4 Red Flags You Should Always Check for Before Using That Fire Escape as a Balcony
One of my favorite movies is 2001’s “Kate and Leopold,” the time-travel rom-com starring Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman. In the movie, there’s a scene where Kate and Leopold are cuddled up outside on a couch set on her Tribeca fire escape. This scene sticks with me as the epitome of city living: having a beautified industrial outdoor space. It also sticks with me now because of one important fact: Having a couch on your fire escape is 100 percent ILLEGAL.
“You can only use the fire escape to escape a fire,” says Hilary Rovins, a broker at Coldwell Banker Warburg. “You cannot legally use it as a patio, or to store anything — including plants, bikes, etc.”
You can’t even have an air conditioner in the window that leads to a fire escape because, as Rovins says, fire escapes are for buildings that only have one staircase and no other way out. So Kate and Leo are just one big cozy fire hazard.
That being said, we all know that’s not how it works in reality. People live for that outdoor space, however tiny, especially when their apartments are equally small. The holidays are one of the biggest offenders for fire escape contraband, though as long as everything is out of the way of escaping feet, it’s usually fine.
“Many homeowners opt to string lights and decorations on their fire escapes,” says Gerard Splendore, another broker at Coldwell Banker Warburg. “As long as the holiday decor does not interfere with the fire escape’s intended use, decorating should not be a problem. Besides, what city-raised child has not been told that Santa accesses their apartment via the fire escape, as most apartments lack a chimney?”
It brings up an important question, though. People may use fire escapes for unintended uses, but is it actually safe? If you’re going to be out on your makeshift balcony, it helps to know that you won’t, you know, die. Here’s what to look out for.
If your fire escape is covered in rust, or the nuts and bolts and joints all have a bit of rust around them, that’s a red flag. It’s likely that maintenance and upkeep hasn’t been performed on the fire escape.
This one is twofold. You don’t want wobbly railings, and you definitely want handrails. It’s far too easy to fall off a fire escape and get seriously injured, and both missing handrails and loose railings are a recipe for that disaster.
Is your building — and your fire escape — an antique? If so, the “balcony” might not be the safest place to hang out. Look at the material it’s made from. Early fire escapes were made out of wrought iron, which is less sturdy over time. Newer ones are typically made from steel.
Look for spots where the paint flakes off the fire escape. That’s a bad sign — it means rust can seep in beneath the paint and potentially wear away at the metal. Plus, it’s a sure indicator that maintenance hasn’t been done.