NYC Renovation Chronicles

NYC Renovation Chronicles: When you suspect your neighbor's renovation is illegal

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The Situation

So you suspect that your neighbor is engaged in illegal renovation work, which at the very least might endanger the workers on the job along with people and property in neighboring apartments. You have a range of choices on how to respond--but first make sure that what your neighbor is up to is illegal. 

The Deal

There are five telltale signs that work is being performed illegally: 

1. Work after hours. The New York City Department of Buildings permits work only Monday through Friday 7 A.M. to 6 P.M. Co-ops and condos tend to further restrict the hours (so as not to inconvenience or disturb residents).  The most flexible ones usually allow work 9 A.M. – 5 P.M.  

 2. No work permits posted. If walls are being demolished or moved, a work permit is needed. It doesn’t matter how small the wall is.

 3. Nobody on the job site speaks English. If the contractor does not speak English, chances are that he is not licensed and insured.

 4. Work contrary to approved plans. Posted work permits list in abbreviated form the scope of approved work. If permits indicate demolition and new walls are being built, something is wrong. 

 5. Questionable safety.  If workers are on scaffolds and do not have safety harnesses, they probably do not have the required OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) certifications. If they do, then they are violating code.

What you can do about it (in increasing order of severity):

1. Speak to your neighbor.

 Pros: You might be able to defuse the situation and get immediate results. Most importantly, if your neighbor hired a handyman for a job that requires a licensed contractor you may be saving them from catastrophic results. I  visited a job site last month as a favor for a friend  where a supposed contractor was in the process of removing a load bearing wall and was about to cause the collapse of the floor above. The homeowner had no idea.

Cons: No anonymity. Also, they can retaliate when it’s your turn to renovate by filing a complaint with the Department of Buildings regarding your project. Even if you are working lawfully you do not want municipal inspectors on your job site. Chances are if an inspector looks hard enough they will find a reason to issue a violation and fill the city’s coffers. 

2. Call your managing agent or landlord.

 Pros: They have the power to act quickly if they want to.

Cons: No guaranteed anonymity.  Many landlords and managing agents refuse to respond to anonymous complaints.

 3. Call 311.

 Pros: You can remain anonymous, and if the Department of Buildings people show up, they can shut down the job for a while. Fines for work without permits start at $5,000. They can also prevent an unlicensed contractor from putting their workers or the homeowner’s property at serious risk.

Cons: The Department of Buildings can take weeks to appear depending on the complaint's severity, and by that time the job can be finished.

 4. Call 911.

 Pros: If a worker’s or pedestrian’s life is in danger, the police can respond quickly.

Cons: The NYPD does not always like responding to calls related to construction, and if it is not  life-threatening, you are wasting their time and the city’s resources.

In short, you can make your neighbor’s life miserable if he or she is undertaking illegal work. (At least you can cost your neighbor a lot of money and time to improve the work conditions.)

If you know that your neighbor is aware that the work is illegal, it probably would be best to call 311. If they have no clue that what they are doing is putting themselves and the workers at risk, then speaking to them may be the best option as your friendly advice may prevent serious financial loss and/or an accident.


Yoel Borgenicht is the president of King Rose Construction, specializing in high-quality commercial and residential renovations in the New York City metro area. This is his first week as BrickUnderground's renovation columnist.

See all NYC Renovation Chronicles.

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