Dear PoP – garage building help

Photo by PoPville flickr user ewilfong

“Dear PoP,

I recently purchased a row house in the city. One of the contributing deciders in buying this house was the ability to build a garage. Many of our neighbors have them, or some sort of car port/concrete pad in their back yard. However, I’ve been doing the research to obtain a building permit and hire subcontractors to build. What I’ve learned is distressing : multiple zoning requirements (some of them conflicting) make the maximum size of the garage that I’m allowed to build about the size of a doghouse.

OK- so maybe some of my neighbors didn’t have permits, or their garages were built prior to some of the more constrictive zoning laws and while I thought I did my homework correctly prior to the purchase, I was reading info for the wrong zone.

How have others in the area addressed this? Do they build without permit (if so, how risky is it? Are we talking a fine, or a tear-down?) Do they obtain a permit for a tool shed then build the garage they want? Do they submit a plan for a full size garage and cross their fingers that nobody will whip out a calculator at the permit office and say “nope, plan will make your lot coverage 62%…your max is 60%.” While their zoning laws are really hard ass, do the people reviewing the plans even care?”

Anyone have a similar problem? Anyway around it?

47 Comment

  • Built your garage and dont get permits. We did just that and it took three days to construct and have never heard a word about it.

    • Yeah, what happens when you sell and the city finds there’s a new structure on the premises constructed without a permit? Good luck selling and settling with the City!

      • It happens all the time. Most buyers don’t even look at the permits and the city never checks either.

        If you want it, build it. Unless a neighbor drops a dime, and you get a stop work order, no one will notice.

        • ahem, I know two incidents where the neighbors and ANC dropped a dime. Talk to your neighbors. I mean, I had a good friend who had to tear down.

          my advice is to give up the garage, the city does not want more of them behind houses and use zoning to stop them.

  • From what i understand its VERY hard. Thats why most people just put a concrete pad and garage door. I suppose you could propose novel solutions like a green roof or something (one of the reasons for the limited lot coverage is stormwater issues) but I dont really think the dc permit office is open to any sort of flexibility.

  • yeah, I looked into this as well. You don’t get a garage permit unless you can prove there was a garage on the premises in years past. If you have a big yard, you most likely had one at one point.

    If you are allowed to build, the code is very restrictive. You have to have a foundation footer below frost line (about 4 feet), buried electrical and gutters that feed into your main sewer line (not just running off into the alley). 4 estimates for my simple 1 car garage averaged $30K.

    • ah

      Gutters feeding into the sewer? Pretty sure that’s against all codes these days.

      • Nope. It’s required. The city requires it now that DCWASA has invested hundreds of millions to eliminate storm water runoff. Storm water and sewer will get treated at the same facility.

        • Gutters do go into sewer, but that’s different than your home “sanitary sewer”, which DC is in the process of separating.

        • ah

          I have a fair degree of confidence that this is either wrong or we are talking about different things.

          I am talking about the connection of roof gutters/downspouts directly into the house’s sanitary sewer line. DC has tried to reduce those connections in order to reduce the amount of stormwater that directly enters the sewer system, in order to reduce the burdens on the sewer system during heavy rainfalls. I don’t think new connections are allowed, although old nes are grandfathered. WASA’s project is designed to accommodate higher rainfall in various ways (separate systems, storage tanks) but limiting the amount of water that goes in is the best way.

          Disconnecting downspouts and allowing them to drain onto permeable surfaces is far superior because it then soaks into the groundwater.

          Now, can one have downspouts going directly into an alley or a street, where the water simply runs into one of the storm sewers, which connects to the sanitary sewer system in many parts of the city? I don’t know. I suspect it is discouraged.

    • *typ footers in this area are 2’6″ deep, not 4’0″.

  • Where on God’s green earth, and why, did they come up with these ridiculous restrictions? I swear, there is no other city in the United States with such insanely bureaucratic and burdensome regulations on damn near everything, usually for no apparent reason.

    • You want a building that is constructed properly. Not something that will fall apart and potential become a safety hazard.

      • Well, that’s one thing, but some of the District’s requirements are something else altogether.

      • You can absolutely build to, or above, code WITHOUT a permit. A permit should guarantee that it’s to code, but you can build something correctly without the morons downtown getting involved.

        I spend 2 hours debating with the inspector guy how many rails should be on my 6′ privacy fence. Total waste of time.

    • You ever heard of the Ppeople’s Republic of Arlington?

  • Washington DC, the city that says NO.

  • ah

    BTW, what are the zoning issues you’re confronting?

    Lot coverage?
    Floor-area ratio?

  • ah

    If everyone else has a garage on the block, how about a variance?

  • If you do end up building a garage without a permit, make sure it’s not so nice/attractive that a blogger takes a picture and it ends up online. As we found out here a month or so back, DCRA monitors this and other sites for potentially illegal construction.

  • Don’t variances have to go through ANC review? If so, you might as well give up cause you know there’s always one person who will object. I recommend bribing everyone within 2 blocks not to object.

    • ah

      Yes, but are all these people with garages going to show up and object to a similar garage?

      I have as little faith in ANCs as you, but even this seems like a stretch for them to object to.

      • oh, Ah, that exact thing happened to a friend of mine. They added onto an existing garage they had but their neighbors who had an elaborate deck that was 25 years old and predated certain code, called DCRA and got their work torn down and basically said, “You don’t like us? sell your house.” of course people would do this if you mess with their view.

  • we’ve got one, a full-size bigass garage with proper roof & walls & such. It’s also quite old. I understood that it predates whatever idiotic regulation is on the books now, so this might explain some of what’s on yr.street. Some of our neighbors went with a roofless frame with garage door, which seems a little wacky but I think it’s all you can do without busting open the seals of the apocalypse. .. it does seem a bit much for a neighborhood that doesn’t have historical structure status/protection/etc.

  • Your posts always crack me up, IA. Thanks for the laugh!

  • When we investigated this a couple of years ago, a contractor explained that zoning codes have primarily to do with the amount of open space required on each lot (to prevent development so dense it’s unhealthy). I can’t remember exactly what the number is, but it’s something like no more than 60% of your lot can have a structure on it–with structure being defined as anything with four walls and a roof. A secondary factor is proximity to the alley. There needs to be a certain amount of setback to guarantee that a trash truck won’t smash into your structure. Most rowhouse garages were built before the mid 50s, when this became code. If zoning officials find you’ve illegally built something more recent, they can tear it down no matter how much you spent to on it. So yeah, you want to keep it a secret.

    But it doesn’t seem worth the risk. Even if you find a contractor willing to do the work without proper permits, you’re risking the loss of a lot of money.

  • yeah, garages are a major PIA in DC. If there’s anything you could possibly call a “pre-existing garage” then get a repair permit and go for it. Otherwise, you just need to go slow to avoid detection. pour the pad and start parking on it. Later add a gate / door. Then start putting up the walls and finally the roof. Hope no one notices over time.

  • when we built a deck, we got a “replace in kind” permit or whatever it’s called. Our existing deck was 4 stairs and a 3′ x 3′ landing. Our new deck is 17′ x 20 ‘ and has a roof. Our contractor used a third party inspector, and paid the guy an extra few hundred bucks to not notice that it was a little bigger than the earlier “deck”.

  • Thanks for the input. The direct issues I’m having is with the set-back. One code says 12′ from center of the ally (which I’m totally cool with) but another code says that all structures MUST HAVE a 20′ set back…which renders that 12’totally moot. It would also put my garage right smack in the middle of the back yard, combining that with the mandatory rear yard allowance for the house and the 60% coverage, I end up with a chicken coop. That I’m probably not allowed to put chickens in.
    In keeping with the rest of the neighborhood, we’d like it at the back of the lot, by the ally where it belongs.
    I’d like to seek relief from that particular rule-which if they’re as inflexible as I think, is a waste of my time.

    • ah

      Look at 11 DCMR 2300, which covers garages. Garages can be located within the required rear yard. That additional setback is not applicable to garages through the operation of 2300, or should not be. That is, the zoning regs require a “rear yard” of 20 feet from the house, but allow a garage to be built within that rear yard (per 2300), so long as it is 12 feet from the center line of the alley. So if you’re getting push on that definitely push back. Our garage, which we recently built, is in the rear yard (R-1, so 25 feet) and that was no issue at all. In addition, they can be right up to the lot line.

      As for the lot coverage, the location shouldn’t matter–whatever s.f., you can cover 60% of it. It’s the full lot, not 60% of what’s left once you provide for a rear yard.

      Now, I’m not a zoning lawyer. But I did stay at a Holiday Inn last night.

        2300 is the code that I’m 100% in compliance with…it’s 404.1 on rear yards that was causing me to scratch my head- I couldn’t figure out if a garage would be exepmt from that…which, we’re in agreement: it should. Found out I can request (under 407) some minor flexability in the lot coverage (by 2%).
        So, my garage is never going to be as big as I want it (I’d take over the whole yard if I could)but at least I can likely build something I’ll be happy with on the up and up.
        Now…who’s got a good builder 😉 ?

        • ah

          If you request minor flexibility, definitely point out the other garages so that you can show it “does not impair the purposes of the regulations”–i.e. strict application isn’t needed to maintain neighborhood character or something.

        • out of curiosity, how far back does 12′ from the center of the alley put your new garage compared with your neighbors?

  • Lot Occupancy is different depending on the zone in which you are located. For instance, if you are in an R4 zone the building footprint can cover 60% of your lot. There are a few exceptions that allow accessory buildings in the rear yard setback. If not allowed in your specific case, and the structure can only fit in the rear yard, you could probably legally construct an enclosure with walls and define it as a fence, but without a roof. In some instances there is a grade change between the alley and the owner’s lot, if this is the case, you could try to take advantage of the rule allowing structures under 4 feet tall to occupy setbacks and not count towards lot occupancy. Just a few design avenues you could explore.

  • Between the people that broke into and robbed my home, and the DCRA folks. I prefer the people that broke into and robbed my home. They took less money and hardly wasted any of my time.

    Build that garage without the permit. In my experience restoring a shaw townhome that was ready to fall down the DCRA and the Homeowner’s Center not only were not helpful in any way, they delayed me 6 months and cost me an extra 30k for no meaningful reason.

    They are also about 10 years behind the times on modern building materials and technology. If they don’t understand it, they’ll deny it, and they make no effort whatsover to educate themselves.

    • as an aside, the DCPS teachers are the same way- 10-20 years behind the times and rejectful of anything they don’t understand because all-parent-in-dc-are-drug-dealers. I’ve never met a group of black people who hate black people more.

  • No question that permitting process can be painful and expensive but not worth risking the fine and headaches that can come with NOT permitting. Even more painful. When you sell your property the buyer’s lender may look into whether everything was built to code and with proper permits. It’s the cost of doing business in DC that you need to grovel with DCRA – get a good expediter who knows how to get the permitting done quickly. They should do a zoning analysis for you also.

  • What about if you have an existing concrete driveway and want to put a roof over it? Does that require a permit also?

    • Yes, I would assume so as that would be considered a car port. Car ports also count against your lot occupancy.

  • Stumbled across this very interesting post and had a related question to ask. The house where we live has an existing two car garage that was built without permits and has to be torn down, since the lady who built it fought and lost all her legal battles with Zoning and litigious neighbors who have since then died. Now, before the lady built the two car garage, there used to be a one car garage that predates all the zoning regulations of DC. One of these regulations says that the alley leading to the garage – which is a shared driveway between us and three other houses, ours being the last – should be 12″ feet wide in order to have a garage, but I think the alley is a little narrower, something like 10 feet. Do I need to go to zoning for something like this if I tear down the illegal garage (something that they will be happy to let me do) and want to build a new one? Has anyone had any experience? Other than the alley thing, there are no zoning issues there we are facing. The garage would be sitting in our back yard.

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