February, 2010
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors

The Word: Escape Openings


Once again, The Word invites you to travel into the dark realm of terms that are often misused or misunderstood in home inspection reports. The Word hopes you will find this trip informative and maybe a little entertaining.

The Word’s term today is escape openings. The Word finds this term interesting because these openings involve more than just bedroom windows. Escape openings are also required in many basements and in habitable attics. In addition to escape openings, every home must have one egress door that allows all occupants a continuous and unobstructed path to the exterior without traveling through the garage.

Escape openings provide an escape path out of the dwelling during an emergency and provide rescue personnel, wearing full rescue gear, access into the dwelling. To accomplish this, all escape openings must open on a public area or on an area that opens without obstruction on a public area. An escape opening that opens on an enclosed courtyard or on a partially enclosed courtyard with a lockable gate or door does not satisfy this requirement. An escape opening may open under a deck or porch if the escape opening opens to the full-required dimensions and if there is an unobstructed path at least 36" high from the escape opening to the public area.

Escape openings must be operable from the inside without keys, tools or special knowledge (such as the combination to a lock). They must be operable using the same force, effort and knowledge as is required to open a normal window or door. This requirement places restrictions on components such as security bars and doors, screens and similar potential obstructions. These potential obstructions are allowed if they satisfy the operability requirements. Windows that are painted shut or are otherwise not operable do not satisfy the operability requirements.

Escape opening window measurements are widely known; but some of nuances may be less widely known. The sill height must not be more than 44" above the finished floor. For some windows, such as those with an aluminum frame, the sill height may be different from the bottom of the window frame. The minimum clear opening height and width dimensions are 24" and 20" respectively. The minimum clear opening area is 5.7 square feet, except 5 square feet at grade level. The clear opening is the unobstructed distance between the window sash and frame or between edges of the frame. The window must satisfy all of these requirements to count as an escape opening.

Escape openings are now required in many basements. The exception is for basements less than 200 square feet that are only used for mechanical equipment. This is a new requirement. Previously, basement escape openings were required only if the basement contained a bedroom. Basements that are remodeled to include a bedroom usually require an escape opening for each bedroom, regardless of whether an escape opening was originally required. A basement with one bedroom requires only one escape opening for the bedroom, not an opening for the bedroom and an additional opening for the rest of the basement.

Basements with below-grade escape openings require a well for the opening. The well must be at least 36" wide and deep and must have an area of at least 9 square feet. A ladder is required if the well is more than 44" deep.

An escape opening is also required in a habitable attic. A habitable attic may or may not be a bedroom. Access to such attics is by permanent stairs, a permanent ramp or an egress door. A habitable attic, and any other habitable room, must have a minimum required area of at least 70 square feet and a minimum dimension of at least 7 feet. The ceiling height must be at least 7 feet for at least 35 square feet and must not be less than 5 feet for the other 35 square feet of required area. A habitable room must be heated, but cooling is not required.

One of the purposes of the egress door is to provide another means of escape in an emergency. The egress door is usually the front door, although it does not need to be. The door must be side-hinged. A standard size 36" x 80" door satisfies the door size requirement, although slightly smaller non-standard doors may be allowed. The door must be operable from the inside, just like an escape opening. This means that double-cylinder deadbolt locks are not permitted on the egress door or on any related screen door or security door. A landing or floor is required on each side of the egress door. The landing must be at least as wide as the door and at least 36" deep in the direction of travel. The landing must be not more than 1-½" below the top of the threshold on the inside and not more than 7-¾" below the top of the threshold on the outside. Other exterior doors do not have to comply with these requirements.


Our Standards of Practice does not require that we inspect escape openings and egress doors. Awareness of these requirements is another service you can provide your clients. This awareness also can alert you to remodeling performed without benefit of a building permit. As we know, such remodeling often contains other defects.

Memo to the rescue Gods and other authorities: The Word does not reside on Mt. Olympus (just at its base) and welcomes other viewpoints. Send your lightning bolts or e-mails to inspectorbruce@cox.net. The musing contained herein is that of The Word. It is not ASHI standards or policies.