Alteration agreements don’t stop co-op and condo residents from causing problems. Emma Lupu-Ferrante, partner at Smith, Buss & Jacobs, tells Habitat how to avoid those issues.
Co-op and condo boards traditionally have an alteration agreement that residents must sign when they’re going to do work on their apartment. But agreements don't stop people from going off the rails.
We’ve seen an overwhelming number of cases where unit-owners and shareholders go far beyond the scope of work specified. Some sign an agreement, saying that they’re refinishing the floors or changing the tiles. Next thing you know, wood beams are coming into an apartment, and you wonder what's really going on.
What steps can boards take to prevent that from happening?
You have to set enforcement and supervisory procedures and put them in place. In a small building, the super, property manager or a board member can go in during the course of the alteration. In a large property, it can be the building's architect. Either way, the person has to know what the scope of the work is supposed to be and perform the inspection in a timely manner. Had that happened in most of the cases I have on my desk, the problem would have been avoided.
So the person doing the inspecting doesn't have to be a contractor or an electrician. If someone says they're going to be painting their kitchen and the walls are ripped out, you've got a pretty good idea that they're off track.
Absolutely. While some alteration agreements are better than others, they all say pretty much the same thing – you have to follow the scope of the work that you originally provided.
How often should inspections take place?
It depends on the scope of the alteration. Generally, you have a start date, and you know when they're going to commence work. Even if you don't, your super knows everything that's going on in your building 99 percent of the time. It's important for your super to say, “Hey, why is there a toilet getting shipped upstairs?” Or “Why do I see massive pieces of Sheetrock coming up into that apartment when they’re only repainting?’’
Once the board discovers something suspicious, what’s the next step?
The super or whoever has determined that there is an issue normally notifies the managing agent, and either they or the board should contact their attorney immediately. In these cases, I’ll send a cease-and-desist-work letter certified overnight to anyone I know related to that unit. I also often instruct the supers to notify the contractors that the work is being done without proper permits and needs to stop immediately. That generally works, because no contractor wants to be the subject of a DOB violation.
So, to wrap it up, an alteration agreement, even if it's a good one, is not enough.
Unfortunately, a piece of paper won’t stop someone from trying to deceive you. It takes more active involvement from boards, supers, managers and residents. Now if you don't have reason to believe that something has exceeded the scope, I generally suggest doing an inspection one to two days into an alteration and then a couple of weeks later. It doesn't need to be daily or weekly – a spot check will tell you all you need to know.