When Jeff and Leeann Ratnow bought their rehabbed Riverside Park rowhouse in 1998, they were delighted by the clear view of the Inner Harbor from its roof decks.
What the Ratnows couldn't see was the shoddy workmanship and faulty deck design that had damaged the roof, troubling the Ratnows with leaks for five years.
To reconstruct the decks and roof and twice rebuild their water-damaged living room cost them $25,000, a figure that doesn't include the thousands paid by their insurance company for mold abatement.
"The moral of the story is, get a good deck builder and a good roofer," said Jeff Ratnow.
Since at least 2000, rooftop deck permit applicants in Baltimore have been required to submit drawings signed by an engineer or architect licensed in Maryland "to assure the deck is structurally sound," said Michael Braverman, deputy commissioner for code enforcement for Baltimore Housing, a city agency.
The city inspects projects with permits during construction and for a final sign-off to ensure they are constructed according to code, Braverman said.
Some rooftop decks have never been inspected because they were built illegally.
"There are plenty of folks and builders out there who are building without permits," Braverman said.
The city has cracked down on illegal rooftop decks by analyzing aerial photographs taken in 2003 against permit data, said Braverman. Last year, letters were sent to 201 such homeowners without permits for their decks. Twenty-four of the cases have been referred for possible litigation.
The recipients were offered amnesty if they applied for the necessary permits. However, if a deck was built without a permit before a homeowner bought the home, the homeowner isn't required to obtain a permit unless obvious code violations exist, Braverman said.
The city may begin another round of aerial scrutiny for illegal rooftop decks next year, Braverman said. Even if a roof deck's plans are approved, its use might not comply with the code.
For instance, some builders and homeowners are installing bathrooms and wet bars in structures known as "doghouses" that shelter stairs from inside the house leading to a rooftop deck. Doghouses resemble minihouses on top of a deck.
But any amenity within a doghouse that provides more than roof access isn't legal, unless a variance is obtained, said Braverman. "A doghouse is not supposed to be habitable space. It's not a fourth floor," he said.
Baltimore Housing limits the size of doghouses to 25 percent of the house's roof area. This year, the city's Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals put a tighter additional restriction on doghouses in roof deck cases it reviews: The structures must not exceed 75 total square feet.
- Lynn Marie Honeywill