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Barry Stone: Seller adamant about firewall requirements

[Metro Creative Connection]
[Metro Creative Connection]

DEAR BARRY: My house was built in 1955, before firewalls were required in garages. The people who are buying it have asked me to upgrade the garage to comply with current fire safety standards, as advised by their home inspector.

I've cooperated with their request by patching several holes in the firewall. But now, they want me to replace the door between the garage and the kitchen. This door is hollow core, which, as you know, violates current fire-safety standards. However, the door has been covered with sheet metal for increased fire resistance, so it seems to me that it is safe enough as it is. Given the age of the house, am I required to install a fire-rated door?

— Gene

DEAR GENE: Before answering your questions, one point should be clarified. Homes built in 1955 do not predate the firewall requirement for garages. Firewalls between homes and garages have been required since the first edition of the Uniform Building Code was published in 1927. Upgrades to that code have been enacted since that time, but the basic firewall mandate was in effect when your home was built in the 1950s.

The purpose of the firewall code is to delay the spread of a garage fire into a dwelling. Accordingly, the framed walls and ceilings between garages and dwellings must be surfaced with plaster or fire-rated drywall. Additionally, all doors between a garage and a dwelling must be solid core or labeled as fire-rated by the doors’ manufacturer.

When your home was built, these codes were not universally enforced, especially in rural areas. Consequently, many hollow-core doors were errantly installed in attached garages. A common upgrade for such doors was to attach a layer of sheet metal for increased fire resistance. This modification does not comply with current fire-safety standards, but many building departments regard these altered doors as "legal nonconforming," which means that replacement is generally not mandated.

Another pertinent fire-safety upgrade that has taken effect since your home was built is the requirement that fire doors be self-closing. This can be accomplished by installing spring hinges or a hydraulic door closer. The addition of a self-closing device would be an advisable upgrade to your fire door, but it is not a legal requirement for homes built in the 1950s.

As for the disagreement between you and your buyers, there are two alternatives. You can stand firm and insist that the buyers can make the upgrade themselves, after they take possession of the home. A better choice might be to err on the side of safety, to upgrade the door to current fire-resistant standards as a gesture of goodwill. Although you are not obligated to make this kind of improvement, doing so may increase the likelihood of completing the sale of your home at minimal added cost to you.

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