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How to Keep Apartment Renovations From Going Off the Rails

Gene Ferrara and Chris Ferrara in Board Operations on October 27, 2022

New York City

Alteration agreements, professional oversight, contractors, engineers and architects, co-op and condo boards.

Will waterproofing be installed beneath the kitchen flooring? Such questions need to be answered before work begins.

Oct. 27, 2022

Establish the exact scope of work. The key to keeping an apartment renovation from becoming problematic is to first know exactly what work is occurring. A simple cost breakout of work and a sketch on a napkin, which are often submitted for our review, do not clearly define the proposed work. When it’s not clear exactly what scope of work is occurring, a renovation should never be permitted to start. We have seen countless buildings fall into a cycle of permitting renovations that they consider “decorative,” such as a kitchen/bathroom renovation, only to have them evolve into an expansion of a wet area, relocation of plumbing and gas fixtures, channeling of the structural slab to run electrical conduits, and other items that the board did not sign up for.

Keep a professional eye on major jobs. There should be an alteration agreement in place for every renovation, and that agreement should stipulate that the board’s engineer or consultant must review and approve every major alteration prior to the filing of permits and the beginning of work. Boards and their property managers cannot be expected to be apprised of the ins and outs of every new and ever-changing Department of Buildings (DOB) code, but an engineer or consultant can ensure compliance with both the city’s building code and specific building rules, including items that require board approval, such as wet area expansions, the installation of washer/dryers and Jacuzzis, structural work, garbage disposals, etc.

During the past few years, we have seen a decrease in in-person and scheduled inspections, which has led to an increase in the number of emergency site visits we have been called on to make after improper work was discovered by coincidence. In this age of technology, virtual site visits via video conferencing provide an  excellent alternative to arranging for all parties to be present at the same time. Photographic documentation can ensure that work has been completed properly and that those areas don’t have to be reopened and reworked. If problems continue after these measures are instituted, we recommend scheduling frequent onsite inspections by the board’s consultant or engineer to make sure the renovation remains on track.

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Define your terms. What qualifies as “major” work? Repainting of rooms, new millwork, and new cabinetry/countertop installations are all examples of minor renovations. Layout changes, plumbing and electrical work are examples of the baseline of major renovations, which can also expand to more significant items, such as exterior work, structural work and modifications of the heating, ventilating and air-conditioning systems.

Many buildings classify the replacement of flooring as “minor” renovations, but we disagree. Soundproofing is a major area of concern, especially in older buildings with wooden-joist construction — and especially now that so many people are working from home. It is also a DOB requirement to include a specifically rated soundproofing underneath all new floor installations. If kitchen flooring is removed, will waterproofing also be installed underneath? Older buildings may also have asbestos in the mastic/glue of the original flooring, which will need to be properly abated. These questions should be asked and answered ahead of time so that there are no questions once the renovation begins.

Revision, revision, revision. We recommend that boards revisit and revise their alteration agreement on an ongoing basis. If possible, we recommend that the board have its consultant or engineer compile comprehensive alteration rules, then make sure that the unit-owner or shareholder and his renovation team have access to the requirements ahead of time. 

The endgame. When an alteration agreement is up to date, when its terms are clearly defined, when the scope of work is well-documented and that work is rigorously inspected, a renovation project evolves from a hindrance into a benefit of all parties.

Gene Ferrara is the president and Chris Ferrara is the renovations director at the engineering consultancy JMA Consultants.

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