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Ask Sam: Can my landlord charge me extra if I build shelves into my apartment?

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Dear Sam: I'm moving into a rent stabilized NYC apartment and want to install wall mounted shelving. Does this constitute an "improvement" or "alteration" requiring written consent of the landlord? If approved, will this give my landlord legal grounds to increase the rent? Can the landlord expect me to leave the shelving in the apartment when I move out?

"Everybody puts shelves in their apartment,"  says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations. "If you're talking about things that require brackets and mollys—a shelf to hold your books or records—I've never seen a landlord object to putting up shelves."
As with any changes you make to an apartment (painting, for instance), you will be required to restore the place to its original condition before moving out, which in this case means removing the shelves and spackling the holes. The only kind of upgrade you'd be required to leave behind is something major enough to qualify as a "fixture," something that couldn't be removed without damaging the apartment. This kind of issue rears its head more frequently in commercial leases than in residential apartments—for instance, a commercial tenant adding a full commercial kitchen to a retail space.

However, kitchen cabinets that are attached to the walls with heavy-duty bolts and have doors can qualify as "fixtures"—and therefore an "alteration"—to your apartment, so if this is the kind of shelving you had in mind, be sure to hammer out an agreement with the landlord first. Almost all residential leases contain enforceable clauses which prohibit tenants from performing alterations without prior written consent of the landlord.  If they want you to leave it in the apartment when you move, be sure to get this provision in writing so you they can't try to use your alterations as an excuse to withhold your security deposit down the road.

In any case, the landlord definitely can't charge you extra for work you've done yourself.  The only way the landlord could up the rent for something like this after you take occupancy would be if they did work on your apartment that was significant enough to justify a rent increase—often this means adding in new appliances or kitchen cabinets. In this case, you'd have to sign a written document agreeing to have the work done, and consenting to the rent increase  and the landlord would be allowed to charge 1/40th or 1/60th of the cost of work. "It's like a Major Capital Improvement, in that it's a permanent increase in the monthly legal regulated rent," says Himmelstein.


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Sam Himmelstein, Esq., represents NYC tenants and tenant associations in disputes over evictions, rent increases, rental conversions, rent stabilization law, lease buyouts and many other issues. He is a partner at Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph in Manhattan.  To submit a question for this column, click here. To ask about a legal consultation, email Sam or call (212) 349-3000.

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