Firewall requirements in attached garages
Q: Our house was built in 1955, before firewalls were required in garages. Now that we're selling, the buyers want us to upgrade the garage to current fire-safety requirements, as advised by their home inspector. We've cooperated with their request by patching several holes in the drywall. But now, they insist we replace the door between the garage and the kitchen. This door is hollow core, which, as you know, violates current fire-safety standards, but it has been covered with sheet metal for increased fire resistance. We believe the door is safe enough as it is. Because the house is more than 60 years old, are we required to install a fire door?
A: Homes built in 1955 do not predate the fire separation requirement for garages. Firewalls in attached garages have been required since the first edition of the Uniform Building Code (UBC) was published in 1927. Modifications to the code have been enacted since that time, by the UBC and by the International Code Council, but the basic firewall requirement still applies to old homes.
The purpose of this code is to delay the spread of fire from a garage to a dwelling. In order to comply, wood-framed walls and ceilings between garages and dwellings must be finished with plaster or with fire-rated drywall, and doors must be solid core or labeled as fire-rated by the manufacturer.
When your home was built, these codes were not universally enforced, especially in areas outside of major cities. Consequently, many hollow core doors were errantly installed in attached garages. In those years, a common upgrade for such doors was the application of sheet metal. Although this modification does not comply with current fire-safety standards, most building departments regard these doors as "legal nonconforming," which means replacement is generally not mandated.
A significant upgrade to the fire door requirement that has taken effect since your home was built is these doors be self-closing. This is to ensure a garage fire cannot quickly spread into a dwelling if a fire door was inadvertently left open. The addition of a self-closing device would be an advisable upgrade to your garage door. Your local municipality may not require this upgrade in older homes, but it would be better if they did.
As for the difference of opinion between you and your buyers regarding the fire door upgrade, the best way to resolve disagreement over safety compliance is to lean on the side of caution. My advice would be to upgrade the garage door to current safety standards, either by you before the close of escrow or by the buyers after they take possession. Real estate contracts are negotiable. Perhaps the cost of the upgrade could be shared.
• To write to Barry Stone, visit him on the web at www.housedetective.com, or write AMG, 1776 Jami Lee Court, Suite 218, San Luis Obispo, CA 94301.
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