Home visits, in which a buyer’s apartment is ‘inspected’ as part of the co-op approval process, are far from widespread:  Of the large number of New York City co-ops my firm represents, only a handful routinely require home visits.  Many more decline to do so because it is not something they would want “done” to them.

But the visits--scheduled in advance and conducted by a third-party investigator working from a checklist prepared by the co-op board--are not as intrusive than they sound, and certainly not the equivalent of the warranted searches by police we are all familiar with from television.  

They include a walk-through to confirm the general conditions in the apartment and the home lifestyle of the proposed buyers, during which the investigator makes simple notations as to the general cleanliness and number of occupants who appear to be residing there.  Sometimes there is also an informational interview so that the proposed buyer can confirm the information provided in their application, such as the number of people in the family, the presence of pets, etc. 

At around $60 apiece, the inspections can be an economical and useful way to allay concerns about everything from undisclosed pied-a-terre purchases to the presence of pets or potentially contraband washer-dryers. 

Home visits can also enable boards to get more comfortable with a foreign buyer whose lack of social security number makes a standard background check impossible.  And in regulated co-ops like Mitchell-Lama housing, where boards have limited ability to reject buyers, a criminal background check in combination with a home visit is critical to voicing successful objections. 

To protect against discrimination claims, boards should always hire a third-party firm rather than conduct the visit themselves, and the visits should be required for all buyers who apply to the building, rather than on a case-by-case basis.

That said, here are 5 potential problems home visits uncover that a standard board interview can’t:

  1. Signs of hoarding: Collyers Syndrome, a behavioral disorder whose sufferers are unable to throw away worthless items, can affect an entire building. Mountains of junk beget odors, fire risk, and vermin, affecting safety, quality of life and resale values of nearby residents.
  2. Pets:  Inspectors look for signs of pets (such a leash, a basket of chew toys, chew marks on the furniture) if the co-op has rules banning pets.
  3. Family demographics that don’t make sense:  A home visit can shed light on whether a buyer (say, a family of four with a large house in Westchester) may be planning to use the new apartment as a pied a terre or as a dorm room for college-aged children.  This is especially true with regulated cooperative housing where family demographics and primary residence issues are much more important.
  4. Smoking:  Evidence of heavy smoking has inspired co-op boards to require the buyer to take certain steps to “smoke proof” the new apartment before moving in.
  5. Washer-dryers:  If the buyer has a washer-dryer but the new building does not allow them, the board may want to ask the buyer to sign a rider reaffirming his or her understanding of the co-op’s ban on in-unit washer-dryers.

While home visits may not be something all boards wish to do, they are a tool to consider in making the important decision as to who may become members of the cooperative.   The visits provide unbiased third-party information on potential buyers, which is always useful in making a decision that is increasingly subject to legal challenge for denials and that can have serious consequences when approved buyers are later discovered to have serious issues.

Dean M. Roberts is a co-op and condo attorney at Norris McLaughlin & Marcus, which represents over 100 co-op and condo boards in New York City.  

More from Dean Roberts:

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