What is required for a Chicago porch repair permit?
May 20, 2007 12:20 PM   Subscribe

In Chicago, can I obtain a porch repair permit to fix my porch but not bring it entirely up to code?

[(1) Sorry this is long. (2) I plan to call the City tomorrow but seek information here too.]

We live in a three-flat on the north side of Chicago. We have a three story porch off the back. It was built before the porch collapse that spurred the City to enact more stringent regulations, and was up to code when built. It is not up to the current code (rails are too short, we need more bolts into the house, and we need the porch anchored to the ground).

Our 4x4 columns are bowing and need replacing, and we are going to go up to 6x6s per the code. Two of three neighbors want to bring everything up to code at the same time, because if we are spending thousands, we might as well do it all at once. One does not, and says we should just replace the columns and be done with it.

The debate is this: what are the requirements for getting a permit? Our dissenter neighbor believes that we can obtain a repair permit that calls only for replacement of the columns, leaving everything else not up to code, on the theory that the porch was grandfathered in under the more stringent code and therefore we never have to fix everything if we do not want to. Apparently, there are local permit offices that will stamp permits on a walk-in basis if the applying party is a city-licensed contractor. We believe that the City will/should demand full code compliance before issuing a repair permit.

Can anyone familiar with this process explain who is right?

(At the risk of getting busted for two questions, does anyone have an architect and/or builder that they liked?)
posted by AgentRocket to Law & Government (14 answers total)
Best answer: It's my understanding (generally speaking - I'm not a contractor, I'm not in Chicago) that if you're undertaking a structural repair you have to repair it to current structural code. Otherwise there wouldn't be much of a point, especially in an old city where virtually everything could be grandfathered in.

Asking the City is the best idea, as they're more or less a disinterested third party. Not-quite-upstanding contractors would tell you that permits and building-to-code isn't required. They then do a quick job with cheaper materials, and make a quick profit.
posted by CKmtl at 12:44 PM on May 20, 2007

Sorry I don't have a specific answer, but in for a dime, in for a dollar I say. In addition to talking to the city, you should also swing by your local alderperson's office and talk to someone there. I'm sure this is one of those things that comes up all the time what with all the porches in this town.

I could also see it being one of those bureaucratic deals where one person says one thing, and another something different. Good luck with that.

Further, if your 4x4's are bowing, this doesn't bode well for the structural integrity of the porch in other places, so for safety's sake, property value, and piece of mind you may do well to bring the whole thing up to code...
posted by wfrgms at 12:58 PM on May 20, 2007

Does your dissenter neighbour has specific regulations or precedents to cite? I wouldn't say anything is impossible when it comes to municipal regulations but what he suggests would be quite surprising if it were true. So if it's just that he thinks that's the way it is because that's what makes sense to him then he's almost certainly wrong. (disclaimer: not in Chicago, etc.)
posted by winston at 1:06 PM on May 20, 2007

Since the deaths (CNN) a few years ago due to a porch collapse near Wrigley Field, the inspectors are really taking close looks at porches. If you get any type of permit, your porch will be inspected, and they will require you to update whatever is deficient. You may as well get estimates to bring it all the way up to code.
posted by lee at 1:08 PM on May 20, 2007

I am in Chicago. I do remodeling. You can get a permit online, without an inspector coming out, etc. You can do whatever you like, but your neighbor is wrong. Your porch will be inspected eventually.
posted by lee at 1:12 PM on May 20, 2007

I am in Chicago. There is a reason for building codes.

Permits and codes aren't required just to annoy you or cost you money.

They are to protect you and others, to protect the structural integrity of the building, and to protect the buildings' of others. They also protect you against lawsuits from other people. Inspectors help you to make sure that contractors are taking shortcuts that endanger you, or screwing up in the way that they are completing the work.

The original code was ineffective, obviously. So it was revised for safety reasons. This wasn't done on a whim. Porches in Chicago have been collapsing yearly since I moved here (in 1988) and probably before then as well. I have had two close friends injured in two separate porch collapses well before the really big collapse that killed all of those people. Both friends had injuries that still bother them a decade (or more) later. Both won large lawsuits against the owners of the buildings. Really large.

Could you undertake the repairs without a permit? Maybe. Many folks do. Some get busted while the work is occuring or afterwards. Would the porch collapse? Maybe. Maybe not. To protect myself from liability issues, I would do everything I could, especially in a group living situation like a condo or co-op, to do it all above board.
posted by jeanmari at 2:10 PM on May 20, 2007

If you or your loved ones getting killed isn't a deterrent, I don't suppose that liability or inspection is much of one, either.

Given that you are undertaking a major repair anyway, it really won't cost that much more to do what you already know is needed. It will be twice as expensive to start all over again when you fail an inspection.

Replacing the columns is such a huge task that the anchoring isn't really that big a deal. In fact, I'm not sure why you're not just getting a whole new porch built.

I don't see any upside to saving a few bucks here.
posted by dhartung at 4:34 PM on May 20, 2007

I forgot to mention that, for one of the porch collapses a friend was involved in, only 5 people were on the porch. Five. That's it. No drinking involved. Everyone went to one side of the porch to look at something below and the structure wasn't anchored properly to the side of the building and something below them shifted. The whole porch didn't fold up like a house of cards. The corner and then the railing gave way and dumped three people 20 feet onto a concrete slab.

It doesn't take a huge amount of people or a full collapse to injure someone.
posted by jeanmari at 5:40 AM on May 21, 2007

You're not the dissenter here and it may be that person is beyond logical argument but my thought is this: if doing this alteration without bringing all items up to code is even a little ethically shady I would think long and hard about what it says about the work quality of any contractor who would agree to do something like that. If they'll defraud the government they'll defraud you.
posted by phearlez at 9:34 AM on May 21, 2007

Also, realize that even if you don't have to bring everything up to code to be in compliance with the law, you still might be leaving yourselves/your association open to a lawsuit if you do repairs but don't bring it up to code/don't do work that is generally acknowledged to be safe/best practices. Ask yourself, if you or a loved one was seriously hurt in an accident that could have been prevented if some responsible party had actually done the work up to code, wouldn't you try to have your day in court? And if you were on the jury hearing that case, wouldn't you view your association as willfully negligent? I know I probably would be inclined to see it that way...
posted by incongruity at 6:56 AM on May 22, 2007

Best answer: This is for the benefit of anyone finding this in the future.

I talked to the City this afternoon and learned that the stricter load-bearing and connector requirements - essentially, the stability and safety requirements - are universally applied, and do not grandfather in existing structures. So landowners have an obligation now to satisfy the code (and certainly any repair would have to satisfy the current safety requirements).
posted by AgentRocket at 11:52 AM on May 22, 2007

Wow - that means that in order to get any pre-sales inspection passed you'll have to be in compliance. That's a pretty good argument to make to your neighbor - none of the three of you will be able to sell your place till that's accomplished.
posted by phearlez at 2:25 PM on May 22, 2007

Best answer: Here's the lowdown from a fellow Chicagoan that just bought a 3-flat with a rickety old porch.

The inspector told us the porch wasn’t up to code; one of the major points being most of the porch wasn’t actually attached to the building. He said we could cheap out and just have it bolted to the building. However, the city’s inspectors are getting pretty hardcore on inspecting porches due to the very public and serious porch collapses over the past few years. But he said we were better off getting a new one – of course we got a small credit from the seller at closing to cover the porch repair costs.

We contacted 3 companies and asked each for quotes to repair the existing porch and quotes to replace the porch. All three said they comfortable with just repairing the porch because of all the code violations. All three said we would have problems with the building inspectors if we didn’t bring the porch up to code. We picked one of the three contractors (try Angieslist). They drew up plans and applied for the building permit. The permit was approved by the building department and our Alderman, and down came our old porch. Chicago is taking porches very seriously. All porch building permits have to be approved by the building department and your Alderman. Also they send an inspector out during construction and after it is complete. On the bright side, as long as your contractor keeps overall layout of your previous but modifies the design to meet the new code, then the permit process moves smoothly. But if you decide to have an all new porch designed for the building, I’ve been told it is a longer process of approval.

Side note, your porch could be inspected at random. Examples: inspector happens to be in the neighborhood decides to walk down the alley and sees your porch in bad shape or they’ll send out an inspector when someone anonymously reports your porch for being in bad shape. If they issue a violation, it means serious fines plus they’ll want you to get a new porch ASAP. Of course that means the contractors will charge you more. A co-worker’s porch was inspected based on an anonymous call and the city issued a violation. He used our contractor and his 2-flat porch cost more than our 3-flat porch due to the violation/rush timetable.
posted by AW at 3:53 PM on May 23, 2007

sorry, one of the lines should have read:
"All three said they uncomfortable with just repairing the porch because of all the code violations."
posted by AW at 3:56 PM on May 23, 2007

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