When you’re searching for your next three flat in Chicago, it’s very likely you’ll come across some illegal basement apartments in your search. This begs the question though, what makes a basement apartment legal? Well, I’ve done some digging to help you understand generally what will make your basement apartment legal. Not only will you have to comply with the City of Chicago Building Code but also Chicago’s zoning requirements.
Egress: In a two flat, three flat or four flat, one exit for one family is permitted in the basement if the square footage of that basement is less than 800 square feet. If greater than 800 square feet, two exits will be required. Source
Ceiling Height: Minimum ceiling height of 7 feet 6 inches. Source
Floor Depth: No limitations if the floors and walls are impervious to leakage, surface runoff water and protected against dampness. If your basement is regularly taking on water and moisture, it’s not likely to be legal until those problems are remedied. Source
Window Area: Minimum window area is located entirely above the finished elevation of the ground adjoining the building wall in which the windows are located. Source
Lighting: Basement rooms will need adequately sized windows to provide natural light. The glass block windows with the ventilation flap may not pass the test.
Ventilation: The glass block windows with the ventilation flap believe it or not may not pass the test. Proper ventilation will be needed likely through the windows or with exhaust fans blowing in and out to circulate air. Source
Heating: As in any other unit, proper heating must be provided. In some cases, landlords may try to use radiant heat from a boiler in the basement to provide the warmth. It’s not likely this will be allowed and you’ll have to add heating to the basement.
Electrical: As in any other unit, proper electrical service must be provided. Those old smaller electrical services with one panel may not pass the test.
Plumbing: Plumbing needs to be done to code. A poorly adapted plumbing system to an existing system will not pass the test.
Beyond the code related issues listed above are the zoning issues. It doesn’t matter what the landlord, agent, contractor, seller or inspector says about the property, if the zoning doesn’t show the basement as a legal unit, it’s not a legal unit. Before property changes hands in Chicago, a “Certificate of Zoning Compliance” is required and will certify the number of residential dwelling units at the property that are legal under the Chicago Zoning Ordinance. If the amount of units cannot be determined, they will inspect the property to make an informed decision.
Take note of all of these key factors next time you tour a three flat. Having a legal basement apartment will increase the value of the subject property. Having an illegal basement apartment increases the risk to a potential buyer of that property. When the buyer underwrites the deal, they as well as the banks will not include the basement apartment as a source of rent, thus reducing its market value. On top of that, the basement unit is a liability if a tenant calls the city on the landlord. The tenant will likely be able to break the lease without paying rent and the city could issue violations to the landlord until the landlord removes all of the elements making the apartment illegal. If you’re not sure whether a basement is considered a legal unit, you can always call a real estate attorney or the city to help you find out for sure.