New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

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When the Walls Come Tumbling Down

Matthew Hall in Building Operations on April 19, 2016

New York City

Combining Apartments
April 19, 2016

The alteration agreement isn’t the only document that must be followed to the letter when a shareholder or unit-owner sets out to combine apartments in a co-op or condo. There’s a world of hoops to jump through.

The Department of Buildings (DOB), for starters, has very clear guidelines that must also be followed. Indeed, one of the most important – and unseen – factors in apartment combination projects is modifying existing utilities and infrastructure.

“You have to be very careful with any natural gas lines and any structural beams,” says attorney Steve Wagner, a partner at Wagner Berkow. “If electrical and plumbing systems are going to be changed, you must have notice from a contractor, the management, or an engineer that describes what impact the building might experience in terms of down time, so that it doesn’t interfere with other residents.”

Shares in a co-op will also have to be reassigned, which will affect monthly maintenance payments, taxation rates, and voting allocation. Combining apartments will also affect your building’s Certificate of Occupancy, the key document used to certify the legal use and occupancy of a building.

The C of O describes how a building is used – for example, as a two-family home, a parking lot, a 40-unit dwelling, or a store. The document is required when selling a home or refinancing a mortgage. But not all apartment combinations require a change in C of O. Laws were changed in 1997 to simplify the bureaucracy around apartment combination projects. If the goal is to create a larger living space and not alter the size of the building, the alteration is categorized as “Type II,” and a new C of O is not necessary. The key points to qualify for a Type II alteration include:

• The apartments must either be on the same floor or adjacent floors connected by interior access stairs of not more than two stories.
• Natural light and air requirements must comply with city codes.
• Egress from any floor of the building is not altered.
• The second kitchen must be eliminated and plumbing connections capped unless approved plans provide for an alternative use.

Some projects require special attention. Oswald Bertolini, an architect who designs conjoined spaces and reviews project proposals on behalf of co-op and condo boards, recalls an “only in New York” project he recently reviewed where a well-known supermodel bought three apartments in one building and promptly launched a combination project. Her plans included installing a four-foot-high glass tub.

“She said she needed the tub as part of her beauty treatment,” explains Bertolini. “I don’t know why she needed it to be a glass tub, but I asked for her architect to send all the details. They did build it, but some things – like a marble staircase going up to the tub – had to have a safety handrail installed. Sometimes a lot of the plans that need revision are just common sense.”

So, for a shareholder or unit-owner, is a conversion worth the cost and the effort?

“If you can combine two apartments in an aesthetically pleasing manner, you can improve the value above the individual costs of the two separate units,” says attorney David Berkey, a partner in Gallet Dreyer & Berkey. “There is a premium for multiple-bedroom apartments in New York City.”

The Number 1 piece of advice?

Communicate, says Bertolini. “For the board, make sure you agree that this is good for the building. Then be positive, and inform everybody what is going on. For the apartment owner, tell the truth. Be upfront about the project from the beginning. We might have different interests, but we are all going to live together.”

Ask the Experts

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Learn all the basics of NYC co-op and condo management, with straight talk from heavy hitters in the field of co-op or condo apartments

Professionals in some of the key fields of co-op and condo board governance and building management answer common questions in their areas of expertise

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