Occupancy Rules for Virginia Hills Houses

January 2007

SUMMARY:  As a minimum, the number of persons who may occupy a house in Fairfax County is governed by the International Property Maintenance Code (PMC). For practical purposes, the allowed occupancy is determined by bedroom size. The article applies the PMC rules to the variations of the standard rambler in Virginia Hills.

NOTE:  An earlier version of the article appeared in the September 2000 issue of the Virginia Hills Echo. It has been updated and reorganized because questions about occupancy continue to be asked. For those who aren't familiar with the Virginia Hills rambler, it was built in the early 1950s and had three bedrooms, a kitchen, a bath, and a living room in about 950 square feet of space. Many of the later ramblers came with unfinished basements, also of about 950 square feet. The Virginia Hills rambler is very similar to other ramblers built in Fairfax County (and elsewhere) in the same era.

Residents of Virginia Hills have asked numerous questions about occupancy restrictions for Virginia Hills houses. Sadly, there is no concise discussion of this subject in any one location, and there is much confusion about how the maximum occupancy can actually be determined. The purpose of this article is to provide you with information to understand the Code on this subject.

Section 15.2-117 of the Virginia Code allows a municipal corporation to regulate occupancy of buildings.

Section 55-79.80.3 of the Virginia Code allows a unit owners' association to limit the number of persons to occupy a unit as a dwelling.

Absent regulation by local government or a homeowners' association, occupancy is governed by the Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code (VUSBC), promulgated by the Board of Housing and Community Development. VUSBC incorporates by reference the International Property Maintenance Code (PMC) which discusses minimum occupancy requirements. Section 404 of the PMC imposes occupancy limitations on both commercial and residential dwelling units. In other words, this is a code designed primarily to address hotels, dormitories, and other non-home uses, but serves as a minimum standard for homes as well.

In the past, people have been confused by the provisions of the Fairfax County Zoning Ordinance that do set tougher occupancy limitations on unrelated residents. However, the provision that a family related by blood or marriage be allowed to occupy a dwelling unit without limitation has often made this ordinance unenforceable because of the difficulty of determining who is and is not a family member. Therefore, where the County Zoning Ordinance cannot be enforced, the Property Maintenance Code requirements still apply irrespective of whether the residents are adults or children, related or unrelated, owners or renters. These PMC requirements serve as the basis for the following discussion.

The key to Section 404 is sleeping area. Every sleeping room occupied by one person must contain at least 70 square feet of space. A sleeping room occupied by more than one person must contain at least 50 square feet per person.

When applied to the original three bedroom Virginia Hills house, these square footage requirements permit three people in the large bedroom, two in the middle bedroom, and one in the small bedroom, for a total of six. Each bedroom must have access to a bathroom without passage through another bedroom, and the one bathroom in the original houses meets this requirement.

Could the homeowner gain more space by taking some of the living room and converting it to a bedroom? The code requires a total of 200 square feet of living and dining room space for three to five occupants and 250 square feet for six or more occupants. Given the size of the typical Virginia Hills living room, about 280 square feet including the dining area, a homeowner could in theory add one very small bedroom, but the difficulty of such construction makes this impractical. Thus a Virginia Hills house without a basement can hold no more than six persons as originally built.

A common Virginia Hills renovation is an enclosed car port. If this is made into a bedroom, it could potentially provide sleeping room for two to three more people, depending on its size. On the other hand, if the original third bedroom is converted into a dining room, you would have to reduce by one the number of permitted occupants.

The presence of a basement makes the calculation more difficult. The major problem is how one can construct a sleeping room in the basement. Fire code requires that all sleeping rooms have an openable window or exterior door. If a window, the sill height may not be more than 44 inches above the floor. The net clear opening of the window must be 5.7 square feet. The practical consequence of this rule is that most Virginia Hills homes MAY NOT have legal bedrooms in the basement. Putting a bed in the room does not make it a legal bedroom, and certainly does not make it safe. Bedrooms are safe and legal only in those "newer" homes that were built on a hill and have one wall that is completely above ground, thus having full sized windows on at least one side.

Virginia Hills houses having a basement door opening on a concrete stairwell leading up to the yard could in theory have a bedroom if that door opens directly into the bedroom. Another solution would be to dig an extremely large window well so that a full sized window could be installed. This is a fairly complex and expensive project. This means that, practically, most Virginia Hills houses may legally hold no more than six people in the absence of an addition or a walk-out or ground-level basement.

The exception to this rule would come if the entire basement were converted to a single bedroom, or were to contain one very large bedroom having an egress window or door to the outside. In that case, the 50 square foot rule would apply, and a basement with a 600 square foot bedroom could accommodate 12 persons.

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