City homeowners opt for a deck with a view

Demand is high for urban perches with water and skyline vistas

August 14, 2005|By Lynn Marie Honeywill | Lynn Marie Honeywill,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

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.

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