Living happily ever after in a New York City apartment has as much to do with the building you live in as the unit you buy. That’s a lesson first-time buyers and people new to NYC generally wind up learning the hard way--falling for the view and living to regret the high carrying costs (or the high-maintenance co-op board!). Especially if it's your first time, you may not be sensitive to all the ways buildings diverge--from service and financial health, to flood zone location to sublet policies.
Issues like the ones above and below are not necessarily deal breakers, but it’s good to think about them in advance to identify the ones that might be:
1. Elevators: Are there enough elevators to accommodate the number of residents, especially during rush hour or during a one-passenger-at-a time pandemic? In a tall building, are all of the elevators “local” or is there an express option to speed things up? Having to wait 10 minutes every single day for an elevator during rush hour can really crimp your happily-ever after.
2. Sublet policy: What restrictions are there on your ability to rent out the apartment? Are there any fees?
3. Heat and a/c: If the heat and air conditioning are centrally controlled, what time of year does the building switch over? (You could be poaching/freezing for weeks.)
4. Food delivery: Can meals be delivered to your door or do you have to go down to the lobby to get them? Are there enough restaurants that deliver to the building? (Check restaurant-delivery website Seamless.)
5. Package delivery: In recent years, the explosion of grocery delivery services, meal delivery services, Amazon shopping and all other forms of online shopping have severely strained the ability of even full-service doorman buildings to store and/or deliver to residents. Some have banned certain types of delivery altogether, so be sure to inquire.
6. Amenities: Are all of the amenities included, or are there some pay-to-play options?
7. Board personality: Is the board easygoing or strict? (For clues, ask to see a copy of the house rules.) A board's personality will influence your day-to-day existence and can even affect resale values.
8. Flood and evacuation zones: Post-Hurricane Sandy, it's important to be aware of your building's vulnerability to flooding. Find out whether the building was affected by Hurricane Sandy. If it was, you and your attorney need to make sure the damage was fixed properly, by professionals, and find out how the building will address vulnerabilities going forward (and how much your share of that will cost).
You should also check to see if it lies in a FEMA-designated flood zone. If it is, you will need to be prepared for the possibility of future disruption and if you are taking out a mortgage, you may need to buy flood insurance on your apartment, even if it's on the 15th floor.
Finally, determine whether your building lies in a NYC flood evacuation zone. There are no insurance consequences to being inside a NYC evacuation zone, but you may be ordered to evacuate in another severe storm.
9. Bed bugs: Has the building had a bed bug problem within the past year, how was it handled, and what is the status? Red flags include a longterm problem (6 months or longer); an infestation that is centralized in the apartment of a 'hoarder', notoriously difficult to control or even gain access to; a recent bed bug problem in your own unit, or any unit in an adjacent cloverleaf pattern (above, below, beside your prospective apartment).
10. Dogs: Even if you don’t want one now, does the building allow dogs? If so, are there any restrictions on number, breed or size? Will you need to pay a fee to keep a dog, use the service elevator or even carry your dog through the lobby? If, on the other hand, you prefer to live in a no-dog building, recognize that the proliferation of "emotional support pets" has introduced dogs to many no-dog buildings in recent years.
11. Washer/dryer rules: If your apartment doesn’t already have one, may you install a washer/dryer? (Don't take the seller or broker's word on this, and beware of any answers to your renovation questions that include the words “the board approves this on a case-by-case basis.”)
12. Neighborhood nuisances: Are there any nuisances on the block, such as a nightclub that gets going at midnight every night, or a restaurant that exhausts cooking smells into your apartment? (Come back and check at the appropriate time of day.)
13. Smoking policy: It's not just restaurants, bars, and public parks that are smoke free these days: More and more buildings have declared smoking off-limits inside apartments, not just within the public spaces of the building.
14. Schools: What public elementary schools are in your zone, and are they considered “good”? Even if you don’t have kids, your next buyer may care. Fair Housing Laws preclude your real estate agent from discussing schools, but you can investigate on websites like InsideSchools.org and GreatSchools.org and stop by the local playground to ask a few a parents about the schools and any scuttlebutt about future rezoning initiatives.
Before you sign any papers committing you to a new apartment, confirm and reconfirm that the building is in the school zone you think it is. In theory, you can find out which school a building is zoned for by calling 311 or checking the Department of Education website but due to continual rezoning, this information has not always been accurate. We suggest calling the school principal's office to confirm that your building falls in that school's zone.
15. Your future neighbors: What kind of people live in the building? Fair Housing Laws prevent your agent from talking about the presence of families, retirees, or post-grad party animals—so ask the doorman and/or sit outside the building to watch who comes and goes.
16. Family-friendly vs not: Life with small children can be much easier in a building that is truly "friendly" to families, and parent friends (and potential playdate partners) in the same building are a major plus. On the other hand, if you're single or your kids are all grown up, you may not want to live next door or beneath young children. Brokers aren't allowed to discuss the composition of the building, but the doorman or super can. Other tips: Sit in the lobby or outside the building and look for yourself, particularly before and after school. If there's a bike room, look for little bikes. Buildings with up-to-date playrooms and those with predominantly larger (2+ bedroom) apartments tend to have more families, particularly in highly regarded school zones.
17. Odors and secondhand smoke: Be alert to any objectionable odors, ranging from cigarette or pot smoke to cat pee to strong cooking smells and make sure they are something you can live with.
18. Sponsor control: If more than 50% of the apartments are owned by the developer or sponsor, you and your neighbors will not be able to make key decisions about the biggest investment in your life until the sponsor owns a minority stake and residents take control of the board. There may also be issues with financing: Banks are reluctant to issue mortgages in buildings with high investor or sponsor ownership, meaning you may have to pay all-cash--and resale values may be depressed because the pool of potential (all-cash) buyers is small.
19. Trash disposal: How is garbage disposed of—for example, can you leave it on the service stairs for pickup or do you have to bring it down to the basement yourself?
20. Stroller policy: Are strollers allowed in the elevator or relegated to the service elevator?
21. Financial health: After your offer is accepted, a good real estate attorney will conduct a thorough analysis of your prospective building’s financial situation. (Remember, we mean a good attorney; if you pick one unfamiliar with NYC real estate, or who runs an assembly-line chop-shop practice, or who receives a steady stream of referrals from someone who stands to gain from your sale--such as a broker or developer--your attorney may not give this critical process the attention it needs.) If a building hasn’t raised its monthly charges in years, this is likely a sign of bad management in that important projects are probably being deferred. Similarly, while some higher-end buildings make a practice of “running lean” and levying assessments for emergencies and improvement projects, a reserve fund of less than 3 months may mean this building is struggling.