Moving from their central Pennsylvania home and its half-acre lawn to Baltimore, Ray and Jennifer Inman chose a Federal Hill rowhouse with a deck on its third-floor roof.
"We wouldn't have bought a house without a rooftop deck," said Ray Inman, 35, a sales executive. He and wife, Jennifer, 34, a physical therapist and gardener who is six months' pregnant, bought their house in late 2001.
"It's the only sense of a yard we can have living in the city, and we love it," Ray Inman said of his two-story wood deck. "We have flowers everyplace, but I don't have to mow the lawn."
With growing demand from homebuyers like the Inmans, roof decks are colonizing the city's skyline in neighborhoods such as Federal Hill, South Baltimore, Canton and Fells Point as builders rapidly rehab aged flat-topped rowhouses to take advantage of the real estate boom.
The cost of building a roof deck typically runs from about $10,000 to $20,000 depending on size and amenities, such as being wired for electricity and cable TV or a water hookup. The price of luxury decks may run as high as $50,000.
Over the past five years the city has issued well over 1,500 permits for rooftop decks. And the number is growing - in the fiscal year that ended June 30, Baltimoreans obtained 401 permits to build rooftop decks, more than three times the number issued five years earlier. A decade ago the city issued just five.
Baltimore real estate agents and property sellers agree that rooftop decks are in big demand.
"Most of them want the rooftop deck," said Steve Zaleskiwicz, owner of Two Street Enterprises, a city rehabber and seller. "Some people, when they come and look at a house, the first thing they want to know is: 'Does it have a [rooftop] deck?'"
"It definitely makes the house sell quicker and sell for more money than those who don't have them," said Joe Craig, a Realtor with Long & Foster Real Estate Inc.'s Federal Hill office.
Realtors and home sellers estimate that a rooftop deck can boost a city home's selling price by an average $10,000 to $20,000 and sometimes more, depending on a deck's size and any luxury amenities - and its view.
Rooftop deck views can range from sweeping vistas of the Inner Harbor to, "you're looking at the backside of Interstate 95 watching cars drive by," Craig said.
The Inmans and other Baltimore residents say a rooftop deck's view of the cityscape offers a unique sense of the urban environment.
"They're what distinguishes downtown living from suburban living. That you can get on your roof and see the views of the water, the city skyline," said Rob Schweitzer, a Riverside Park resident. Schweitzer doesn't have a deck, but on the Fourth of July he's on his nearby cousin's to watch the fireworks.
Indeed, the Fourth and New Year's Eve have become unofficial roof-deck festivals - communal celebrations in the sky.
"All the decks are packed with people. Everyone's having a party," said Kirsten Sandberg Caffrey, 32, a Federal Hill homeowner and financial adviser. "That's when it's popular to have a roof deck. Everyone wants to come to your home for the Fourth of July."
"When you have a roof deck, you are required to have a New Year's Eve party and a Fourth of July party so people can see the fireworks," South Baltimore homeowner Marie Sennett said with a laugh.
While popular with many homeowners, the decks, especially as they proliferate, are not welcomed by everyone.
"They're an eyesore," said Keith Losoya, president of Federal Hill Neighborhood Association. "In general, we frown on rooftop decks. ... The rooftop decks obscure the historic streetscape."
Baltimore requires an 8-foot setback from the front building wall for roof-top decks on rowhomes. Applications for roof-top decks in areas within the Federal Hill and Fells Point urban renewal districts and Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) historic districts must undergo additional screening before the city will grant building permits.
"You're not supposed to be able to see the roof deck from the street, that's the guiding principle," said Ellen von Karajan, executive director of The Preservation Society, whose design and review committee must review deck plans in the Federal Hill and Fells Point urban renewal districts before the city will issue permits.
Losoya is particularly critical of the classic "big wooded" decks, which are built raised over the tops of roofs. Often such decks are reached by stairs from a lower deck accessed from a second or third floor.
"In 20 years, wood roof decks will be to Federal Hill what Formstone is today," Losoya said. He prefers - as less noticeable - roof decks made from synthetic materials. Sold under trade names such as DecTec and Duradek, these synthetic materials are similar to roofing, and decks made with these materials are often built to mesh with a newly laid roof.
As more roof decks are erected, neighbor relationships sometimes suffer when a new one blocks neighbors' views from their roof decks.
For instance, in south Federal Hill, which has a roofscape thick with decks, one former Battery Avenue homeowner built a large deck bordered by a solid 6-foot wall.
"Everybody who had a roof deck on that side of the block no longer has a view of the city skyline," Caffrey said.
"The first thing you want to do is talk to your neighbors" before building a roof deck, then tell your neighborhood association, said Caffrey, a former three-year president of the Federal Hill South Neighborhood Association who now serves on its board of directors.
Some decks are being built with stair access from inside the house, and the entrance to the roof is sheltered in a houselike structure commonly known as a "doghouse" or "pop-up," which can obstruct neighbors' views.
"If someone is going to build a pop-up, we want it to be as small as possible," Caffrey said. Still, the association's stance is that homeowners don't own the view from their roof decks, Caffrey said.
"If having a roof deck gives people more outdoor living space and encourages them to live here longer, we want to encourage that," Caffrey said.
Although rooftop decks can sometimes spark discord, they've also introduced a whole new platform for socializing, a neighborhood in the air.
"There's a whole subculture. When people get on their decks they wave to each other," said Sennett, 43, an attorney who is married to Jim Salvucci, 40, a Villa Julie College professor.
From their lower-level deck, which has stairs leading to their rooftop deck, Jeff and Leeann Ratnow of Riverside Park chat with a next-door neighbor down on her patio and with neighbors who come into the alley behind their house.
"It's like the reverse of old Baltimore stoop-sitting and socializing," said Jeff Ratnow, 33, a civil engineer.
Zaleskiwicz, who owns a newly rehabbed South Baltimore rowhouse with three connected decks, said his next-door neighbors sometimes climb over the railings from their adjacent rooftop deck to his.
"It saves them a trip, having to go all the way downstairs to come in the front door," said Zaleskiwicz, 66. The bearing walls meeting between their decks eliminate any danger of falling between the railings. Still, such an undertaking appears daring on two rooftop decks surrounded with a bird's-eye view of the Baltimore skyline, a panorama that encompasses the giant Domino Sugars sign, the World Trade Center and the baseball and football stadiums.
Roof decks' cityscape views confer a distinct ambience not available from balconies or patios, their owners say.
For Canton resident Ken Boesen, a roof deck's prime time is the night, when city lights sparkle across the horizon like jewels on black velvet.
"It's a pretty town from up here," said Boesen, 40, radio station WPOC-FM's program director. "Frankly, it looks better at night. At night, you don't see so many wires and chimneys."
Boesen often climbs the 53 steps to his rooftop deck in the cool of the evening to enjoy a beer or glass of wine.
"It's a pretty good place to forget the day," said Boesen, who moved into his Canton home less than a year ago after relocating from Portland, Ore. His deck, covered with a synthetic material that looks like stucco or masonry, is rimmed with a wall of the same material. Like the rest of his house, Boesen's deck is wired with an intercom system that plays the radio or CDs. From his deck he can push a button to grant entry into his house through the street-level front door.
Ray Inman's deck offers such a clear view of M&T; Bank Stadium that he can see part of the field. Sometimes on game days Inman bundles up and climbs to the top deck with binoculars, a drink and a cigar.
Jeff Ratnow is fond of going to his rooftop deck to watch thunderclouds pierced with lightning roll in toward the Inner Harbor. The couple also can hear music floating from the Pier 6 Concert Pavilion.
"I really have to like the music to go buy tickets," joked Leeann Ratnow, 34, a massage therapist who some mornings ascends her rooftop deck to see if Interstate 95 is backed up.
Mornings also find Sennett on her deck, where she likes to drink her coffee and "look down on the city and pretend I own it."