Bricktionary

What is a legal bedroom in NYC, and what you need to know when converting a studio

There are a few ways to know right off the bat that your next bedroom is legal by city code standards. 

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We’ve all heard the jokes and real-life tales about living in tiny apartments and closet-like bedrooms in our fair city, but did you know there is such a thing as a room being too small to be considered a legal bedroom in NYC? 

Size matters, not just because you need room to breathe—or places to put your things. There are significant health and safety considerations that go into defining a legal bedroom, and it is important to be aware that sometimes apartment listings will call a space a bedroom (or "sleeping area") that's actually too small to be up to code.

Similarly, if you are considering a studio that a listing agent tells you can be converted into a one bedroom, you need to know the regulations regarding bedroom size. (Also, any change to layout of an apartment requires a new Certificate of Occupancy.)

According to the city’s Building Code, to be a legal bedroom in NYC it must have:

• a minimum of 80 square feet
• a minimum width of 8 feet in any dimension
• a minimum ceiling height of 8 feet
• at least one window opening to a street, yard or other outdoor space (skylights may suffice in certain zoning districts) 
• two means of egress, or exit, either a window or door accessible from the inside without using keys or tools

Additionally, the room cannot be used as a passage to another room. 

There are some exceptions: If the bedroom is in a basement, its ceiling height must be at least 7 feet. If there is a sloped ceiling, two-thirds of the room must have a minimum ceiling height of 7 feet. If the apartment has three or more bedrooms, half may have a minimum dimension of 7 feet.

(The Department of Buildings also urges renters to verify the apartment/room meets the legal dwelling requirements by having fire and carbon monoxide detectors, two means of exit, access to natural light/ventilation, a window, electricity not supplied via extension cord, and is not locked with a padlock.)

How common are illegal bedrooms in NYC?

“On occasion, brokers come across illegal bedrooms—at times created by an illegal division of existing bedrooms, living rooms or other large rooms in a home into smaller units,” says Aleksandra Scepanovic, managing director of Ideal Properties Group. “With illegal partitioning, the leftover or the newly created space is sometimes left without a window or the minimally mandated room dimensions.”

Rory Bolger, a broker with Citi Habitats, however, comes across illegal bedrooms “fairly regularly” when out with clients. Often these “flex” spaces are found in the Financial District “and other neighborhoods where commercial space was transformed into residential housing,” he says. 

“Flex,” says Scepanovic, “is the real estate industry code that implies an ability to carve up the space into additional units. Pressurized walls were all the rage for quite a while across Manhattan, but often at the expense of legal requirements.”

As commercial-use buildings have different code requirements, such as the ability to have fewer windows, than residential, these spaces are often marketed as home offices or dens, and Bolger sees them used as such or as closets or media rooms. 

“In reality, a lot of people sleep in these areas as well, but they cannot legally be considered a bedroom,” he says. “A good general rule of thumb is ‘no door, no exterior-facing window, no bedroom.”   

And for the many apartment hunters who think a legal bedroom in NYC has to include a closet, that’s—very sadly—not a DOB requirement.