Your teenager might think basement living is cool, but is your downstairs built for safety? U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 353,100 house fires per year between 2014 and 2018. A pivotal feature for emergencies, an egress window provides an alternative route for someone to escape should the worst occur. However, egress windows weren’t a code requirement for homes until 1997. Many older homes lack them in key places like lower levels and attics.
If you’re in this camp, an egress window usually costs around $3,000-$4,000 to install, so it’s not an insignificant expense. Thankfully, beyond offering peace of mind, putting in an egress makes your house more marketable and boosts value — not a bad side benefit! Read on for additional insights on just how much value an egress window adds and what type of impression it can make on homebuyers.
What qualifies as an egress?
Egress stems from the Latin word egressus, meaning “to go out.” If the stairs are blocked, and a home is flooding or on fire, egress windows mean you always have an exit strategy no matter where you’re located in the house.
All windows in bedrooms need to meet “egress” requirements, but many times, above-ground level spaces are designed with large enough windows to meet the requirements without being called an egress window specifically. However, in basements where natural light is scarce, and where regular windows can compromise a home’s structure — many homeowners elect to install egress windows.
What qualifies as an egress window can depend on your municipality and its codes, but at the very least, it will adhere to international guidelines. According to the International Code Council, an egress window or “Emergency Escape and Rescue Opening” is required in every basement, livable attic, and bedroom. That could mean a door that opens to the exterior or a window that a person can fit through.
The ICC has specific stipulations for an egress window, outlined in its International Residential Code:
A bedroom egress must have a net clear opening of at least 5.7 square feet. The height of the opening has to be a minimum of 24 inches tall and 20 inches wide. That means if you were to swing the window completely open, you’d have a 24 by 20 inch space to crawl out of.
If the window is at or below grade (grade refers to the home’s ground elevation) the net clear opening needs only be 5 square feet to be considered a legal egress. In general, an egress should be large enough for a fully outfitted firefighter to be able to climb through.
Window well size:
In basements, an egress window should open to a window well of at least 9 square feet, or at least 36 inches in width and height.
Maximum height above the floor:
A sill height can be no higher than 44 inches above the floor. If the sill is higher than 44 inches, there must be a permanently attached ladder or stairs to reach the window. Steps or rungs should be at least 12 inches wide and project no less than 3 inches from the wall.
Window barriers and opening ability:
An egress window must be able to open from the inside easily and without any special knowledge of how to operate the window. If the window has a grill or bars, they must be removable by hand, without tools.
The value of bringing your basement up to code
Adding an egress window to a basement instantly creates more “livable space,” meaning a finished living area where you spend time in a home. But just how much value it’ll add depends on the local market and a few additional factors, explains Jamie Owen, a residential appraiser since 1998 serving Northeastern Ohio.
“In many areas, to consider a basement room to be a bedroom, an egress window must be placed in that room,” says Owen. Therefore, installing an egress window can raise your home’s value by classifying a new or existing space as a legal bedroom or living area. However, because appraisers assess below-grade space differently than they do above-grade, the added value of a basement egress isn’t going to be as high as you would see with a main or upper floor addition.
“It’s important to remember that just because a basement bedroom has an egress window does not mean that this area can now just be included in the gross living area,” says Owen.
“There are some exceptions to this, but most of the time, these areas have a lesser price per square foot than heated and finished above-grade areas.”
Our research shows that an above-grade bedroom can add an additional estimated $8,000-$10,000 to your list price in some real estate markets. According to Owen, adding an egress to make a bedroom basement legal will translate as about 50%-70% of the value of its above-grade equivalent. The chances of seeing a higher return on a basement bedroom increases if it has an ensuite bathroom, Owen says.
Another way to look at it: As of 2019, American homes were worth an average $119 per square foot, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. If you add an egress window to your 120 square foot basement bedroom, that could translate as an additional $7,140 or $9,996 in resale value (or 50%-70% of $119 x 120 square feet).
The marketability factor of an egress? Priceless
An egress helps make your house marketable in two ways. First, if you’re a two-bedroom home in a market of threes and fours, making a finished room in the basement a legal bedroom could put your house in a new weight class by attracting a wider pool of buyers. Second, even if the basement isn’t a bedroom or even technically finished, adding an egress is one less thing a buyer has to budget for upon move in.
“When I’m showing somebody a house that was built in 2000, and the basement is unfinished, they always say they want to finish it,” says John Kriza, a top-selling real estate agent in Chester County, Pennsylvania with over two decades of experience. The moment Kriza tells the buyer that they would need to put in an egress window: “They will say to me ‘Wait a minute, what’s that all about?’ They don’t want to think about that,” Kriza shares.
This sentiment has only intensified as the pandemic drives people to seek bigger houses with a ton of usable space. More than ever buyers want to know that their basement could instantly become a play area, office, or private space to give their family some breathing room. And in case you needed another reason to go ahead and install your egress: “I’ve had buyers not buy houses because there was not an egress window in the basement,” says Kriza.
Egress window cost estimates
The cost to add an egress window depends on a few factors, including where it’s placed, the type of window you install, and whether the window requires a well. If your egress window’s location is above grade, you’ll save on excavation and window well installation costs. Similarly, if you only need to resize an existing window, you’ll reduce construction costs associated with cutting a brand new window.
Pulling data from the web’s leading home improvement cost aggregators, here are several estimates of what it’ll cost you to install an egress window:
Average egress window cost: $3,860
Average range: $2,508-$5,237
Low and high-end egress window range: $900-$8,000
Average labor cost for window installation: $100-$250 per window
Methodology: 543 HomeAdvisor members shared actual project costs to calculate the average installation costs.
Average egress window cost: $3,750
Average range: $2,500-$5,300
Low and high-end egress window range: $900-$8,000
Average labor cost for window installation: $500-$1,000
Methodology: Fixr gathers data from various sources, including contractors, government studies, trade publications, and vendors.
Median egress window cost: $3,635
Average range: $2,991-$3,953
Low and high-end egress window range: $900-$8,000
Methodology: 157 ImproveNet members contributed cost profiles of recent egress window installation projects.
Types of egress windows
Depending on the design of your basement and your budget, you’ll be able to choose one of the following types of egress windows:
Hanging on one or more sets of hinges, casement windows swing out like a door. Among the smaller of all egress windows, casements are a good fit for nearly any basement.
Horizontal or sliding ($150-$500)
These windows slide open, like a sliding glass door. Because only one pane slides open, horizontal windows are larger in footprint, at least 4×4 feet., to meet code requirements.
What someone might call a “classic window,” single-hung windows are two panes tall, and the bottom pane slides up to open the window. Because only the bottom pane opens, single-hung windows need to be large enough that the bottom pane meets the net clear opening requirements.
In-swing windows look similar to casements, but they swing in to open instead of out.
Maximizing your egress window investment
Choosing one little window might seem like an easy decision, but specific design or construction choices can help maximize the value of your egress investment:
- Choose a casement window, space permitting
Casement egress windows have a hinge on one side, and when they open, they swing towards the outside. Because they swing out, casement windows are the most popular egress window, and no matter the size of the space can make the room feel bigger. Casement windows are also one of the most affordable egress windows, costing between $200-$500.
- Go for a ‘light and airy’ look
Combat the dark and dank underground feel of a basement by choosing light colors and finishes for your egress window. Opt for light wood stain or white window trim to make the space feel bigger and more open.
- Opt to extend up, not out
If you plan to retrofit an old window in your basement into an egress window, you can keep the cost of installation down by extending the height of the window up instead of out. Adding width can compromise the foundation of the home, adding to cost, while additional height won’t raise this issue.
- Underground lines? Check your utilities
If you need to excavate around the property’s foundation to build the egress window or window well, make sure you won’t cut any buried utility lines on the property. You can call your plumbing, telecom, and utility providers to figure out where the lines are before you start digging.
Adding an egress: An easy choice
Adding an egress window can make your basement appear full of potential to prospective buyers. Even if it’s not finished with fresh paint and carpet, buyers will appreciate that this safety feature has already been accounted for. If your home’s basement is large enough to accommodate a bedroom, bathroom, or office, an egress window will help it appraise for the highest possible value by making sure any livable space you’ve created is fully up to code.
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