Co-op and condo boards are often fussy about approving even minor renovations, much less anything more extensive. Each building has its own guidelines, so it’s critical to understand your board’s particular policy before you begin any work. Here’s what to expect
Steps and timeline
Start by contacting your building’s managing agent, who can provide you with the most recent version of the alteration agreement—a standard contract between you and the building laying out your responsibilities in a renovation, including doing everything according to the code, the law, and who’s responsible if something goes wrong. Most buildings also have their own house rules, which affect almost every aspect of getting work done (including the ultimate cost).
You (or more likely your architect) will then initiate the approval process by writing a formal letter to the board laying out the proposed work. Include your architect’s plans along with copies of your contractors’ insurance certificates and licenses.
The building will typically hire its own architect and/or engineer (at your expense) to ensure the plans are in compliance and will not pose a risk of damage.
You may need to meet with board members and the building manager to discuss the terms of the renovation as well as the plans themselves.
You should also be prepared to address questions and concerns, with the potential for much back and forth. (Tip: Have your architect or contractor meet with the building’s super before submitting plans, as that person will know how the building works and what you can and can’t do including the gray areas.)
Expect the approval process to take at least a month if your board and property manager are efficient and do not ask for changes, and up to a year for more extensive work like combining apartments or changing the layout of your existing unit (such as when adding another bedroom). Being on the board yourself can be a significant asset to your project, especially if it’s large or complicated. Though you must recuse yourself from any decision making, your presence on the board will likely help your project proceed faster through the process. You’re also likely to encounter a more tolerant attitude overall to aspects of your renovation that might be expected to trigger concern or pushback, such as wet-over-dry or installation of central air conditioning. Once your project is underway, don’t be surprised to find your property manager and super behaving less like traffic cops and more like problem solvers
Also note that some buildings limit renovations to summer only (when the building is more empty) as well as the number of renovations happening at any one time—meaning the sooner you submit your plans, the better your chances of success.
Co-ops often limit the number of combinations to one per year too—and require you to actually combine them within a specified time period; condos on the other hand usually don’t have such restrictions—in fact you may not even need the board’s consent as set forth in the condominium documents.
Finally, you will want to consider if the building itself is planning on any capital improvements, as that could interfere with your own renovation. Asking the managing agent is often your best bet in gleaning information about what else may be happening in the building.
Roles of board vs property manager vs building architect/engineer
Board members are the ultimate arbiters of whether or not your plans will be approved based on protecting the long-term interests of the building and its residents. They set the initial policies laid out in the alteration agreement and building rules and then make the final decision to approve work or not. In doing so they rely on a team of professionals, including the property manager and registered architect or engineer.
Your property manager’s job is to make sure any work will not harm the building or unduly disrupt life for the other shareholders or condo owners. They will provide suggestions to the board members regarding the specific work, but how much sway that person has can vary (for example, if the agent is brand new to the building, they may have less influence). Your property manager will also be responsible for monitoring the progress of the work and smoothing out any hiccups your neighbors or your building’s super.
The role of the building architect or engineer is to lend expertise to the board in reviewing the plans, particularly when it comes to staying on the right side of building code and other legal requirements but also for sussing out anything that might go against specific building rules (such as “wet over dry,” explained below). The architect or engineer will usually be expected to conduct site visits over the course of the project too (also at your expense).
It’s important for you to personally monitor the course of the project too rather than relying on the building’s inspectors, who are protecting the building’s interest and not your own.
Tips on communicating effectively and responding to concerns
Renovations are always a delicate subject in co-op and condo buildings, so you'll want to be mindful of approaching your board the right way to make the process as painless as possible and improve the odds of a favorable outcome.
- Make a good first impression: A well-constructed alteration agreement should set forth the precise protocol for submitting plans for approval, and you’d be wise to abide by that. For instance, you may be required to submit a detailed statement of work that includes the names and contact information for all contractors and projected schedules for each phase of the project.
- Don’t rush it: Being familiar with all the building’s rules is essential––you don’t want to submit plans that go against anything without a solid reason. Do your homework and consult with your architect or contractor in devising how to stake your claim. Showing how the work will enhance the apartment’s value and thereby the building’s can help smooth over any disagreements.
- Don’t skimp on your architect: If a plan is submitted that doesn’t demonstrate an understanding of all the rules that a renovation must follow, including any landmarks requirements, Department of Building codes, and basic plumbing and structural feasibility, the building architect and the board will be highly suspicious of the design team.
- Strike a collaborative tone: Obviously taking a combative approach is never a good idea. Keep in mind you are just one of many residents. Anticipate questions and concerns, especially regarding how much disruption your project could impose on your neighbors. If you are doing a major renovation, another way to sweeten the pot for building and your immediate neighbors could be to offer to freshen up a tired common foyer as part of your project.
- Meet with your neighbors: Getting your neighbors on board before you present anything to the board will demonstrate a good-faith effort to keep the peace (and make their lives all the easier). It can also help short-circuit any building gossip.
- Be an upstanding resident: Don’t overlook how staying in the good graces of your board from the get-go can be helpful when you decide to renovate, even if that’s not in the immediate future. This is doubly so if you are hoping to have exceptions made for your project.
Strategies for overcoming your board’s objections
Boards basically have the freedom to turn down anything they want. Rarely will they flat out reject a renovation proposal (unless it’s clearly in violation of DOB code). More likely they will provide you with a detailed laundry list of questions and concerns that you can then address to bolster your case. Or the board may ask you to change your renovation plans or accept them with modifications.
Being responsive is essential. If paperwork is consistently being submitted in a timely manner, there might be more wiggle room when it comes to the board's flexibility, as they will have more confidence in how the project will be managed (meaning on time).
It’s also important to pick your battles, so if your top priority is to knock down a wall and expand the kitchen, push for that and let some other things go.
Some boards won’t budge for certain types of work, but you can always ask it to make an exception. Just be sure you can build a solid case, such as how adding a bathroom will improve the equity of the building itself (because you will be upgrading the plumbing and your apartment will be worth more when you eventually sell), or that your architect has expertise with waterproofing or soundproofing in similar buildings (like when adding a bathroom or bedroom).
If negotiations get you nowhere, you can always take the board to court, though you probably won’t prevail unless you can show the decision was discriminatory.
Condo boards have much more leeway than co-op boards and can even reject a renovation proposal for no reason. However, most condo bylaws indicate that if the board takes no action on a project within 30 days of its submission, you can assume that the project has been approved.
The high price of unauthorized renovations
It is not uncommon for alteration agreements to impose (often stiff) daily penalties in the form of substantial fees when jobs are not completed in accordance with building policy, such as if the project runs long or the contractor works outside of authorized hours.
If you do something that’s not covered by the alteration agreement---say, you change a plumbing line in a kitchen expansion---your project can be halted indefinitely and the workers denied access to the building, and you may be forced change back any rogue work. Same for any damages (fires and flooding for example) caused as a result of any unauthorized work.
The DOB can also impose fines for work that is not performed with the proper permitting, even when it was done by a former owner (and they will also delay your permitting applications until the illegal work is remedied).
And unauthorized renovations can endanger the workers on the job and the people and property in neighboring apartments, not to mention your own safety. So it’s just not worth the risk.