The great NYC outdoors: FAQs for those lucky enough to have terraces, roofdecks and gardens

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You just rented or bought a NYC apartment with private outdoor space? Congratulations--you are now officially the envy of 98% of New Yorkers without outdoor space to call their own.

If it's your first time owning or renting al fresco, you may have a few questions about what you can do with, on, or to your enviable space.

Herewith some FAQs--and answers--on everything from grilling rights to furniture wrongs.

Q. Can I grill on my outdoor space?

A. In New York City, grilling anything outdoors is an automatic no-no if your grill is within 10 feet of anything that could easily catch fire, including building walls, trees, wood deck surfaces and furniture. (Fire-escape grilling is never allowed under any circumstances.) Plus, there must be a garden-type hose attached to a water supply or a 4 gallon pail of water available when needed. 

From there, it depends on what type of fuel your barbecue uses--and whether you can reconcile the conflicting and confused guidelines of the NYC Department of Buildings and the NYC Fire Department (as described here and, somewhat differently, here). 

Electric grills are allowed (provided the 10-foot requirement mentioned above is met) in a NYC apartment building. Charcoal grills are sometimes allowed, though maybe not on balconies (versus terraces) and not on the roof. Propane grills are never allowed.  However, natural gas grills may be okay with a properly, professionally installed natural gas line, so long as your grill is made for residential use. 

You can be slapped with fines of up to $10,000 or more if you don’t comply, although the law (whatever it is exactly) is mostly unenforced, "because the fire department doesn’t have enough manpower to check every terrace," says Michael Wolfe, a property manager and president of Midboro Management

"You are more likely to run into trouble with your building for violating its rules on grilling," says Wolfe. Smaller buildings are often more lenient, as are older buildings, versus larger, new high rises, says Wolfe.

To minimize problems, more and more newer developments are installing communal grills on their roofdecks, he says.

“The bottom line is don’t do it if you don’t meet the city’s guidelines, and if it's against your building's policies," warns Manhattan real estate attorney and blogger Ron Gitter.

Q. Do I need permission to landscape my outdoor space, including installing automatic irrigation? What about putting down decking or retiling?

According to Midboro's Wolfe, the answer to all of these questions is a resounding, "yes."

"There are a number of factors to consider," he says. "Typically--and this is the case regardless of whether you live in a co-op, condo or rental--there are guidelines in terms of the types of landscaping you can have. This includes everything from the size of plants, the size of the holders and what they're to be made from, to the specific origin of the plants themselves and whether or not they have a lot of leaves or needles that are going to fall onto other people's spaces when it's raining or windy."

Wolfe notes that the same applies to irrigation systems and hoses, as well as what they are attached to and whether or not there's a chance of leakage.

"And," he adds, "regardless of the system you choose or the types of plants you want to have, it's always best to have prior board approval and submit a landscape ahead of time, particularly in the case of larger projects."

Q. What's the best way to childproof my outdoor space?

A. Those with small children may want to take the following precautions, recommends Howard Applebaum, owner of NYC-based BabyProofersPlus:

  1. Install some type of covering on all open surfaces of the railing so children can't climb through.
  2. Never leave chairs, tables or planters near the ledge where a child can climb up on them.
  3. Never allow young children outside unaccompanied by an adult.
  4. When an adult isn't present, keep the door leading out to the terrace locked. If there's a key, keep it hidden.

Q. What will my insurance cover if there's an accident?

A. Jeff Schneider of Gotham Brokerage strongly advises anyone with outdoor space to have apartment insurance.

Outdoor spaces "are typically covered under most third-party liability policies when it comes to things like accidents caused from barbecuing and furniture blowing off," he says. "As long as you can prove that the damage wasn't caused intentionally, then you can probably be covered even if somebody decides to sue."

Q. What sort of furniture I should buy?

"The most important things to keep in mind when selecting furniture for your balcony are where it's located on a specific floor, how high it is off the street and how much natural exposure there is to unobstructed winds and other elements," says James LaTerza, who heads up the structural engineering team at Rand Engineering and Architecture. "Safety should always be the number one priority in case of bad weather, along with how easily these items can be moved inside or stored when circumstances dictate."

No matter how nice or pretty a piece of furniture is, agrees real estate agent Barbara Fox of Fox Residential, who has a terrace off of her Upper East Side penthouse apartment,  "you have to have furniture that will stay put and won’t fly off the terrace when you aren’t there."

Other tips: buy dark colored furniture that will not show dirt, and stay away from wicker (the real kind, not the artificial all-weather kind) because it can get bug-infested.

Below, some some low-to-midpriced places to get started:

Bed, Bath & Beyond -- With three locations throughout Manhattan and one in Elmhurst, Queens, they have various styles of chairs and tables, many of which are inexpensively priced. 

Home Depot -- From outdoor furniture and plants to grills, Home Depot--which has two stores in Manhattan -- offers a wide selection at good prices, plus home delivery and installation is available. 

Home Goods -- Located in the mall-like shopping complex on Columbus Avenue north of 96th Street, this store is great for deals on accessories that might seem frivolous at full price.

Ikea -- The Swedish chain store has lots of modern outdoor accessories and furniture with clean lines. Note, you'll probably have to put all furniture together yourself, but the price will be hard to beat.

Rainbow Ace Hardware -- This store offers a variety of inexpensive tables and chairs, plus a large assortment of plates, cups, silverware, and food items. Serious one-stop shopping. (1449 First Avenue, Manhattan, 212-288-4868)

Plantworks -- With landscape designers and architects on staff, Plantworks offers an incredible variety of horticultural options. (28 East 4th St., Manhattan, 212-674-8111)

Web-only options: Check out the following websites:,, and

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