New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

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Tales of the Unexpected 3: Preventing Surprises - Alteration Agreements

A shareholder wants to combine apartments? Should you let him? Another one wants to add a skylight? Should you let her?

In cases like these, the board and the owner are coming from two different positions. The reality of the review process is that the apartment owner and his or her renovation team want a speedy approval of all the items. But, to keep costs down, they want to provide as little detail as possible.


Eugene F. Ferrara and Joseph Canton, P.E., are consultants/engineers and principals of JMA. They have been performing space alteration reviews for over 25 years and have probably reviewed over 5,000 renovation apartment/commercial requests in that time.


The board members, on the other hand, want to insure that the request is reviewed by experienced personnel so that they can be assured that the alteration is well-documented and the items being proposed will not adversely affect the building systems and/or the quality of life for the surrounding apartment owners.

In addition, they need to know that the proposed alteration items will meet code requirements and not reduce the fire rating of the building. Finally, the board needs to know if permits are required and which ones. Let us not forget, they all want it done NOW!


Rules that Dreams Are Made On

In order to accomplish this task, all concerned must understand that it takes commitment by the board to provide a clear set of alteration rules and regulations, so the apartment owners can give instructions to their contractors and renovation team. This will cut down on the review process and protect the individual board members, superintendent, and managing agent from being approached by the owners who want special consideration.

It will also allow management, building staff, and the alteration consultant the proper tools to perform a review. Most conflicts, hostilities, and delays are caused when specific building alteration rules are not in place. Devising written regulations will also let potential purchasers determine if their alteration dreams are possible.

The first step to a better review process starts with a meeting with the board, superintendent, manager, and the alteration consultant. At this meeting, the consultant should provide a general outline of recommended guidelines for the board to agree upon. Input and discussion from all concerned should result in a written amendment, which should be added to the alteration agreement.

There are two types of people that submit renovation requests. The first is the honest individual seeking to renovate his space so that he can benefit from an enhancement. For the most part, this person is not educated in the renovation of occupied spaces/buildings and is not aware of the damages and financial liability concerns involved in the renovation projects. The second type is the individual who knows better than to request an item and tries to limit any submission to those minimal items that he knows will be approved and to camouflage or omit those items that approval will probably not be provided for.

In each case, the review consultant must protect the board. He has a moral obligation to try and point out any lack of sufficient detailing in the renovation plan that may result in work that is not code-compliant or will result in added costs during the project. He must insure that the rules set up by the board are followed and ask for answers, confirmations, and additional information that will put the person requesting the approval in check and protect the apartment owner, as well as the board, from causing problems for all.

This is not easy to do. Only those consultants with experience in the art of review can be expected to pick up on these matters. For example, if the building’s alteration rules include specific language banning the use of whirlpools and washers/dryers, and you find electrical outlets being proposed next to a bathtub or plumbing hook-ups in closets, additional questions and clarifications must be made before approval.

Inspections Needed

The best way one can prevent alteration items from being performed that are not approved and/or do not meet the alteration guidelines is to implement inspections during the project. Trained and qualified staff members and/or the review consultant could perform these. The scheduling of all inspections must remain the sole responsibility of the apartment owner and his renovation team.

It must also be made clear that if the inspections are not scheduled and the areas are closed to inspection that the board has the right to ask for the areas to be opened up. This can and will be a good deterrent for those who do not comply. It is important that the specific milestone inspections be documented in the alteration guidelines.

The first inspection should occur when the demolition is complete; the second when the plumbing, framing, and insulation are installed (this must be performed before the wall, ceiling, and floor are closed). The next occurs once the shower lead pan is installed (if applicable) and any waterproofing is installed on the floors. Additional inspections may have to be called out in the event specialty items are being requested (such as structural modifications to install a staircase).

At the end of the project, a final inspection should be performed and proof of all permit signoffs must be provided before the project is considered complete. This is very important. In many cases, the approved plans are not followed and the alteration has caused severe damage to the surrounding apartments and building systems.

In order for rules to be enforced and followed, they must be accompanied by the threat of a violation or a fine if they are not obeyed. One building had a rule forbidding chopping into the structural slabs. Nonetheless, the contractor cut out over 25 feet of the bottom of the concrete structural slab to run a cable for a ceiling fixture. We were informed of the problem by the board president, whose floor slab was being chopped out. By the time the contractor could be stopped, the damage had been done. He agreed to patch the hole once the electrical conduit was installed. Both the board and the inspector’s staff stated that the conduit had to be removed and the ceiling repaired with a proper cement patching compound. If the items were allowed to stay, what deterrent would there be for the next infraction? Soon afterwards, the board enacted a monetary penalty for each violation. The co-op had its counsel review the matter because the guilty had already signed their confessions in the alteration agreement.

Many times, boards focus on apartment renovations only when problems arise. Those can be associated with noise, dust, workmen, floods, and long renovation periods. If rules are not in place, there isn’t much that can be done to stop and/or correct matters. Disputes start rolling and soon the lawyers receive their marching orders. When the proper review process procedures are followed and precise written alteration guidelines are present, the lawyers do not have to get involved because the guilty have already signed their confession in the alteration agreement.

Devil in the Details

A good approval process will have documentation that is signed and agreed to not only by the owner but also by his architect and contractor as well. If the owner is innocent and has become a victim of his own design/renovation team, he will have the proper tools to have the problems rectified and paid for. The package to be presented to the board, management, and the alteration review consultant must include three sets of the following:


(1) A signed alteration agreement.

(2) A detailed plan of existing conditions and all proposed demolition work. This plan must show the existing location of all fixtures, electrical panels, intercom, telephone, and all service risers.

(3) A detailed plan of all proposed alterations items.

(4) A detailed plan showing all electrical changes and the location of the electrical risers.

(5) A detailed plan showing all plumbing changes, as well as the location of access doors and valves.

(6) A detailed plan showing any modifications to existing HVAC equipment or addition of new equipment.

(7) A detailed plan showing the location of all hung ceilings to be installed.

(8) A detailed plan showing all construction details, including wall construction, waterproofing, hung ceiling construction, and other construction details.

(9) An electrical load statement clearly noting that the electrical service has been reviewed and is either found to be sufficient for the alteration’s needs or, if it is not sufficient, what upgrades are being requested.


Please note that only those items noted on the plans should be considered for approval. No additional work will be allowed without a formal submission. All items must be noted on the plans.

One of the most common questions asked is why should one ask for so much detail? Easy. That way, the alteration is documented from the onset and until completion. In the future, if alterations are questioned or if problems arise, specific information can be drawn upon. For example, a Jacuzzi is making noise and the surrounding apartment owners are complaining. The offending owner states it was in his approved plan for the alteration. A simple review of the alteration package will verify this. If approved, it still must be repaired so that noise/vibration transfer is not emitted to the surrounding units.


The Complete Renovation

When is the renovation complete so that the apartment owner can move in and get the security payment back? When the final inspection is performed by the building staff/consultant and proof that all general, electrical, and plumbing permits have been signed off by the New York City Department of Buildings. Some alterations will also require permits for sprinkler and HVAC modifications and structural changes. All of these – as well as any as-built modification drawings that were approved by the board during the renovation – must be placed in the building’s files for future reference.

If you think that your building has all of the bases covered, then ask yourself the following questions:


• Does your building have written guidelines for alterations?

• Do those guidelines include provisions for submitting information?

• Do they have specific guidelines for permit requirements, inspections, sign-offs, insurance coverage, determining the amount of a security deposit, and deciding when to return that deposit?

• Do they have specific guidelines for violations and fines in the event that the project runs past the agreed upon schedule or if the building’s rules are violated?

• Do they have specific provisions for the approval, conditional approval, and/or specific denial of the following commonly questioned/requested alteration items: whirlpools/Jacuzzis; washers/dryers; electrical service upgrades; through wall a/c units; central air systems; mechanical riser alterations (plumbing, electrical, intercom, and HVAC systems); gas riser relocations or shutdowns; plumbing branch line replacements; access doors valve installations; insulating all supply lines; waterproofing under wet areas (bathrooms, laundry, mechanical rooms, kitchens); sprinkler modifications; sound insulation in walls and under flooring in dry areas; apartment combinations; duplexing and triplexing; wet-over-dry expansions and relocations of wet areas/rooms; adding fixtures and bathrooms; garbage disposals; steam showers; kitchen and dryer exhausting through the exterior walls; window and door replacement; terrace and balcony usage and furnishing/planting; interior/exterior speakers; hallway takeovers; greenhouses; awnings; trellises; modifications or takeover of apartment entrance/public hall spaces; modification of structural elements or fire-rated walls and chases; installation or modifications of fireplaces.


Renovations have become more popular based on the real estate market and the combination of apartments has taken off. Once the review process is put into play, all concerned benefit. The process is cut down and the apartment owners and their design team are provided with a detailed list of renovation items so that they can plan around them and incorporate all the provisions that are required in the alteration. Following these procedures will protect everyone.

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