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On the Home Front Renovating your apartment

Anyone who’s lived in a co-op or condo building for a number of years usually has at least a passing understanding of what happens when their building’s lobby needs repainting, or when the board meets to decide what style of new wainscoting to go with in the hallways. Votes are taken, contractors contacted, and then the project is under way. After a (hopefully) brief period where halls are cluttered with equipment and workmen come and go at what seems like all hours, the project is finished. There may be a few who object to the new color of paint, or would have preferred burled oak for the wainscoting, but for the most part, these things are routine.

Rather more complicated is what happens when a resident wishes to make alterations to an apartment independent of the board and the rest of the building. To make sure your project runs as smoothly as possible, it’s vital that any shareholder or owner wishing to alter his or her space communicate effectively with both the board and the contractor carrying out the project. It’s equally important for shareholder/owners to do adequate research about all the issues surrounding a renovation–planning, approaching contractors, insurance… You must have a clear idea of what to expect before the first whiff of plaster dust falls.

First Things First

The first concern of any shareholder wishing to remodel their apartment should be to determine exactly what their building will allow them to do on their own. Says Neil Hurwitz, vice president of marketing for Deborah Bradley Construction and Management in Manhattan, "You can’t work without board approval–you just can’t." Every building imposes certain limitations on what a resident can do to their space without consulting the board and getting legal clearance for the project. Generally, if a resident wishes to have work done on their apartment, they must meet with their board, present their intentions, and draw up what is known as an "alteration agreement." This document addresses the specifics of the proposed construction–what exactly will be done to the apartment, when it will be done, who’s doing it, and what steps are being taken to insure minimal disturbance and damage to the residents and the building itself. Says C. Bradley Cronk, RA, of Manhattan law firm LePatner & Associates, "An alteration agreement is typically entered into between the shareholder of a co-op or unit owner of a condo and the co-op or condo board or its managing agent. Most of the provisions contained in an alteration agreement are geared toward protecting the condo or co-op and its residents from claims arising from the owner’s construction."

As the shareholder or owner, you’re obviously directly involved with any alterations you make to your living space–it was your idea, after all–but it’s not just about you. Your building’s board and managing agent both have a stake in the changes you make in your apartment, for the sake of the structure itself, its legal status, and the rights and safety of your fellow residents. According to Rosemary Paparo, director of management for Buchbinder and Warren in Manhattan, "Our main concern is that the structural integrity of the building is not compromised. You may be using a licensed plumber or electrician, but lots of things can come up, regardless of whether they’re fully licensed or not."

To reassure your board and avoid any lengthy delays in getting your project underway, it’s beneficial to map out as detailed a plan as possible for the project and present it to the board along with an idea of how long the job may take, and what kind of access the contractor’s workmen will need. The better prepared and more specific your plans are, the less chance there is of misunderstanding and delay.

Your board also has to make sure that if you’re moving walls or pipes around, whatever you’re doing is in accordance with current building codes and covered by adequate insurance. Says Rebecca Alston of Manhattan architectural and design firm Rebecca Alston, Inc., "You have to have certain clearances that are imperative–very rigid. Kitchens and plumbing work are very hard. You have to be sure you have all the City codes met, and they’re really tough."

In order to insure that the structural stability of your building is not jeopardized by your project, Paparo adds that many management companies "demand that any plans be considered by the building’s architect before anything is filed downtown. Quite often, an architect or designer will come in, and the apartment owner says that they want such-and-such a thing done, without taking into account the age and construction of the building itself. There are some things you just can’t do in buildings of a certain age or type."

Aside from concerns about zoning and safety, your board must also worry about what effect your changes might have on the building’s status with the Buildings Department. If, for example, you own two adjacent apartments and want to take out a wall to join the two, there are a number of things to consider before picking up that sledgehammer and letting fly. First of all, an unauthorized, undocumented increase or decrease in the number of dwelling units in a building can cost the entire co-op its Certificate of Occupancy, or "C of O." Next to your mortgage and your Certificate of Incorporation, your building’s C of O is probably the most important document in its legal hierarchy. To jeopardize its validity is to invite months of legal wrangling, paperwork, and expense–not to mention ire of your fellow shareholders.

On the other hand, if handled properly, your wall-demolition scheme may actually improve the value of your building. According to Alston, "Boards often like it when you combine apartments because it increases value with a bigger space and fewer apartments in a single building. It has to be done carefully, though."

Frustrating (and expensive) hold-ups often result if work is begun without consideration of what lies beneath floors and behind walls in a resident’s apartment. An unexpected tangle of antique pipes under the bathroom floor will not only slow your work, but will also raise the specter of structural damage, miffed neighbors, and extra expense. Engaging an engineer or architect to review your building’s structural information can save a lot of bother later on.

You must also consider your building’s rules and limitations in terms of the time you intend to take with your project. Must alterations be completed within a specific period–often called a "construction season"–or can you work indefinitely?

And what do you need permission for, exactly? If you just want to change the fixtures in your bathroom from brass to chrome, there’s probably no need to involve your board. If you’re contemplating a breezeway between your ground-floor living room and the gazebo out back, however, you’ll need to sit down and have a chat.

Assembling Your Team

If it’s a question of a few hours’ work and a trip to Home Depot, many contractors recommend that you "buy local" first and talk to your building superintendent. Says Hurwitz, "Supers are the primary source for people who want relatively simple stuff done right away. If they can’t do it, they’re the ones who know all the people who do work in the building and can recommend someone."

As with anything that’s semi-permanent and costs lots of money–major surgery, for example, or buying a luxury car–it’s important to shop around and get second opinions. How many contractors you talk with in the course of preparing for your redecorating or construction project depends on a number of things, not least of which is your own standard of information gathering.

It’s important to effectively communicate your needs, desires, and expectations to the people who will actually carry out the work. If you sit down with only a vague idea of what you want, both you and contractors may find yourselves frustrated, and you may very likely be dissatisfied with the results once the dust clears. "It’s no good to call a general contractor and say, ‘I’d like to re-design my kitchen–can you give me a quote on the phone?’" says Hurwitz. "We’ll send a foreman in, find out exactly what you want to do, and discuss your expectations." According to interior designer Marilyn Sygrove of Sygrove Associates in Manhattan, "It’s particularly important for the client to get as much down on paper as they can. A good set of plans is the primary effort involved in any renovation project." Some professionals might be able to offer you isometric computer renderings of what your project might look like completed. "The client can only visualize so much," she says.

Alston, pointing out the importance of planning, adds, "We need plenty of time to plan, bid, and receive long-wait objects that need to be ordered. It’s also very important to work out where you’ll be during the project. [A contractor’s team] can often work around you in your living space, but it’s more expensive and a real hassle. If you can get out of your apartment while the demo and construction is going on, it’s much better." Paparo recommends an even broader approach; "Before starting, we’ll do a pre-construction meeting with the shareholder, the super, the building’s architect, the shareholder’s architect, the general contractor, and the managing agent to go over everything. Since the shareholder has the ultimate liability, if there are any problems, we want a meeting with everybody there. Most projects run well, but if something comes up, and everybody knows the same thing, there’s less potential for conflict and finger-pointing."

You may feel that comparing just two design firms is adequate, or you may be more comfortable after seeing portfolios of a half a dozen professionals’ work. Similarly, you may wish to contact former clients of your prospective contractor to get a feel for their level of satisfaction with the work they had done.

As with limits on when you can work, you may also encounter some limitations on who you can actually hire for the job, if your building maintains a list of "recommended" or "preferred" specialists from which you can select a firm to carry out your project. Generally, you may assume that anyone on the list has done work for your building in the past with good results. Depending on how you approach it, a preferred contractor list can either hinder the progress of your project, or simplify things by narrowing the field. Other boards and agents take a different approach. Says Paparo, "We have a list of people we don’t want to deal with for one reason or another, or because a board has banned them from working in their building. It depends on the person’s pocketbook, really, but we like to have new contractors come in to broaden our list."

Crouching Permit, Hidden Paperwork

Clearly, if you as a shareholder undertake a construction project that winds up damaging a neighbor’s apartment or harming your building’s common areas in some way, you’re liable for the cost of repairs. However, the contractor you hire can be deemed liable as well, depending on the nature of the damage and who is ultimately found to be at fault. Though any reputable contractor will be able to show you proof of insurance, it’s important to proactively protect yourself as well.

According to Cronk, "Most owners assume that … professionals provide insurance that automatically affords coverage for design errors, omissions, delays, and other professional negligence that may occur on their project. However, most states, including New York, do not require professionals to maintain professional liability insurance. As a consequence, it is the responsibility of each owner to ensure that his chosen professionals have current insurance in place to balance the risk associated with the potential for professional liability problems."

When you embark on a construction project in your unit, it’s important that you and your attorney (or your building’s general legal counsel) make sure your contractor’s coverage is of the appropriate type, offers adequate dollar-amount coverage, and addresses the following:

The aggregate limits of liability afforded by the insurer

The available limits of liability for the annual policy in the event of a pending claim on another project has reduced the original limits of liability

The amount of the deductible maintained by the insured

Before giving the green light to your contractor, it’s imperative that you understand exactly what they’re liable for and what they’re not, in the event that something goes wrong, property is inadvertently damaged, or the job isn’t finished to your satisfaction. Beware of exclusions in your contractor’s policy that let him or her off the hook for things like fee recovery claims. Your contractor isn’t necessarily obliged to walk you through the fine print of their insurance policy–better to take the initiative and do your own homework. According to Alston, "Tricky issues become a burden if you don’t have a professional to help you through," but as a homeowner, you must take it upon yourself to be an informed customer. As Paparo says, "You can always give your manager a call and run it by them."

There’s also the little matter of how all this gets paid for. What if, even after all your research, planning, and meeting, you aren’t satisfied with how your new bathroom (widely regarded as the most complicated room in the house, along with the kitchen)? What if the contractor who looked so good on paper has far exceeded his projected time of completion and isn’t taking your calls? Again, it’s better to plan ahead than play catch-up later. When negotiating your job with your contractor, one of the most important components of the project is working out a mutually acceptable pay schedule that holds a percentage of the total amount due your contractor back, pending the completion of the project. Many’s the shareholder who has paid up-front, in full for a project, only to have his contractor stop 90 percent of the way through the job and then refuse to take calls. If you can arrange a payment schedule and stick to it, both you and your contractor will benefit, and you’ll have a valuable bargaining chip if anything goes amiss during the project.

Do Your Homework

The general rules are now familiar: Communicate with the your board and managing agent. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Err on the side of redundancy rather than risk leaving something important to chance. In the end, changing or fixing up your place is a matter of balance between what you want and what you can actually have. Once that’s been established, and you’re assured of your chosen contractor’s credentials and insurance coverage, and you’ve pitched your plan to the board and met with their approval, you’re free to start painting, sanding, and hammering away.

Ms. Fons is associate editor of

The Cooperator.

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