Renovating? Here’s How to Navigate a Co-op Board

Thanks to the unique ownership structure of a co-op, where you technically lease whatever space your apartment occupies, a co-op board, and its representative, the management company, have formidable power over any renovations you’d like to undertake. Because the board’s role is to protect the interests of all of the owners, the process is less in your control than you might think. It’s best to let the building management set the agenda to achieve the results you want.

Simple renovations

The most basic work in kitchens and bathrooms—what is known as “rip and replace”—includes updating finishes, replacing porcelain plumbing fixtures, and upgrading appliances in their existing locations. For this, your building may not demand a permit, saving money, time, and general red tape.

How your building will evaluate your plan

Your building is likely to use its own architect to evaluate any renovation plans you submit; this is known as alteration review. Expect to pay for this service, typically in the $1,000-$2,000 range. The architect may flag aspects of the design which seem only tangentially related to your renovation objectives (e.g., relocating the intercom), and communications can drag on for months. However, the principal concerns of this review will not be aesthetic. Rather, the building architect is charged with protecting the building from liability, plus advising the board about building code requirements. Overall dimensions of rooms, and door openings, may need to be enlarged as part of gut renovations. In other cases, wet areas, such as bathroom and kitchens, may be required to stay within the pre-renovation footprint. Also known as “wet over wet,” these rules protect a downstairs neighbor from flooding after a bathroom upstairs is enlarged over, say, the bed. Also remember that with new plumbing, the building may also require you to replace branch lines all the way back to main water lines, resulting in additional demolition and expenses.

Your own architect

For larger jobs, you’ll need your own architect or engineer. Some offer advice on style and design at a premium price. Others will produce a basic set of drawings that can be submitted to management and may also file renovation plans with the city, in a service known as “architect of record” and “expediter.”

Larger renovations requiring a city permit

Whether a permit is necessary can be a judgment call, and in extreme cases your board may decide to make you file for one after work has begun, possibly resulting in fines and other city penalties. You will also be required by the city to produce a certificate documenting asbestos tests for areas of the apartment that will be demolished. Should asbestos be present—in plaster or joint compound, in caulking, in linoleum flooring, or even impregnated in the underlayment for wood floors—you will be asked to plan for removal by specialists, or encapsulation. The latter is usually cheaper, leaving asbestos undisturbed and adding new finishes on top, when space and aesthetic considerations allow this.

Legal considerations

The co-op likely has already published and distributed alteration terms or as “house rules,” which should be reviewed closely for the nuts and bolts of working hours, deliveries, and protections mandated for common areas during debris removal. Even in jobs that do not require permits, you will want to provide management with a written scope of work, listing the various upgrades you propose and requesting written permission—at least over email—to proceed.

When you submit your plans, you may be asked to sign an “alteration agreement” which can include provisions tailored to your particular job. It is not uncommon, especially in blue-chip Manhattan buildings, for these agreements to encompass time limits for renovations and daily penalties imposed when jobs are not completed as requested by the board. These agreements may seek to shift liability for construction to the apartment owner, as might be expected. In cases of particularly punitive agreements, however, you may choose to engage a tenant’s lawyer to negotiate more favorable terms with the building’s legal representative. You will typically need to acknowledge the agreement in exchange for the board’s or management company’s signature on your building permit application.

Avoiding problems

Your proprietary lease may allow inspections, so the building architect or superintendent may ask to have a look around your apartment, should any questions arise about your proposed renovations or even work underway. For this reason, it is worth keeping the apartment clean and tidy, whether you are living there through the renovation, or not. An environmental testing firm may visit the apartment to monitor lead levels as part of a regular inspection, most likely if your building has a history of lead. You must not panic—especially if you have advance warning. State environmental agencies recommend cleaning with a HEPA vacuum for soft surfaces, or soapy water and paper towels for hard surfaces.

Staying in the good graces of your co-op board, and particularly becoming friendly with the board president, can short-circuit potential miscommunications and suspicions based on building gossip. The board has the ultimate discretion to direct the building management in matters regarding the schedule and procedures around your renovation. And if you are hoping any exceptions will be made, neighborliness—to say nothing of cookies or Champagne—may help. Good luck navigating the board to fulfill your renovation dreams!

Reach out to your neighbors before a renovation begins. Begin with a considerate letter and end with a glass of wine and a smile.

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