Written by Bill Waltenbaugh, as originally published in The Reverse Review.

What does FHA require with regard to smoke alarms in owner-occupied homes?

Should there be one in each bedroom or should there be one in the hallway just outside of each of the bedrooms? Is one required to also be in the kitchen? Does it matter where the home is? If so, please assume the question applies to a home located in California.

Let me start by saying, despite rules and regulations, smoke alarms are one of the best safety devices you can buy and install to protect yourself, your family and your home. Think about it; smoke alarms are the most affordable insurance policy you can buy. In the event of a fire, they provide an early warning signal that can save your life and the lives of your loved ones.

With few exceptions, although FHA strongly recommends them, smoke detectors are not a HUD requirement. One exception is residential structures being rehabbed under HUD’s 203(k) program. To be eligible for this program, at least one smoke detector must be installed adjacent to each sleeping area. Although local codes may require the installation of smoke alarms, enforcement of such housing standards rests with the local authority. HUD does not have the authority or the responsibility to enforce local housing codes.

Despite HUD’s requirements, it’s a good idea to have an understanding of your local and state codes regarding smoke alarms. Requirements regarding type, location and amount can vary from state to state and even town to town. To research local rules or ordinances in your area, try contacting the local department of building and safety.

Most ordinances require or recommend that smoke alarms be located on each level and adjacent to each bedroom. Surprisingly, many regulations discourage the use of smoke alarms near kitchens or bathrooms unless the alarm is the photoelectric type. That’s because smoke from cooking or steam from the bathrooms can cause false alarms. Photoelectric alarms work better in these areas because they work much like the safety light beam used on most modern garage door openers. They are less likely to cause false alarms because the smoke or steam has to be thick enough to block a beam of light.

As for California state law, the California Health and Safety Code Section 13113.7 requires smoke detectors be installed in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions in each dwelling intended for human occupancy. The specific requirements vary depending on the type of property, the number of units and the number of stories of the property. Again, each municipality has the opportunity to create more stringent requirements so be sure to contact the local department of building and safety to better understand the requirements for your own area. In addition, when selling a residential property in California, most sellers are required to provide the buyer with a written statement indicating the property is in conformance with the state law governing smoke detectors.

An ancient proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is today.” If you haven’t installed smoke detectors in your house yet, consider yourself lucky that you haven’t had the need for one and start installing some today.