Expensive and futile? Suing for your right to renovate

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As if renovating a New York City apartment isn’t stressful enough, some owners kick theirs off with a lawsuit against their board for failing to approve plans.

“People start these more often than you might think,” says C. Jaye Berger, a BrickTank expert and Manhattan real estate attorney.

A common source of conflict arises when a board declines to allow a wet-over-dry renovation like putting a bathroom over a bedroom, says Berger. She has also handled cases involving terrace renovations, in which a board is concerned about leaks, heavy trees, and other problems.

“Many propietary leases say permission can’t be unreasonably withheld, so that kind of creates a loophole for a court to look into whether it’s reasonable,” she says. Still,  she notes, "it's very difficult for a shareholder to win a case," because a board only has to offer a legitimate basis for its decision that is not arbitrary or capricious.

Losing, like winning, can cost as much as a new bathroom ($25,000-$50,000 or more), and unsuccessful plaintiffs may have to reimburse the board for defending against the suit.

So who would take their board to court in the face of such daunting odds – and at such expense?

“I think it’s the people who have the money to do so and who also feel they have somehow been mistreated by the board,” she observes.  “Other people might say, ‘Forget about it, we’ll do it some other way.’ The more naturally litigious people say ‘I’m not going to take it lying down.'”