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Building and Electrical Codes

(November 1993)

Having talked about how to finish our basement, it's time to go back to something we should have considered in the planning stage--how to insure that our remodeling follows the building and electrical codes! Work done to code is safer, and it insures that you won't have to rip out your hard work when it comes time to sell the house. First we'll look at what the building code has to say about finished basements, and then we'll discuss how to plan for electricity in a basement.

One of the most popular uses for a basement is for an additional bedroom. According to the CABO One and Two Family Dwelling Code, however, to be used as a bedroom, the room must have a door to the outside or an operating window. If there is only a window, the sill may not be more than 44 inches above the ground and the "net clear opening" of the window (of the part that actually opens) must be 5 square feet. (Section R-211 of the Code). This provides emergency exit from the bedroom. As you can imagine, this can be a real problem for basements below grade. If your basement can't accommodate such a window, you should not put a bedroom there. It isn't safe!

As you are surely aware, a sleeping area must have a smoke detector installed adjacent to it. If you have remodeled your basement to add a bedroom and the work requires a building permit, the Code requires you to upgrade the smoke detector system for the entire house so that all smoke detectors are powered primarily by the house's electrical wiring (though they should have battery backup power) (Section R-216). This requirement was written because of the number of deadly fires where battery-powered smoke detectors were present, but had no batteries installed.

Rooms in your basement other than bedrooms must have operable windows which have an area not less than 8% of the room's floor area and half of that window must open. Instead of windows, the room may have an approved mechanical ventilation system (a duct from the central heating system is acceptable) which will change the room's air every 30 minutes (once every 12 minutes if the room is a bathroom) (Section R-204). You must also install a source of artificial light.

A problem that inspectors often see in a finished basement is that the furnace and water heater are enclosed in a small room with a door. Unless combustion air can enter the room from the outside, there won't be enough air for the furnace or water heater to work. Therefore this mechanical room must have a vent to either the outside or the inside. It will take a fairly large vent. For each 1000 BTU per hour capacity of your furnace, there must be two square inches of vent, and never less that 200 square inches. Half of the vent must extend within the upper 12" of the room and the other half within the lower 12" (Section M-1203).

The National Electrical Code governs your electrical system and attempts to make your house as safe as possible. Improper use of extension cords is one of the major causes of electrical fires. To prevent this, the Code requires that sufficient electrical receptacles be placed in rooms so that the use of extension cords is reduced or is unnecessary. You must locate receptacles so that no point on the wall at floor level is more than 6 feet from a receptacle (NEC 210-52). Very often, rooms are underwired, and this shortage of receptacles results in extension cords running everywhere, including under the rug. THIS IS A VERY UNSAFE PRACTICE!

Rooms must also have either a switched light or a switched receptacle into which a lamp can be plugged (NEC 210-70). The switch must be near the door so the light can be switched on when you enter the room. If you have ever stumbled around a dark room, you understand why this is a safety item also. Just like the building code, the electrical code exists for your protection. When installing new electrical circuits, you should get a permit and have the County inspect your work. I have always found the County inspectors very helpful and cooperative. Your taxes are paying them! You might as well benefit from their expertise!

Copyright Doug Boulter, 1993

Building Permits

(June 1995)

Some time ago I talked a bit about building permits and inspections. This is a fairly important topic for homeowners who do their own work or who hire a contractor to do work for them. In this article, I'll address this issue in more detail in a question and answer format.

When do I need to obtain a building permit?

The real answer to this question can be found in a rather lengthy handout available from the Fairfax County Department of Environmental Management. It's free. The title is "When a Permit is Required."

The short answer is that any time you are doing major construction, adding an electrical circuit, installing a new furnace, or doing any of the projects listed in the next column, you or your contractor should obtain a permit.

Why do I need a building permit? It's cheaper and easier to do the work without one.

A building permit serves two purposes. The first is to ensure that your work isn't in violation of the zoning code, for example by building too close to the property line. If you were to do that, the County could demand that you tear out the work you have done. Second, a building permit and the inspections that go with it protect you and future owners from things that violate the building code and are unsafe. Even when you hire a contractor, the inspection of his work helps you feel confident that it was done right. Building codes exist to make sure that work done meets minimum standards of safety and quality.

Fairfax County now has records of building inspections on their computers. When you sell your house, the buyers can check with the County to see if improvements you made were done under permit and inspected. The last thing you want is to have problems closing a sale because the work was done improperly or not inspected.

Is it hard to get a permit? Can a homeowner get one?

Getting a permit is very easy. It involves you going to the second floor of the new County Community Development Center across the street from the new Government Center between 8:00 AM and 4:00 PM. Getting all the permits you require shouldn't take more than an hour. Permits are NOT expensive. Most run about $56 per permit, although some are based on square footage or a percentage of the total cost of the project (these are mostly for additions).

Don't I need plans for any project I do?

Only for projects that are out of the ordinary. For many typical projects, the County has "details sheets" which specify how the project must be done to comply with Code. I have found these to be helpful and easy to follow. Here are the details sheets that are available:

What inspections will I get?

This will depend on the type of work you are doing. Let's say you are finishing a basement. You would get several rounds of inspection. First, while the walls are still open, you'll get an inspection on your framing, electrical work, plumbing, and mechanical work (furnace and ducting). Next, the inspector may want to inspect the insulation that covers all of these. Finally, when you close in the walls, the inspector will come to do a final inspection.

How do I schedule an inspection?

You call the Department of Environmental Management the day before you want the inspection. The inspector will visit the next day sometime between about 8:00 AM and 4:00 PM. The inspection may only last a few minutes, or up to a half hour. I've always found County inspectors to be very helpful when dealing with homeowners. If you've followed the details sheet, you are not likely to have any problems. If something isn't right, the inspector will tell you what you need to do to fix it. After you've done it, you can schedule a re-inspection.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 1995

Remodeling Costs

(June 1998)

At the conclusion of my Virginia Hills Improvement talk at the last Association meeting, I gave some rough figures on what various home improvement projects could cost. I thought I'd go over those again here for people who missed the meeting. The figures are rough and intended as a starting point. You may be able to do better or not as well. All projects differ, and the only way to get an exact figure is to get a bid. Always be suspicious of low bids, as low bidders may be doing work without a license or a permit, or they may be providing substantially less quality. The costs here are based on my experience over the last three years.


Expect costs of $100 and up per square foot for an addition with electricity and heat. If the addition includes a bath or kitchen, expect to pay substantially more.

All New Windows

About $15,000 for quality brand name wood windows such as Pella, Andersen, or Marvin. These would have two panes of glass (with one pane having a low-E coating), and built -in screens. Inside trim would be simple picture-frame (see my articles on trim a few issues back). You may save some money by going with a slightly lower quality window such as Crestline. Vinyl windows will cost less, especially if the installer only cuts out the metal frame of the old casement and leaves the metal pan on the perimeter, sliding the vinyl window in the resulting opening. I wouldn't do it this way, as the window edge will be cold and will sweat in the winter, but if you need new windows cheap, that would be the way to go.

New Electrical Service

About $1000-1500 for a 200 amp service. If you are upgrading from 100 amp, you may be able to convince Virginia Power to put your cable underground for free. Otherwise expect to pay them $500 or more for this service.

Direct-Vent Gas Fireplace

$3000 to $4000 or more depending on which fireplace you select, whether you need a large amount of chimney and a chase for the chimney, and how you finish around the fireplace inside. A wood burning pre-fab fireplace should be about the same price. A wood stove will cost more for the stove, perhaps less for the installation.

New Furnace and A/C

About $4000 for a good medium efficiency system. If you are finishing a basement and will need extensive sheet metal duct work for that, add about $3000.

Security System

$3000 for a medium grade system with smoke detectors, sensors on all doors, motion detectors upstairs and down, and glass-break sensors on one floor. You can get fancier and spend a lot more. Add $20-30 a month for central station monitoring.

Finished Basement

$7000 to frame and insulate the walls, add electrical circuits, drywall walls and ceilings, do trim work, and do some minor plumbing. It does not include any work on a bathroom.

Kitchen Remodel

$7000 includes new vinyl flooring, $2500 worth of cabinets of a middle grade, some electrical upgrades, and new appliances of a medium grade. It's very easy to bust this budget with extras, especially on the cabinets.

Interior Carpeting

$2500 for a medium grade of carpet throughout the house except the kitchen, baths, and laundry room.

New Driveway

About $1000 for asphalt, about $3000 for concrete, depending on the square footage.

If you actually undertake any of these home improvement projects, I'd be interested to hear how close these cost estimates turned out.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 1998

Tax Abatement

(June 1999)

Why am I writing about taxes? The answer is that one of the down sides to any large home remodeling project is an increase to your real estate assessment and the resulting increase to your taxes. This often acts as a disincentive to undertaking remodeling work. Knowing this, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved a program in 1997 designed to relieve this disincentive and, they hoped, promote improvement of the housing stock in the county. The Tax Abatement Ordinance that resulted was recently amended to more closely fit such situations as we have in Virginia Hills. I'll talk about the program and these changes.

To be eligible for the tax abatement program, a house must meet two criteria. First, it must be at least 25 years old. Second, the existing structure can have no more than 2000 square feet of gross living area above grade. Of course, most Virginia Hills houses easily meet these criteria, and a homeowner undertaking a major renovation will be eligible for real estate tax relief under certain circumstances.

For the renovation to be eligible, you may not increase the gross living space of the house by more than 1000 square feet unless you are adding an additional level above the ground floor. In no case may the final total gross living space be more than 3000 square feet above grade. This is a change to the previous version of the ordinance which limited the space increase to 30% and would have made Virginia Hills pop-top houses ineligible for the program. Lee District Supervisor Kauffman lobbied hard for this change based on input from the Virginia Hills Citizens Association.

A second requirement is that the renovation must increase the value of the house by 20%. This increase must be to the assessed value, which is unrelated to how much the work actually cost to accomplish. In other words, if the assessed value of the house (not counting the land) was $100,000, after the project was completed, the new assessed value would have to be at least $120,000. This is also a change from the previous version of the ordinance in which the increase had to be 25%.

What do you get for participating in the program? Once the renovation is complete, your house will continue to be assessed at the old value for five years and you will pay the same amount of tax as before. For the next 10 years, only 10% of the increased value will be added each year, with 14 years of abatement maximum. Previously, the ordinance allowed 100% abatement for 10 years and a 20% a year increase thereafter.

How do you participate in this program? The responsible county agency is the Department of Tax Administration (DTA). At the time you apply for the building permit for the work, you must also file an application for Tax Abatement of Rehabilitated Structures with DTA and pay a $50 fee. DTA will then schedule an inspection of your home for their initial appraisal.

Here is where you will have to be an active participant. DTA has used certain norms for appraised values of Virginia Hills homes. Homes that have deteriorated were not appraised downward accordingly, and you may have to convince the appraisers that your home is not worth what they have been saying it was for many years. If you participate in this program and you believe they are assessing too high, I will be glad to help you point them to some comparable properties that sold below the usual market value. This will be important for meeting the 20% increase in value criterion.

You will have three years to complete the renovation. Once it is complete, DTA will schedule a final appraisal. Again, DTA norms may come into play; finding a comparable Virginia Hills house to get a sufficiently high value to meet the 20% criterion might not be easy. To illustrate, only one Virginia Hills pop-top has changed hands, and this was at the bottom of a very poor real estate market. You may need to insist that DTA look for comparable houses outside Virginia Hills, and they have promised me that they would do so to get an accurate assessment. The fact is that few of the homes in Virginia Hills that have been renovated have come onto the market; the price level of our homes is more reflective of the lower end of our housing stock.

Unless the tax abatement program is re-approved, the last date for you to submit an application is September 1, 2002.

If you are thinking about doing a major renovation to your house or constructing an addition, this program will reward you with a nice savings on your real estate tax. I'd encourage you to take advantage of it, and I'd like to hear about your experiences.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 1999

Selling Your Home

(November 1998)

This summer and fall have not been particularly good for home sales in Virginia Hills. Prices did not go up much, if at all, and nice homes remained on the market that should have sold. Our home tour, about which you can find out more elsewhere in this issue, is designed to improve the reputation of the neighborhood as a whole. What I'm going to address in this column is what you can do for your individual home to make it more saleable. I visited almost every open house in Virginia Hills this summer, and my comments are based on what I saw. What if you aren't thinking of selling? Perhaps I can convince you that some of the improvements I'm suggesting are worth making for their own sake AND will add value to your home and to the neighborhood.

Potential buyers will want a home with what I'll call a "Wow!" factor. They want to see something that will make them say "Wow!" about the house. On our home tour, all of the houses will make you say it about some aspect or another of the design, construction, or landscaping. Besides the "Wow" factor, you'll want to make a great first impression. Here are my observations about how to get both.

A potential buyer steps out of their car and gets the first impression of the house. They will walk up your walk to the front door. If you have a cracked and crumbling walk, you're already losing their hearts. If you have a beautiful wide brick walk, steps, or raised beds, you may get a "Wow!" If you have pretty landscaping, you'll get that "Wow!" If there are dying trees in front of the house or a few drooping bushes at the perimeter, the hearts are gone.

I've said before that the next major battle is your front door. Virginia Hills doors are very 1950s. If you can't replace the door, fix the holes and make sure it is nicely painted. It must feel solid and look secure. A cheap, lightweight storm door is worse than no door at all. In my article on storm doors, I talked about how modern doors are available at reasonable prices. A good storm door is well worth the money in terms of the impression it creates.

Sadly, a house with the original windows isn't going to create a "Wow!" Even if you've kept them in good repair and they all open, even if you've added interior storm windows and have beaten the cold factor, steel casements don't speak to potential buyers. A good set of windows will cost between $10,000 and $15,000, but I believe that this will be money that you will get back on the sale of the house. Even if you aren't selling, you might want to enjoy the benefits of new windows now rather than buying them for the new owner.

What are the "Wow!" factors inside the house? Trim carpentry, such as framing around windows and doors, wainscoting, and panel doors, will add "Wow!" to your house. If your hardwood floors show and look good, they will add it too. Nice light fixtures won't add much "Wow!," but the original 1950s fixtures in the hall and bedrooms will detract from whatever else you've done.

Virginia Hills bathrooms and kitchens are small, and short of an addition, you can't do much about them. You can, however, insure that you have nice cabinets and light fixtures. Kitchens are often key factors in buying decisions. Counter tops in loud colors, avocado appliances, and 30 year old color schemes lose hearts very quickly.

Basements make up half of the floor space of most Virginia Hills homes. The biggest problem I see is dark paneling. Basements are dark anyway, and dark paneling makes them look smaller and dated. Suspended ceilings must look new or the buyer will be thinking that it will all have to be ripped out. Consider drywall ceilings where possible. If you have bare concrete block walls, paint them white or a very light color. Get as much natural light into the basement as possible.

The laundry room is often a junk room lighted by a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, yet it is a room that will be used every week. Fixes aren't expensive here. Put in a nice light fixture, paint the walls a light color, and leave space for doing laundry tasks. Don't leave the floor of the laundry room bare. Paint is the minimum here.

To sell the house, mechanical systems must be functional, but they will never get a "Wow!" Decorating will. If you can win the hearts of your buyers with your decorating and landscaping, their minds will follow. If you're not selling, shouldn't your house give you that "Wow!" and capture your heart?

Copyright Doug Boulter, 1998


(June 1999)

On May 31, Virginia Hills suffered its second serious house fire in two months and its third in a year. In the latest fire, a resident of the house suffered serious injuries.

The causes of the three fires were different, but property damage in all three cases was extensive. Houses can be rebuilt, but people cannot. This special insert repeats information I've published in past columns that pertains to fire safety. Please, please, heed it and correct immediately any problems you have! We don't want any injuries or loss of life in our community! The life you save may literally be your own!

Smoke Detectors

The National Fire Alarm Code requires homes to have smoke detectors outside each separate sleeping area AND on each level of the living unit, including the basement. The requirement for newly constructed homes is much stricter. Each sleeping room must have its own smoke detector, and all smoke detectors in the house must be connected, so that if one activates, all detectors sound the alarm.

Insure that you have at least the minimum number of required smoke detectors! And remember, if the battery in the detector is dead, the detector is useless. Please check the batteries! Your life may depend on it!

In my article on alarm systems, I recommended the combined use of smoke detectors with heat sensors. A heat sensor detects a rapid rise in temperature, but doesn't respond to smoke, making it appropriate for locations such as garages or workshops where dust might impair the performance of smoke detectors. It is also appropriate for furnace rooms where a very hot fire might erupt with little smoke initially. If you are having an alarm system installed, insure that a well designed fire protection system is part of it.

Bedroom Exits

Section 310.2 of the CABO One and Two Family Dwelling Code imposes an exit requirement for all sleeping rooms, saying that "Every sleeping room shall have at least one openable window or exterior door approved for emergency egress or rescue. The units must be operable from the inside to a full clear opening without the use of a key or tool. Where windows are provided as a means of egress or rescue they shall have a sill height of not more than 44 inches above the floor."

The Code goes on to say in section 310.2.1 that the window must have a net clear opening of 5.7 square feet. A clear opening means that area of a window that can be fully opened at one time. This will depend on the type of window. For example, if you have a window that is 2' x 3', if that window was a casement, the clear opening would be almost 6 square feet. If it was a double hung or slider window, on the other hand, the net clear opening would only be 3 square feet.

That section goes on to say that the minimum net clear opening height must be at least 22" and the width shall be at least 20". Since 5.7 square feet equals 821 square inches, you can see that if one of these two dimensions is the minimum, the other will have to be substantially greater than its minimum. Let's take some examples. Our window that was 24" x 36" would give 864 square inches, and would meet code. If the window width of the opening was the minimum of 20", the height would have to be over 41". If the height of the opening was 22", the width would have to be 38" or more.

Finally, the code offers an exception: "Grade floor windows may have a minimum net clear opening of 5 square feet." A grade floor window is one that is on the ground floor. You can step right out the window to the ground. This reduces the net clear opening requirement to 720 square inches for those windows.

The building code cannot influence what you do with a room in your own house. If you choose to have children, loved ones, or visitors sleep in a room from which the only exit is out the door, no inspector will visit your house to stop you. Imagine, however, that the person wakes up in the middle of the night with the smoke detector outside that bedroom going off. They feel the door and it is hot to the touch; smoke is seeping in under the door. They know they can't go out through the door, or even open it. The only window in the room is a small slider about 72" above the floor that is 26" x 14", giving a net clear opening of not much more than a square foot. Let's say that person managed to drag a night stand under the window and break out all the glass and frame and crawl out before they were overcome by smoke, badly cut but alive. Let's say that the story has a happy ending. Is this the risk you want to take?

Copyright Doug Boulter, 1999

Hiring a Contractor

(June 2003)

Over the years, I've tried to suggest which projects you could do yourself and which ones you should probably hire a professional to do for you. In this article, I'm going offer some ideas on how to choose that professional.

You always hear that you should get three bids on any job, but often when you try to do that, you can't get anyone to bid on your job at all. There's a good reason for that. In this area, decent contractors have all the work they can possibly do. Coming to your home to look at your project and give you an estimate will take at least an hour of someone's time - more depending on their travel time. For small jobs, coming to give you an estimate will eat up all the profit in the job, if they even get the work. Consequently, contractors do estimates on only big jobs, and really only on the big jobs they are interested in doing. Or they charge you for doing a bid.

If you have a job that will take less than a day to do, forget about getting a bid. Hire a contractor you trust on a "time-and-materials" basis. That means you pay a fixed per-hour amount plus the cost of the materials they use.

Some contracting firms will now give a fixed price for certain jobs. For example, an electrician will give you a fixed price for installing a new ceiling light fixture or a plumber will give you a fixed price for installing a garbage disposal. To ensure that they don't lose money if they encounter a problem, however, the contractor will use a high price - as if they were going to encounter every problem in the book. As a result, you'll be better off paying time-and-materials for most jobs.

For much of the work around your house, you can use one of the standard handyman contractors that have sprung up in the past few years. Some are offshoots from large contractors who use this work to balance their workload and also handle callbacks from their own projects. Other handyman firms are totally independent. Look in the yellow pages under "handyman services."

For more specialized work, you will want to hire an electrician, plumber, heating and air conditioning firm, or other specialist. Again, go with the same rule of thumb. If the work shouldn't take more than a day to do, pay time-and-materials and don't expect anyone to bid the work, except perhaps to tell you over the phone approximately how long a job might take. Most of these firms will be able to send someone out within a week of your call.

If you have a big project, such as an addition to your house, you should attempt to get bids unless you have a general contractor with whom you've worked before and like. All Virginia contractors must be licensed, bonded, and insured, and should show you their Virginia Class A or B license and proof of insurance. You should also ask a potential contractor for references. However, references aren't as helpful as they might be for several reasons. First, contractors are unlikely to give you references who weren't satisfied with their work. Second, contractors just starting out may not have many references. You might think you'd never want to do business with someone just starting out, but these are almost never people with no experience. They've probably worked for another contractor for many years, but obviously can't give his satisfied clients as references. Sometimes a contractor just starting out on his or her own might give you a good price just to get a foot in the door.

The bids you get are only useful if the contractors are bidding on exactly the same thing. If three bidders are going to use different brands of cabinets, flooring, faucets, vent hoods, etc., their bids won't be comparable. If one wants to install sheet vinyl flooring, one wants to install tile, and one hardwood, the bids won't match. If one plans to frame the walls 16" on center and stick frame the roof, that bid will be much higher than another contractor's bid that plans for framing the walls 24" on center (less lumber and less labor) with a truss roof (much less labor). In some ways, the best approach is to have a set of plans available to bid on, or at least specify in a very detailed manner what you want done. Of course, very few people know exactly how something should be built, so this is a lot harder than it sounds.

When a contractor asks how much you have to spend, you may think this is an attempt to take you for everything you can afford. Actually, it's an attempt to determine if you're being realistic in your plans for what you want and to get an idea of what level of quality you expect. Go ahead and give this information as best you're able. As a rough figure, plan on $100 per square foot for an addition with no kitchen or bath and $150 a square foot if the addition includes one of these. These numbers suppose a modest level of quality. If you want unique or lavish, the sky's the limit.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2003

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