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Rent Coach: Who's responsible for renting me an illegal apartment?

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Q. I went to look at a lovely apartment in Greenpoint that seemed like it was underpriced for a place of its size in the neighborhood. I decided to rent it and moved in two weeks ago.

After that, a friend who visited told me that the apartment is probably not legal because the building is classified as a three family and my apartment in the basement would be the fourth unit in the building.

Is the landlord or the broker who listed the apartment be liable for renting me an illegal apartment?

A. Yes. The Department of Buildings (the “DOB”) enforces the building code and has the authority to fine those who violate it.

For years, landlords have been under the scrutiny of inspectors who search for illegal apartments that can risk the life and limb of all of the residents of the building and those tasked with protecting them such as firefighters, policeman, and paramedics.

Illegal apartments often lack a proper means of egress, have unpermitted electrical or plumbing work that may not be done to code, or increase the number of residents occupying a building to a number that is unsafe. A few months ago, the DOB began fining real estate brokers who assist landlords in marketing illegal apartments. Fines start at $3,600 and can go up significantly depending on the circumstances. 

You can report an illegal apartment to the DOB who will respond by attempting to investigate it. Often, investigators are unable to gain access to a building (they don’t have the authority to enter without permission). However, you could offer the investigator access if you so choose.

Though both the broker and the landlord could be fined if it turns out that they were complicit in renting you an apartment that violates building codes, that would not help you directly.

A better approach may be to approach the landlord and let them know that you want to break the lease and want your moving expenses paid for because you’re aware that the apartment is not legal. If you paid the listing broker a fee, you should insist that it be returned for the same reason. It’s up to you whether you choose to report the matter to the DOB.


Mike Akerly is a New York City real estate attorney, landlord, and real estate broker. He is also the publisher of the Greenwich Village blog VillageConfidential.     

Note: The information provided here is for informational purposes only. It should not be construed as legal advice and cannot substitute for the advice of a licensed professional applying their specialized knowledge to the particular circumstances of your case.

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