With a growing interest in the short-term rental of single family residences, we have seen an uptick in inquiries from people who want to make improvements to put their second home on the short term rental market. Thoughts naturally turn to life safety issues. Are there ways to reduce the risk of injury by putting in place life safety features? Yes, of course.
Life safety theory for buildings is partly based on user familiarity with the building. A person who lives in a house knows the house: they could navigate the stairs with their eyes closed. A person who is new to the house does not have these habits formed. It makes sense to provide an increased level of protection for renters, or what codes sometimes refer as transients, than it does for inhabitants. In effect, one should think of their short-term rental dwelling more like a hotel than a single family dwelling. The caveat here is that most hotels are much larger than single family dwellings. The distance from a bedroom to the exterior is generally pretty short. Therefore, life safety features for a short term rental do not necessarily have to be as onerous as for a hotel. I would argue the rules governing commercial bed and breakfast design should apply to short term rentals.
Egress, or the way to get out of a building, is a good place to start. Bedrooms in a single family dwelling require a primary means of egress- the bedroom door- and an emergency egress, usually a window. These windows must be large enough to pass through, and there are formulas for determining compliance. In an hotel, a bedroom needs an actual door directly to the outside, or the building has to have an automatic sprinkler system. This is probably the first major decision an owner needs to contemplate when putting a home on the short-term rental market: should I sprinkle my dwelling? To me, the code required answer is yes. They are required for the typical bed and breakfast. Short term rentals are no different.
Continuing with egress, occupied spaces on a second floor need to have a code-compliant way to get to exits at the ground floor, or level of exit discharge. Replacing a steep stair could get very expensive, and may not even be technically feasible: there may simply be too little room. Many residences do not have complying landings: a landing at the top and bottom of a stair needs to be at the level of the door threshold leading from the landing. Many landings are one riser lower than the door threshold. In a situation like this, one could conclude the house is simply not rentable. Moving on, secure handrails of the proper geometry are easier to implement.
Returning to the issue of familiarity with the building, illuminated emergency exit signs are designed to make it easy to move in the right direction toward an exit. Someone leaving their own bedroom knows whether to turn left or right down a hall. A groggy stranger may not know.
Building code developers have shown an increased awareness of floor material slip resistance. Residential flooring products are not often tested for slip resistance. A renovation that includes flooring replacement should use commercial products that are.
Door widths can also be an expensive issue. Doors in commercial buildings are 36 inches wide to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and life safety requirements. Single family dwellings are often much narrower than 36 inches. Making these doors wider could be difficult.
Apartments, hotels and other commercial buildings require protected storage and hazards. In other words, the hazard associated with storage closets, boiler rooms, and laundry rooms needs to be contained. This is done either with sprinklers or some type of rated construction. Typical gypsum board walls and ceilings will usually suffice. The rated door is usually the lacking component.
Short term rentals should have fire detection, alarm and signaling systems: smoke detectors, including detection in ventilation ducts; and a dialer to the outside.
Exit route signs may be another good idea in a short term rental, particularly if the dwelling is large, and it would not be obvious how to get from a bedroom to the exit door.
Should fire extinguishers be installed? This is a good question. Fire extinguishers are used by people who decide to put out a fire, instead of run to safety from the fire. The code is actually interested in whole classes of people choosing to run from a fire, at the risk of the building burning down. In other words, leave fire-fighting activities to the professionals.
Finally, there are maintenance and upkeep items to think about. Appliances should be in working order. Fireplaces should be code compliant and in working order, with instructions for use. Kitchen hood exhausts should be cleaned of grease.
The decision to rent one’s home on the short-term rental market should come with some thought about the life safety of the renter. Some homes will achieve acceptable levels of safety, others will be a challenge.