits retroactively for rehabs done previously, addtional fines are imposed. However, I hired an expeditor to do the paperwork, and it could be written up in such a way that it does not trigger a review that the rehab was done long ago, so I saved about $800 in fines from what I was told.

  10. #10
    Join Date
    Jun 2012
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    Default Re: What Turns Uninhabitable, Non-Living Space into Habitable Living Space

    Okay, so it is obviously looking like I am going to have to scale back the grand scheme of my sprucing up and organizing of my basement & attic, as I do not want to cause violation issues in the future nor do I want to get involved with permits. I am still hoping that on some simpler level, there are still things we can do in both locations; particularly in the attic, since I am going to be getting messy anyway with redo the insulation.

    I still want to project the new insulation's foil from rips and punctures by at least sheet rocking the existing space. Given adding knee walls would be considered structural, I figure I could just run the sheet rock all the way down the rafters to where they meet the sub floor. If this is okay to do, we can just use free standing shelves and storage units to divide up the attic and we can just continue to use flash lights or the one outlet that is up there for a floor lamp to see. Since this very simplistic and does not include any structural or electrical work, I am hoping this means it is okay to sheet rock after I put in the new insulation and this does not need a permit. Please let me know.

    Keeping this next item separate, if we can do the above without issue, we are thinking about swapping out of the large louvers units for the two double hung windows anyway, as absolutely no alternation will be needed to my siding. All I will have to do is re-chalk. My neighbor gave me the windows because they are having work done and they no longer need them. Since we had our house done at the same time, by the same people, they are identical to mine. So, our thinking is, if we do this, we really don't know how anyone would know that these windows were not just put in when the rest of our house was done back in 1984. That being said, we will still store the louvered units in the attic; if it became an issue in the future, we will just swap back the louvers.

    We are thinking along the same lines with how we divide the basement. We could use free standing shelves and storage units and I could still keep the pets out of the pantry/food, general/exercise, & tool/utility sections by attaching light weight folding doors to ends of the independent storage units to close off these areas. The laundry/slop sink area would still be open to the bottom of the basement steps and I could still paint everything to spruce it up. Here too, we could just continue to use the old existing ceramic lighting fixtures with outlets and pull chains. I would also assume since I am not doing any structural work, this falls within the realm of not needing permits too. Please let me know.

    Meanwhile, I got to thinking about when we first moved in 31 years ago. The original coal bin was still in the basement and we used it as a storage area. We decided to take it down we had the windows done which included replacing the old hopper basement windows too. The bin made use of two foundation walls with the other two sides where kind of like a three quarter high fenced in area made with tongue and grooved boards; it was not structural in anyway. So this got me wondering whether or not I could create some non structural fence like partitions to use along with the storage/shelving units to divide the basement into the sections we want. Since these would not be structural, because they would be independent, I would assume like above, these would not require any permit as well. Would this idea be okay? Please let me know.

    Now the last concern I have, in which I have been unable to find any answers for is: what is the story with people having to build fireproof utility furnace/hot water heater areas? I'm not talking about multiple family dwelling, I'm want to know about why people are made to do this in the basements of single family dwellings. I have only read about this sort of thing and do not know anyone personally to ask. I would assume it is something that requires a permit. So I want to know what the trigger and/or violation that causes this type of major upgrade?

    So, is my new line of thinking of keeping everything simple without doing anything structural or electrical, okay? Will I need permits for anything of these things I am proposing? If there are flaws with my new ideas, please let me know what they are; and if anyone has any alternative ideas as to what I can do without needing permits, please let me know. Any help along these lines is greatly appreciated. Thanks a bunch.

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