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Inside Story: My 7-year new construction nightmare & why I'd do it again

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My new construction nightmare unfolded at the pre-dawn of the condo boom, way before buyers started getting even a little savvy about construction defects.

Neither my husband nor I had ever owned an apartment when we came across the 18-unit West Village building in which we eventually bought.   We were shown the beautiful finishes in the sales office, but when we looked at the construction site, even we could tell that the few floors that had been framed up were pretty shoddy, with concrete slab floors and cinderblock walls.

A friend who was an architect and building engineer came and took a look.

“It’ll stand up, but they’re cutting some corners,” she said.

That didn’t sound so bad. After all, the developer, though small, was a son of a developer who had done bigger projects in the city.  And the apartment had an amazing layout and a third bathroom. We put 10 percent down on a 2,000 square foot, 3 bedroom $1.1 million apartment. 

Two years later we moved in, right around 9/11.    Almost everyone in the building was a first-time buyer. We were mostly in our 30s.  The board first organized in January 2002.  I was elected to it and we started going through the punch list of things that in hindsight were minor—things where the building didn’t match the description that was written in the offering plan. For instance, the lobby was supposed to have a poured stone terrazzo floor, but it had terrazzo tiles instead. The yard was not landscaped. The facade of the building was not as described in the offering plan. 

Meanwhile, the wood floors in our apartment had to be re-done six times in the first six months we were there. One problem was that the developer had glued solid wood directly to concrete, when he should have put down a subfloor for acoustical and structural reasons.  Wood glue and concrete don’t make a good seal, especially when the floor is not level. 

Then in January 2003 we went away for Martin Luther King weekend and got a phone call on Monday that the pipes had burst in the building and water was leaking into all of the apartments.    That was the first flood. We had several incidents in 2003 and more in 2004. It wasn't fun. With each incident, it meant that at 2 or 3 in the morning you're opening up the apartments of neighbors who are out of town and have given you keys, to move their furniture around and get it out of the way from the water.

We spent a long time in the fog of ignorance just trying to patch things up when in hindsight we should have hired an architect and engineer to do a full building conditions report immediately.

The sponsor brought in his crews to replace the HVAC units. He either wasn’t understanding or not addressing the real situation, which turned out to be that he hadn’t insulated any of the risers in the building that carried hot water around to the HVAC units under every window.  So in January, when you have the wind whipping off the river, the copper pipes freeze. They crack and leak and pour water down the front of the building and it goes into the apartments on every floor—the concrete slabs with the hollowed out middles became channels for water to roll throughout the building.

We had meeting after meeting with the state attorney general, attended by the sponsor, the board, our managing agent, our lawyer and eventually our architect. 

The attorney general didn’t want to take it to trial because it would be expensive; our lawyer advised the same thing.  So the attorney general got the building and sponsor to agree to hire an engineer to do the building conditions report. That report outlined what needed to be fixed in the building. 

The sponsor wound up fixing some problems but it was shoddy.  Basically, you have a sponsor who is trying finish a construction project as quickly and cheaply as possibly and you have building owners who want a sturdy building that will last a long time with minimal ongoing repairs.   We took that as far as we could—the sponsor put in approximately $300,000 worth of work and officially left the building. 

Then we, the remaining owners,  basically rebuilt the building.  We redesigned and reconstructed the whole envelope—the front and the back of the building—and in the process found out there was no insulation or fire-stopping.  We fixed it.  We built a great airtight building, and rebuilt the lobby and all of the landings.  Then the roof started leaking and it took a long time to figure out the source of the leaks. Luckily, by then we had an architect for the building, a strong managing agent, a smart lawyer and some very active board members. We fixed all the problems we could find. 

It took seven years and cost the building about $1.5 million in assessment after assessment.  My husband and I would write a big check  a couple of times a year to cover our share.  Personally, we were conservative with our cash, so we had a cushion, but for some people it was tricky, because you pay for your apartment and think you’re done. Some people sold or moved out and rented out their apartments.

We have a great building now, and despite everything that happened, I would do it again. We love our apartment—we have kids now and the layout is amazing for our lifestyle, especially because we have a lot of guests and they can stay in the front of the apartment in a bedroom that has its own bath.

My advice to other people buying new construction: Expect delays and expect to pay some money in assessments--set aside that cash now.  Also, most home inspection services are a waste of time.  If you really want to know the condition of the building, get the sponsor to agree to a full building conditions report that is created jointly by the owners and the sponsor.  You have to have someone drill holes in the walls and see what is behind all the pretty finishes.  And condo boards of new buildings should quickly put together a solid team of advisers that includes: a managing agent, a real estate lawyer, and a building architect.  

See also:

BrickUnderground's New Construction Survival Kit

4 neat ways to use an investigative lawyer in a co-op or condo

Top 3 reasons to sue your developer (nor not) [sponsored]

The topic 7 construction defects

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