Realty Bites

I want to add a window to my co-op. What kind of hassle am I looking at?

By Virginia K. Smith  | May 30, 2014 - 1:59PM

We often receive emails from readers asking for help in navigating their own real estate crises. In Realty Bites, we try to get them answers.

The problem:

Co-op boards are notoriously fussy about even minor home renovations, so what happens when you want to do something as big as adding a new window?

A reader recently bought a co-op with one large window and space to create another one in the same wall above an existing hole for the through-wall air conditioning unit.

With a gauntlet of co-op approval and city engineering and code issues to wade through, he asks, "What are the chances that I can actually create another external window, and what steps should I take to make it happen?"

The solution:

It just might work, but it depends as much on your board as on the building itself.

"It's a board by board issue," says Dean Roberts, a real estate lawyer with Norris McLaughlin & Marcus. "In 99.9 percent of co-ops, windows are deemed 'common elements,'" or parts of the building owned by the co-op as a whole. "Boards shy away from making changes."

Many boards also have a horror of any work that "penetrates the membrane" of the building ... an invitation to leaks and future requests by residents who want to punch through exterior walls too.

"Broach the idea with the board, tell them that you'd like to hire an architect to assess how the work could be done," says Roberts. "You want to get some tacit approval before you spend a couple grand to get a formal study done about what work is needed." 

Once you get the go-ahead that your board might consider it, bring in an architect to advise on both the feasibility of the window and necessary city permits. "Don't rely on a contractor," warns Roberts, as architects will have better information.

The city's approval will also be a big hurdle. "God forbid you're in any type of historical district," says Roberts, in an understatement.

A new window will require approval from the Department of Buildings and, if your building is landmarked, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, as well, notes Aaron Shmulewitz, a real estate attorney at Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman. Any work you end up doing will have to meet their stated requirements--which your architect should know and be able to guide you on-- and ultimately, your co-op board will be responsible for signing and submitting your applications to the DOB and LPC, he says. (So you really, really want to make sure they're okay with it first.)

And, of course, your room with an (extra) view won't come cheap. You'll have to shoulder costs for architectural, engineering and legal fees; permit and application fees; and, of course, construction, Shmulewitz says.

"I had a client who spent around $100,000 putting in nice windows, including a couple of new ones," says Roberts of a recent success story. "If you've got the money" to bankroll upgrades your board will be excited about, you may well be able to push them through. 

Above all, check in with everyone involved, every step of the way. Roberts says, "This isn’t a case where you want to get forgiveness before permission."


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