Dear PoP – Deck Options

by Prince Of Petworth February 23, 2010 at 2:30 pm 18 Comments

Deck Duck?
Photo by PoPville flickr user Tyrannous.

“Dear PoP,

I’m in the market to expand the landing/deck on the rear of my Petworth rowhouse to a more useful space. The landing currently goes about half the width of the house with stairs to ground level (basically, it provides access to a the main level of the house from the rear – this seems to be quite common in the neighborhood). I’d like to expand it to the full width of the house and bump it out to the maximum allowed depth.

The quandry I’m in is as follows: Can I use the gray area of the “postcard” permit which states that you can perform:
“Repairs of one of the following items: Front porch and steps in a single family dwelling” (http://dcra.dc.gov/dcra/cwp/view,a,1343,q,634854.asp#1)

Or do I have to go with the full-blown permitting route of getting a CAD drawing signed off by a DC-licensed architect, waiting for the DCRA approval process, etc?

If I go with the former (much less cumbersome and expensive route), is the only risk a $2000 penalty from DCRA? http://dcra.dc.gov/dcra/frames.asp?doc=/dcra/lib/dcra/information/publications/residents_guide_to_illegal_construction.pdf

Given the fact that the drawings and permit will cost about $1200 through a contractor, it seems a calculated risk worth taking. What have people in the neighborhood done before?”

We discussed roof decks here but does anyone have any experience with a regular deck?

  • ah

    1) How is an expansion a ‘repair”?
    2) That said, hanging any permit in your front window is better than having none at all to (a) put off neighbors and (b) possibly get the inspector to keep moving on.
    3) *That* said, do you have neighbors who are likely to rat you out?
    4) And, in the end, do you really want a deck that’s built on the cheap without some assurance that it’s been built to code and won’t collapse? DCRA requires permits for a bunch of things it shouldn’t but decks seem like something you’re probably better off getting a permit for.

  • ET

    Do not underestimate trouble-making neighbors. There are some neighbors (and include those over a block or two) who have nothing better to do then call on people and mess with their lives.

    And in the case of permitting it is not necessarily better to ask for forgiveness than permission. Have you though of going down to the DCRA and having an actual conversation? The written stuff on their website is not always helpful.

    • saf

      “Have you though of going down to the DCRA and having an actual conversation?”

      Don’t do that until you are certain you need a permit. They will ALWAYS tell you that you need a full permit to cover their asses. And once you inquire, inspectors WILL come by.

  • Ragged Dog

    Why would you trust a contractor do build a structurally sound deck when you don’t even know if it’s been designed correctly? $150 will get you a contractor license in this city and there’s no requirement for competency. Too many people die from crappy porches. Only if I got denied a permit because of some historic district issue would I consider skimping on the permit. Even then, I’d still get a structural engineer (not an architect) to review my plans.

    I would shop around the deck drawings rather than screw around with the permit. You’re getting the “I don’t want to sit in a permit office all day” price from your contractor. If you can’t teach yourself how to draw a deck on a piece of graphing paper and sit in the permit office for 2-3 hours, you probably deserve to pay the $1200. DCRA has a homeowner help center that expedites and advises people like you.

  • cookietime420

    I rebuilt a deck (and the roof underneath) without getting a permit but I hired a friend that I knew was top-notch. My deck, and the decks around me that I had to augment, are now much more structurally sound than they were before the work was done. I got lucky since none of my neighbors ratted me out.

  • Erik

    I don’t know about others experiences, I’ve found the DCRA homeowner help center very responsive. I’ve walked in with several questions about building, zoning, and permits about two years ago before buying my house so I knew what I was getting into. They helped me answer my questions and made sure I knew what the processes were required for what I wanted to do.

  • T.n

    I only can recommend some deck ducks

  • dcdc

    If you expand your deck without a permit and get caught, it is not just a $2000 fine. You have to go back and submit plans and get a permit anyway. This is true even if the work is already completed. In the case of work which is completed and is not in compliance with either zoning or building codes, you will be required to remove it.

    • Eric in Ledroiit

      realistically i wonder how often this is really enforced given the endless variety of monstrosities and code violations you see in this city. can anyone vouch for actually having knowledge of something that the city successfully required to be removed?

  • anon

    We built our deck with a postcard permit. We were replacing an old, dangerous deck. I felt I could argue that the work fit within the confines of the postcard permit. (I’m a regulatory lawyer and thought I could make a decent argument, although I would not advise a client to do what I did.) I put the permit up in the window and the deck went up very quickly; I took the permit down as soon as the deck was completed. I actually think the risk is pretty small of getting nabbed unless you’ve got a neighbor who’s out to get you and/or the project isn’t a quick one.

  • 4nature

    I heard a rumor last year (I don’t remember where, but I want to say an article quoting a DC employee) that DC may start using aerial photography to find out work done without a permit – in other words, decks and additions. I would get the permit.

    I couldn’t find that article, but here’s another example http://www.thenewstribune.com/2010/02/05/1057531/aerial-photos-help-spy-permit.html.

  • The scope of the work that you are suggesting requires knowledge of structural engineering and continuous loads. So this isn’t a job for just any contractor. If you get caught, it is more than a fine, it’s also a stop work order, which usually requires an appearance at an administrative hearing. Deck collapses are more common than people realize and it’s usually due to poor construction.

  • V. A. MacAlister

    I killed a bunch of people with a deck collapse during a Mt.Pleasant group-house party in my thriller “The Mosquito War” (Tor 2004) (Most actually just got crushed, but couldn’t have surgery because there was no blood available due to Malaria epidemic in DC.)

  • Anonymous

    if you have a competent contractor and build to code without a permit, your deck wont collapse, no one will die and if you got caught, it would be to code and you’d be fine. i threw up my deck over a long weekend with an old permit on the window and now i’m enjoying mai tai’s on those nice summer evenings.

  • dcba

    i’m curious about this too.

    i want to replace my old rotting wood deck, make it a little bit bigger, but i want it done in steel and concrete.

    it seems daunting to even begin this process in dc.

  • Ragged Dog

    There will likely be no inspector who comes out to your house. DCRA is understaffed for inspectors. You’ll probably get away with it. However….

    Why not get a structural engineer to take a look at your design. A structural engineer is only $150/hr. So you’re going to spend $300-450? It’s chump change for home repair. Any contractor that is encouraging you to go around the permitting process for something as simple as a deck permit is probably incompetent.

    It’s not that the deck is going to fall down this year or next. It’s 10 years from now and 3 owners later there is going to be someone wanting to have a deck party and the thing is going to collapse because there aren’t going to be enough supports or the footers aren’t going to be deep enough. It’s just an a-hole thing to do.

    The permit and inspection process is protecting you FROM THE CONTRACTOR. If you could trust the contractors in this town, you wouldn’t need inspectors.

  • Do yourself a favor, go to the American Forest & Paper Association website and look for a free publication called “Residential Wood Deck Construction Guide.” You can also buy a recently published book called “Deck Construction Based on the 2009 International Residential Code.” It’s available on amazon and has received good reviews in the construction community.

  • snow bunny

    be sure he uses galvanized lug bolts


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