New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

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Wake Up and Smell the Mothballs

Upper West Side, Manhattan

Mothball Misery
Nov. 1, 2017

Let us count the things we wish we’d known about before we bought that otherwise magnificent co-op or condo apartment: the bawling babies next door, the hard-partying neighbors upstairs, the hoarder down the hall who loves to overcook fish, the incessant thumps and shrieks of the amorous couple downstairs. But one couple considering a “fantastic” apartment in an Upper West Side co-op had the luxury of advance warning. When they attended an open house, an overpowering smell of camphor flooded the hallway. 

And where there’s a strong smell of mothballs, almost surely, there are cockroaches and/or rats. The broker assured the potential buyers that the co-op board was trying to do something about the mothball user. What’s a potential apartment buyer to do? 

“Walk away,” Daniela Sassoun, an associate broker at Douglas Elliman, advises the Ask Real Estate column in the New York Times. “Even if it’s a great apartment, it’s just not worth it.”

Could the problem go away? Maybe. But the co-op board’s options are limited. If the proprietary lease prohibits unreasonable odors – which most do – the board could claim a breach of the lease and sue the mothball-loving neighbor. But lawsuits are no fun and a court proceeding “could drag on and on” with no guarantee of success, says attorney Phyllis Weisberg of Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads. The board may be able to seek an injunction to compel the neighbor to stop using mothballs, another slow avenue to venture down. 

When it comes to buying an apartment, some imperfections can be overlooked. But an overwhelming odor is “a pretty material issue,” says Warner Lewis, an associate broker with Halstead. “It’s not like the paint color in the hallway was offensive.” 

No, it is not. All apartment buyers should have the good sense to beware. These buyers should have the common sense to be gone.

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