New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Renovation Blues

Every cooperative and condominium board member and manager has his or her own horror story of an apartment renovation gone bad. There was the time a leaky Jacuzzi was installed directly over a neighbor's bedroom. Or the time a wall was removed, even though it contained the wiring for every intercom in the building. In another example, a work crew showed up at a landmarked building and started tearing down walls without either Department of Buildings permits or Landmarks Preservation Commission permission. When apartment alterations are executed, these renovation nightmares are surprisingly common. But they do not need to be.

Renovations and alterations often enhance individual apartments and the value of the property as a whole. When they come off without a hitch, they are even more beneficial. Boards and management companies can employ a number of rules, regulations, and suggestions to ensure that the work is done as smoothly as possible. Even when boards want to ease the way for apartment owners, they must weigh the freedoms they offer with the potential disruption of their building's operation and the peace they enjoy at home. There are a number of proven tips that boards, and condo or co-op apartment owners, may want to keep in mind when considering renovations or alterations.

Boards should prepare comprehensive rules for the alteration and review the process within their buildings. Each property should establish straightforward requirements for reviewing plans and for each step of the renovation process. The clearer the rules and the earlier they are revealed, the less trouble there will be down the road.

It is important for boards to disclose any rules concerning alterations as early as possible. Boards may want to explain the house rules regarding alterations with owners during initial interviews before they even move into the building. The sooner prospective owners know and understand the restrictions, the more likely they are to obey them.

Owners must also understand the laws that New York has set up to govern alterations. No matter how simple or complex a renovation may appear to be, if required under statute, the work must be filed with the buildings department and other governmental agencies, such as the landmarks commission. These administrative city reviews take time - as long as six weeks or more in some cases. Boards must make sure that owners follow all municipal regulations, and that they understand the time lag between the filing and the start of work.

If an owner lives in a building that is located in a designated landmark area, every alteration has to go through the city's landmarks commission in order to gain approval. Even projects that will not be seen from outside the property require certificates of "no effect" in order to take place. You cannot get buildings department permits without the proper landmark commission certificates. An owner needs to allot enough time for this important step in the process.

Boards should start out with a tough "game face." Most board members would like to accommodate fellow owners and put on as friendly a face as possible at every meeting. However, when it comes to planning alterations or major renovations, board members and managers should start out tough and then loosen up once the project is seen to be smoothly on track. Boards should not send mixed messages, and they should ensure that contractors and owners take a building's rules seriously.

Boards should scrutinize the physical placement of rooms carefully. When reviewing an owner's alteration plans, check to make sure that "wet" rooms, such as bathrooms or kitchens are not relocated and placed over "dry" rooms, such as living rooms or bedrooms. Not only are leaks a potential problem, there may also be trouble with noise. No one wants to host a dinner party with the sound of toilets flushing or a Jacuzzi rushing above them, and no one wants to get a phone call from the neighbors who have experienced just that.

Building superintendents, along with the owners' representative, should perform walk-throughs of all common areas and neighboring apartments before an alteration project gets under way. This will help the building better evaluate charges of damage that may come later on, and help settle disputes in an efficient, fact-based manner.

Boards should collect security deposits that are sufficient to cover any damages resulting from any renovations. Every alteration has some impact on the property as a whole - whether it is a simple scratch in the hallway wallpaper or a huge gash in a neighbor's wall. A $1,500 deposit is just not enough to cover a $500,000 renovation. The deposit does not need to be onerous, but it should be sufficient to deal with any issues down the road.

As walls come down in any building, the noise level picks up. Boards should consider bringing in an acoustics expert or a special engineer to review alteration plans. Whatever the situation, it is wise to hire skilled consultants and then pass their charges along to the owner performing the alteration. The cost is very small compared to the average renovation budget, and everyone in the building will appreciate the extra effort.

Owners should be realistic about how long a renovation will actually take. A contractor may promise that a project will be completed in six weeks, but it is best to get a second or third opinion - and then double the estimated time. People might get hot under the collar when a six-week project reaches its sixth month, but they are less inclined to be upset when they are prepared for the extended period.

In some cases, walls just cannot be moved or taken down. When combining apartments or making renovations to an existing area, the removal of a wall or two is a dream scenario. Sometimes it stays that way: just a dream. Despite architects' plans, buildings cannot allow just any wall to be removed. Some walls hold building risers, the conduits for steam, electricity, intercom service, water, and more. Contractors and architects that are familiar with single-family renovations may not recognize the havoc caused in multifamily dwellings by trying to shift building risers. The building's representatives must learn which walls cannot be moved - and then make sure that the owner planning the renovation also knows.

When conducting renovations, owners should be aware that modern plumbing fixtures and appliances do not always belong in older buildings. That dream Jacuzzi just might not fit in a building that is not equipped to handle the water load. The same can be said for a washer-and-dryer combination, or even an in-sink garbage disposal. Ancient plumbing does not always accommodate modern water usage, so owners must make sure plans are compatible with a building's existing plumbing and electrical service.

Boards, managers, and owners must be vigilant in ensuring that proper clean-up procedures are followed. This is most effective when a building's superintendents and staff are enlisted to help monitor and enforce the clean-up efforts of contractors working there. If boards make cleanliness part of a contractor's daily work routine from the beginning, they will cut down on complaints and damage throughout the life of the job.

The hours during which renovation and alteration work may be conducted should be strictly controlled. Limit the work hours allowed in a building to accommodate the living habits of the owners. Once a board sets work hours, make sure the contractors know them - and uphold them.

A building's superintendent is the best link a board has to any alteration work in progress. Boards must make sure the super has early and regular access to the job so that any irregularities or broken rules are reported immediately.

The group assembled to perform the alterations must be complete and competent. The team an owner needs for a successful alteration project includes an architect who can provide the proper drawings to obtain city permits and all official filings. In addition, it would be wise to have a project manager involved, a role that may be played by an experienced architect. A project manager oversees the quality of construction, and makes sure the project is proceeding according to plans and budgets.

Make sure the contractor has insurance with the proper amounts to indemnify the owner, board, and managing agent. Boards should consult their attorneys and/or risk management agents to make sure they are in good shape to avoid, as much as possible, any damages or lawsuits, and set proper insurance limits for the building.

Boards can also protect themselves and their buildings by obtaining lien waivers from all contractors. If a contractor does not pay its subcontractors, liens may actually be put on the building in which work was being done. To avoid this, proper waivers should be obtained before returning any escrowed funds.

Owners should have the right to turn their cooperative apartments into their dream homes, and board members have an equal right to ensure that renovations and alterations do not turn into a problem for all involved. Setting down clear and effective rules, and making sure that everyone follows them, will go a long way toward maintaining the value of the building and a high quality of life for its inhabitants.

Paul J. Herman is managing director of the residential management division of Rose Associates.


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