New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



When Residents Want to Break Walls …

Information concerning alterations of units and common elements is usually found in the bylaws, the documents of the building, and/ or the declaration. The topics they would be listed under are: “Repairs and Maintenance,” “Limited Common Elements,” “Additions,” “Alterations,” or “Improvements by the Board.”

To understand the nature of condominiums, you should imagine that you own a house, but a house that’s in a space with a lot of other houses. There are certain things you’re able to do, but because you still have neighbors and you have common elements, there are certain things that you can’t do. Because owning a condominium is like owning a house, there is a great deal more freedom for unit-owners than there is in a cooperative. Some of that’s a blessing, and some of that’s a curse, because unit-owners can go a little bit crazy by doing all their electrical wiring themselves, for instance, which can be dangerous to their neighbors. You still also want to have regulation and control. If you were to look at your bylaws, they probably only say something simple, like “You need written permission to do renovations.” That doesn’t really tell you a whole lot.

You should have an alteration agreement. That’s the best way to regulate what people can do. If you don’t have one, the board may discover that someone’s doing a major renovation and may have gone down to the Department of Buildings and filed forms to try to change the Certificate of Occupancy. And the board is finding out about it after the fact.

There are different levels of renovations in the property. There are ones that are being done for the whole building, and there are ones being done just for apartments, which can range from relatively simple tasks, such as fixing the sink, to more complex undertakings, such as gut renovations. In the complex cases, the board should obtain a formal set of plans from the owner doing the renovation. If he or she exceeds or changes what was envisioned, the board can stop the work from continuing. That can either be done gently, by making a polite request, or harshly, with a notice to cure.

It takes time to do all this, so you want be proactive. Try to have protections in place so you can move forward. If a building is not prepared to do these things, it’s very hard to play catch-up.

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