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Ask an Expert: Whose problem is it if my brownstone renovation bothers the neighbors?

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Q.  We're renovating a brownstone and we informed the landlords of the attached brownstones in advance. During demolition, one landlord called repeatedly to complain about the dust. 

My contractors really did try their best to contain the dust, including hosing, closing all windows and doors, etc. I had my contractor speak with this neighbor to explain to him why he is getting dust. (My neighbor has brick walls internally, not sheetrock, and the sand and grout from his walls was creating more dust.) 

He demanded that we clean his apartment as well as his tenants' apartments. Then he demanded that we clean his building throughout the entire renovation. 

We offered to clean his building after the demolition to maintain a good relationship, but we explained that we were not legally obligated to do this. He told us not to bother and verbally threatened us. 

What is the obligation of an owner to neighboring buildings during a renovation? Any advice on dealing with abusive neighbors with unrealistic demands?

A.  While NYC Building Code is somewhat vague on this point, say our experts, you do have certain responsibilities to the neighbors.

The code "only states that a property owner performing construction must adequately protect the adjacent property," says real estate attorney Eric Goidel of Borah Goldstein Altschuler Nahins & Goidel. "Generally that relates to safety measures and not to dust and debris. However, the owner performing the work must ensure that the dust and debris is not harmful and that the proper precautions have been taken per the Building Code--such as netting, sheathing, etc.--to protect the adjacent building."

Unless you formally agreed with your neighbors to clean up the debris and dust in those buildings--or unless the dust and debris contains asbestos or other particles that are environmentally unsafe--"doing so would simply be a courtesy issue between neighbors," says Goidel.

That said, from a practical viewpoint, "it's always best to try hard to work out a compromise with neighbors," points out Roberta Axelrod, a real estate broker and asset manager with Time Equities. "When tensions rise, upset neighbors can make life miserable by calling the building inspectors, bringing legal actions, making noise, etc."

Goidel recommends that you write a letter offering to clean up the adjacent building at your cost, either periodically or at the end of the construction.  (Be sure to take before and after pictures.)

"At least it will show good faith should the adjacent owner either commence some kind of action"--remember, just because your neighbor has little hope of winning may not stop him from suing--"or file a complaint with a city agency," says Goidel.


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