Egress Windows: The Ins and Outs for Homeowners
Originally posted 9/24/21; updated 12/6/22
When I was a teenager, we lived in a small bi-level house. Two of the bedrooms -including mine- were in the basement. There was only one small window in each bedroom: they were tiny, crank-style windows that let in more spiders than sunlight. To make things worse, only the bedrooms were finished. The rest of the basement was bare concrete and it was immensely creepy after dark.
Your basement doesn’t have to be like this. In fact, it shouldn’t be! One of the best ways to improve your home’s resale value is to maximize your basement’s potential. Adding a family room, a dedicated office space, or an extra bedroom can increase your overall square footage. An egress window is all you need to make your home safer for you and your family.
Acculevel is a family-owned and operated company that specializes in waterproofing and foundation repairs. We’ve helped more than 30,000 homeowners achieve their goal of a strong and healthy home. We understand that your home is probably your single greatest investment, and you need to preserve and protect it for years to come. We install egress windows that meet all of the standards set by International Building Codes
We’ve been repairing foundations and improving the value of homes like yours since our start in 1996. In this homeowner’s guide, we’re going to explain what an egress window is, why you need one, what it will cost and how it adds value to your home.
Chapter 1: What is an Egress Window?
Generally speaking an egress is an exit, or a way to leave a structure. An egress window is one that can be used as an exit.
In terms of a house, an egress window usually refers to a window installed in a basement or below-grade space, expressly for the purpose of an emergency exit. This is because we expect windows installed above ground to be large enough to function as an emergency exit. Traditional basement windows, on the other hand, are often too small for this purpose.
What is Considered an Egress Window?
In order for a basement window to qualify as a true egress window, it needs to comply with international building codes. We review those specifications in greater detail in chapter 5, but in general terms: an egress window needs to be useful to people from young children to the elderly.
It also has to be easily navigated by anyone who could access the basement from the main level (most commonly an internal staircase). This limits the height and opening of a window, as well as the exit method. There should be a ladder, staircase, or similar climbing option that allows the person to easily leave the building.
This photo was taken by an Acculevel crew member, after installing an egress window and well.
Chapter 2: Why Would You Need an Egress Window?
There are several reasons why you want to have an egress window in your basement, but there’s one very specific reason why you need an egress window. That reason manages to be both practical and sentimental: an egress window provides safety for you and your loved ones.
If your home catches fire on the main level, there is a very real possibility that anyone in the basement will be trapped. To leave the house, they’d have to go up the stairs from the basement to the main floor, then to an exit by door or window. What happens if the fire blocks the stairway, or that smoke from the fire does? Smoke inhalation is often the primary cause of death in house fires with fatalities.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, a house fire occurs every 93 seconds. Within our specific service area? Over 500 fire-related deaths occured in the last 4 years.
Installing an egress window in the basement gives your family an additional way out, in case the worst happens to your home.
Now that we’ve addressed a frightening and persistent fear, let’s discuss something more upbeat.
Chapter 3: Why Would You Want an Egress Window?
Egress windows are an excellent addition to your home, because they allow you to make the most of your home’s square footage. They can make your home more appealing, more valuable, more useful, they can even increase your home’s square footage.
Basements don’t have to be gloomy dungeons. I shared my own experience with you, from being a teenager with a basement bedroom. It was unpleasant- but it doesn’t have to be like that!
Let the Sunshine In
An egress window can add a significant amount of daylight into an otherwise dark space. While we’ve all been cautioned about the importance of sunscreen, the fact is that humans need a certain amount of sun. This is both a physical and a psychological need. The best way for us to gain vitamin D is through sunlight. (Vitamin D and calcium are essential for bone health.)
Mentally? Seeing a window, and sunlight coming through it, both reassure us that we’re not trapped underground. Many of us have a latent fear of being trapped underground, or of basements in general. (Personally, I think whoever started the horror movie tradition of “creepy monsters = basements” has a lot to answer for!)
Air It Out
Egress windows are also an excellent source of ventilation for a space that is often damp and cool. Fresh air on a beautiful sunny day can boost your mood and reduce stress levels. You could open both the egress and other windows throughout your basement, to properly “air out” the space. This is something many people do in the spring and fall, as part of their bi-annual cleaning process.
In the interest of full disclosure, leaving the egress window open would make it possible for insects to enter your home. This is because you can’t install a screen in an egress window. (Removing a screen would be a barrier to a quick and safe emergency exit.)
Décor Makes a Difference
f you use your basement for storage, and it’s full of labeled tubs and cardboard boxes, an egress window is not going to add to the appeal. There are lots of ways to decorate a room that maximizes both function and still looks inviting. You can research home décor tricks- like using a mirror or painting walls a lighter color to add “light” to a room. Or you could hire an interior designer to help you make the most of your space.
No basement can be 100% finished, because some of your utilities are installed there. It’s to your advantage to use the unfinished portion as storage and keep the living area separate. No one wants to socialize or spend the night in a basement that looks like a storage unit!
Any realtor will tell you that “staging” (meaning arranging furnishings) is a crucial part of selling your home. It helps visitors feel comfortable and at ease, which is when they can feel “at home.” And speaking of realtors…
Chapter 4: Your Basement Can Increase Resale Value
Installing an egress window in your basement has a significant impact on how that basement’s square footage is used and assessed. And not just for you and your family, either! An egress window changes how potential buyers view and value your home.
Acculevel is not in the real estate market, and I am definitely not a Realtor. When it came time to research this section, I consulted with Peek Realty Group, who are part of F.C.Tucker Co. Mickey and Renee are professionals with great experience, particularly throughout Central Indiana, and I am grateful to have collaborated with them on this section.
Here in the Midwest, basement rooms are listed separately when a home is posted for sale, but they do contribute to the home’s overall square footage. By that I mean real estate agents will list the square footage of the main level (plus 2nd floor, if applicable). They can then include the finished basement’s portion as part of the total square footage.
An Extra Bedroom Gives You the Best Value for Your Investment
From a real estate perspective, adding a 4th or 5th bedroom yields the best return. In general, an additional bedroom can add $20,000 or more to your home’s value. But you’ll notice I specified which bedroom; homebuyers often don’t want the 2nd or 3rd bedroom in the basement if they have small children. Parents may not want to be so far from their kids.
In our home state of Indiana, a room must meet three conditions. It has to include an egress window and a closet. It also cannot function as a hallway or passage to another room (unless it is an attached bathroom). Basically, a bedroom must give you a certain amount of privacy, storage, and two exits.
Now, if you didn’t build a closet into your basement bedroom, no worries! You can install a freestanding closet system in the room, and specify that it will remain with the home. (This may be a regional requirement, so you should consult with a licensed realtor in your area before marketing your home.)
Please note: if you install 2 bedrooms in the basement, each must have its own egress window to qualify as a bedroom.
Other Rooms That Can Increase Your Home’s Value
Another great option, especially post-Covid, is to have a dedicated home office installed in your basement. If you’re not interested in selling your home, but are thinking about setting up a home office for yourself? Check with your accountant or tax expert; some of it may be deductible if you are an independent businessperson.
Have family who visit regularly, or an elderly relative who may need some care? You could convert a section of the basement into a “mother-in-law” suite; add a bathroom and a kitchenette to that extra bedroom and you could host family or friends with great comfort.
Neither of these options provide as much return on your investment as a bedroom (a full suite is going to require you to spend more than just a bedroom). But it could greatly add to your home’s appeal to the right buyer, while providing excellent quality of life for you while you’re using it.
Chapter 5: Window Specifications & International Building Codes
The ICC codes have been adopted by all 50 states and by our federal agencies. You can find more details about the Council, membership, and the details of their guidelines at their website. To save you time and energy (it is a tedious read), we’ve collected the necessary information about egress windows and summed it up in a more accessible way.
Who Decides What Safety Measures Are Required?
Until I started researching this topic, I only had some vague ideas about building codes. I knew there were regulations, of course, but I didn’t give them much thought. Luckily, all the International Code Council (ICC) does is think about building and housing requirements. The Code Council includes 64,000 members in 38 countries, and their goal is to protect people by creating safe buildings and communities.
You should make certain that the contractor you hire is ICC certified, and that the products they install will meet the safety requirements of the International Residential Codes.
At Acculevel, we don’t require each individual team member to be ICC certified. Instead, our founder and president, Andy Beery, maintains his contractor’s certification. He then regularly educates our staff and verifies that our products and services meet his exacting standards. We aren’t mentioning this just to humble brag, or to emphasize our (genuine and sincere) concern for your family’s safety.
We are highlighting it because ICC guidelines are of critical importance. You don’t want to invest your time and money to install an egress window, only to learn later that it won’t pass an inspection. You just learned in the last chapter about the value an egress window can add to your home; you don’t want to miss out on those gains because your contractor overlooked a requirement!
This photo was taken by an Acculevel crew member during installation.
What Are the Safety Requirements for an Egress Window?
An egress window opening has to be at least 5.7 square feet. This is the equivalent of a 20×24 inch window and if I’m being honest? We think that’s too small. Take a moment, and look at the window nearest you. Is it only 20 inches by 24 inches? I’ll bet it’s not; the average home window is at least 24 x 36.
So now that you’ve taken a hard look at that window, ask yourself (and be honest!): how easily would you fit through it? Now imagine the house is on fire, and you have to help a crying child or carry an anxious pet as you climb out. The smaller the window, the greater your stress.
The ICC also requires that the bottom of the egress window cannot be more than 44 inches from the floor. This is to ensure that climbing out of the window is not too difficult for anyone, young or old. Again, these regulations are practical, but not attractive.
If you install a small window at an awkward height, with too much wall above it or below it, the whole wall will look off-kilter. And if one of your goals is to let more natural light into your newly finished space? A larger window is going to better suit your needs. For comparison’s sake, the window Acculevel installs is 32.5 inches x 40.5 inches (approximately 9 square feet). This size fits more “evenly” into a room, looks attractive, allows for easier exit, and still meets all of the ICC requirements.
Egress windows are usually hinged on the side, to open like a door. If they are side-hinged, they have to open to the inside of the house. This is another regulation to ensure ease of exit. If the door opens outward, it will take up space inside the window well. This could block or limit your ability to get out, especially if you’re carrying an infant.
What Are the Safety Requirements for the Window Well?
The “well” is a half-circle of weather-proof material that performs two functions. First, it holds back the ground to keep the exit path clear. Second, the window well includes stairs or a ladder to aid anyone who is trying to exit through the egress window. This is important because once you step through the window, your next goal is to get away from the house.
But since your egress window is below ground, you are also below ground. You need a fast, easy, and accessible way to climb up to the yard. This means the window well has to include either stairs or a ladder.
The window well is part of the egress window’s overall function as a safety exit, so there are ICC guidelines that apply to it, also. The well must be at least 5’4” across, and the climbing aids cannot intrude more than 6 inches into the well.
In layman’s terms? The ladder rungs or step risers (risers are what you put your feet on) can’t be more than 5 inches deep. If they are, they take up room in the window well that you might otherwise use for a person. The rungs or risers also need to be at least 12 inches wide, to allow you to have enough “grip” for your hands/feet.
This is a picture of an Acculevel window well from the egress window. You can see the steps are indented along the front.
As for the well’s overall width? If the inside of it is 5’4” across, that makes the outside measurement almost 7 feet wide. This makes an egress window well both deep and wide, so we recommend that you keep it covered.
The only ICC regulation on window well covers is their closing method. The cover on top cannot be locked or require the use of any tools to remove. The window can be locked, to protect your home from intruders. But the outside cover on the well must be easy to remove, so that it doesn’t inhibit someone from escaping in an emergency. Acculevel’s standard cover uses an industrial strength velcro; it’s not so strong it can’t be moved by a small child, but it’s enough to keep the cover in place on windy days.
There are two reasons that we strongly recommend a cover. First, it’s an easy way to keep children and pets from falling into it and hurting themselves. (Our standard cover can withstand weight up to 250 lbs.) Secondly, a solid cover will keep out rain, leaves, and other debris.
Chapter 6: Potential Issues with Basement Egress Windows
So far, we’ve been providing all of the positive aspects of an egress window. But we also should review the potential drawbacks, so that you have all the information you need to make a decision.
There is only one significant problem with a basement egress window, and that is water intrusion. This problem can be avoided, if the right steps are taken. Some of this is the contractor’s responsibility, but there are some things you can do yourself.
4 Things A Professional Should Do When Installing an Egress Window
When the egress window and well are installed, the following should be done:
- Place ten inches of pea gravel at the bottom of the well, to filter and drain any water that intrudes.
- Seal the sides to prevent water intrusion.
- Install a solid cover to deter rain, leaves, and other typical debris.
- Install the window well slightly above (never below!) grade. You should be able to see a slight lip of the well above the ground. This helps keep water from reaching the well or draining into it.
3 Things A Homeowner Should Do To Keep Your Foundation Dry
You don’t want water to collect around your foundation. Water is damaging in many ways; water can erode soil and cause your foundation to settle, it can press against the basement and crack the walls, and of course, it can leak in and make a tremendously irritating mess.
There are three relatively easy ways you can protect your foundation from the outside.
- Clean and inspect your guttering twice a year. Any damaged pieces should be repaired or replaced, and all debris and blockages should be removed.
- Your downspouts should also be checked and maintenanced twice a year. We recommend that downspouts drain at least 10 feet from your home. If they don’t, you need downspout extensions.
- Evaluate the slope or grading of your property. Find a spot in the yard where you can stand and observe the ground around your home. It shouldn’t be level — it should slope gently down and away from your foundation.
Chapter 7: What Does a Basement Egress Window Cost?
Pricing for installing an egress window is somewhat complicated, because there are a variety of contributing factors. Essentially, the costs for an egress window range from $8,00 – $9,700. (This pricing includes both materials and labor.)
Factors That Affect Egress Window Pricing
There are three major factors that can alter your egress window installation.
Excavation method is the first question we have to answer. Remember, the well is approximately 7 feet along the outside. That requires a very large hole next to your foundation. Obviously, a contractor would rather use a machine for excavation; it takes less time and labor, so it’s less expensive.
But if your garage, porch, or other structure is too close to the foundation, that may not be an option. You don’t want to use an excavator in an area where it can damage your home!
This photo was taken by an Acculevel team member during excavation.
Window size and type is the second option. Most contractors (Acculevel included) have a standard window that they use for egress. If you have a preference for a specific style, or want one with special coating or insulation, that can be special-ordered. But that’s going to be a more expensive option than what the contractor has in stock.
Foundation material is the third major question. In most cases, you’re installing an egress window in place of a preexisting smaller window. This means you only need to expand the existing opening to fit the egress window. (If there is no window in the basement, or in the area where you want the window, cutting an entirely new opening will also require additional labor.)
Poured concrete is a harder material to cut. If your foundation is built out of concrete blocks, we can usually cut along the mortar lines to reach the needed height. Poured concrete doesn’t have that advantage, so it’s more difficult to cut. More difficult installations take more labor and time, so they cost more.
You can learn more in this article, which thoroughly breaks down expenses and the variables.
Chapter 8: Additional Resources
If you have additional questions about egress windows and their installation, read this article for an overview of our process. We photo-documented each stage of the repair, so we could walk you through the entire process with detailed explanations.
In Chapter 6, we gave you ways to prevent water from collecting around your foundation. This checklist is part of a larger document we developed for homeowners. You can follow our DIY home inspection checklist to conduct your own review of your home. We suggest doing this twice a year, so that any potential problems can be detected and addressed in a timely manner.
You can learn more about Acculevel, egress windows, and all of the other foundation repair services we offer on our YouTube Channel: Foundation Repair and Waterproofing.
Are You Ready to Install an Egress Window in Your Basement?
Do you live in Indiana, or in the surrounding areas? If so, call Acculevel! We are a family-owned and operated company that has been helping homeowners since our start in 1996. We specialize in foundation repair, waterproofing, and concrete leveling.
When you contact us, we’ll schedule an appointment for an in-home estimate. An experienced and knowledgeable project advisor will meet with you, discuss your concerns, and evaluate your home to provide the best possible solution for you.
If you don’t live in Acculevel’s service area, you’ll need to find a quality contractor in your area. We recommend that you always verify the company is insured and accredited by the Better Business Bureau. A good contractor will behave professionally, treat you with respect, and provide a free written estimate that clearly and specifically details the costs.