New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Interior Renovations

I live in a six-story, 46-unit cooperative on the Upper East Side, and I’d like to remove a wall between my kitchen and living room so I can widen and redesign the kitchen area. I plan to move the sink and stove, add an island counter, and install additional lighting. Is it really necessary to show the board architectural plans for approval on renovations that are so limited in nature? Are there any permits required for this type of work or any special considerations to address?

The first step a resident should take when planning alterations to his or her apartment is to consult the cooperative’s or condominium’s renovation agreement. This agreement, separate from the shareholder’s or unit-owner’s agreement, outlines what alterations individual apartment owners can and cannot make. Although most mid-size to large co-op and condo buildings have a standard renovation agreement, some do not. In either case, you should to get the board’s blessing before you begin alterations.

As a rule of thumb, co-op and condo boards do not allow apartment renovations that will adversely affect building-wide systems, including heating, air conditioning, ventilation, electrical, plumbing, gas, steam, or the building’s main structural system. This does not mean that moving your sink or stove will be off-limits, or that you can’t add an electrical circuit within your apartment. But your board, like most, will probably not let you make alterations that will require changing any major system or component, such as capping or rerouting a plumbing or gas riser.

Subjecting plumbing or electrical risers, gas lines, heating and cooling ducts, drainage pipes, steam pipes, or bearing walls and other structural elements to major changes can be problematic for several reasons. If the system is old, major modifications could weaken or damage it. Aging gas lines, for example, can suffer leaks and pressure losses if sections are removed and reattached. Banging or moving around long-standing galvanized steel piping can loosen rust, scale, and other deposits built up inside, contaminating the building’s water. Altering structural members, even with temporary shoring, may lead to cracks as buildings settle over time. And removing a load-bearing wall will compromise the structural integrity of the building no matter what its age.

Boards are also reluctant to permit changes to building-wide systems because such changes disrupt service for other residents. Working on a riser, for example, requires water or gas to be shut off for all apartments in that line. Making a new opening in your floor or ceiling so a new pipe can pass through often means cutting a hole in your neighbor’s ceiling or floor.

In addition to the risks posed to the property as a whole, letting unit-owners make renovations that affect major systems can put the board in an awkward position. If some unit-owners are granted permission for such changes, the board will have set a precedent, making it harder to deny other residents when they request approval for similar alterations later on. Furthermore, numerous modifications made to accommodate individual residents will eventually result in a smorgasbord of customized configurations. Then, when it’s time for repairs or a building-wide upgrade, it will probably take longer and cost more because the system will no longer be standardized.

Alteration agreements usually require that unit-owners provide the board with an architect’s or engineer’s plans and specifications detailing the work to be done. The board may have its own engineer or architect review the proposed alterations (at the resident’s expense) to certify that the alterations won’t adversely affect the capacity of any of the building’s structures, utility services, equipment, mechanical systems, water tightness, or insulation against heat loss, and that the renovations will not violate building codes.
In addition, the design and quality of the alterations should be in keeping with the general character and appearance of the building. Most renovation agreements, for example, would forbid unit-holders from adding new windows, enclosing a terrace, or widening a balcony.

Once the board grants authorization to proceed, you will need to obtain a permit from the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB). DOB approval is required to move existing plumbing fixtures (including sinks) or add new ones; add new plumbing lines or cap existing ones; remove or rearrange piping; add or alter electrical circuits; cut into a wall, floor, or ceiling; or modify a beam or structural support. In addition, the plumbing and electrical work must be filed separately with the appropriate city agencies. Work that doesn’t require a permit includes replacing (but not relocating) toilets, sinks, or other fixtures; painting or wallpapering; adding or modifying window coverings; or similar cosmetic changes.

Because interior alterations are not usually visable to other residents or people outside the building, it may seem tempting to bypass the DOB permit process and fees. If the unauthorized work is reported, however, the DOB can fine the building up to $2,500 and issue a violation against the property, which may impinge on the corporation’s ability to seek financing or insurance. If the violation is not addressed, the Environmental Control Board will issue its own violation, which must be adjudicated in administrative court.
Boards can and should charge residents for legal and technical consulting fees and make them modify any unacceptable work so that it is code-compliant or restored to its prior condition.

In addition to fines, the DOB will require that an architect’s or engineer’s plans be submitted to legalize the work already performed, and in such cases the permit fee charged can be as much as 10 times what it would have cost to file before construction.

If your building is a New York City-designated landmark or located in a designated historic district, you will also need approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). LPC approval is usually straightforward for interior renovations, except for those that affect the appearance of the building from the street, such as replacing windows or changing the size of existing openings. Also, certain types of loft buildings require approval from the New York City Loft Board before you can begin alterations.

In addition to the permits above, you’ll need to hire an asbestos investigator certified by the New York State Department of Environmental Protection to take material samples and file an ACP-5 form with the DOB verifying that no friable (i.e., easily airborne) asbestos will be disturbed during the demolition. If your building was built before 1970, you should also hire an environmental consultant to address the risks of lead paint. If either lead or asbestos is present in the areas planned for demolition, a licensed abatement firm will need to remove the potentially hazardous materials before construction can begin.

Renovation agreements routinely stipulate that the plumbers, electricians, and other contractors performing the work be licensed and carry the necessary insurance certificates for liability, property damage, workers compensation, and subcontractors. The agreements often specify the hours during which the work can be performed and require contractors to take reasonable precautions to minimize dirt, dust, moisture, noxious fumes, and odors.

The board reserves the right to monitor the construction work and suspend renovations that unduly interfere with other residents’ quality of life. Before work is allowed to proceed, the board may also require a small percentage (two or three percent) of the renovation costs, or a flat fee ranging anywhere from five hundred to several thousand dollars, as a retainer to cover for potential inadvertent damages.

To keep the work from getting out of hand, it’s a good idea to have your architect or engineer plan all your renovations together. In this way, you can save on design costs and avoid reconfiguring previous alterations. With an overall renovation plan in hand, you can phase in the construction work over time to suit your budget and schedule.

If your alteration plans run into an obstacle, a creative designer may be able to find a way around it. For example, you won’t be able to knock down a load-bearing wall or one in which an electrical or plumbing riser runs. But your architect or engineer may suggest removing portions of the wall, leaving the structural section or the chase for the riser contained within a column. A decorative column could even be added for aesthetic balance.

For specialized alterations, you may want to consult with an interior decorator or designer. While these professionals usually do not get involved with construction, they can help you select such items as cabinetry, countertops, appliances, furniture, fixtures, paint, wallpaper, carpeting, and accessories. Look for one licensed by a professional association, such as the American Society of Interior Designers, the International Interior Design Association, or the National Kitchen and Bath Association.

By fully informing your board of your alteration plans and consulting with your architect and engineer on a workable design, you should be able to avoid major renovation headaches for both you and your neighbors.

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