Unless you are doing only minimal updates to your co-op, condo or townhouse, your renovation will likely require a DOB permit––and some co-op and condo boards mandate getting a permit no matter what. As anyone will tell you, it takes time and money to follow DOB’s permitting protocol. Here’s how to tell if you need permits for your renovation--and how to get them.
Renovations that require a permit
There are two general categories of work that falls under DOB permitting:
- Type I: Your renovation requires a major change to the certificate of occupancy, including changing the use of the building from commercial to residential, adding a bathroom or bedroom, or combining apartments.
- Type II: Your renovation requires different trades such as plumbing, electrical and construction, even if there's no change to the certificate of occupancy.
An easy way to think of it is that if you are doing anything that opens up the walls, such as relocating the sink and toilet in a bathroom, or rerouting gas pipes and adding electrical outlets in a kitchen, a DOB permit will be a must.
Same for removing walls, whether structural or not.
It’s always a good idea to start by calling the DOB or visit them in person to get information on what you need, as getting a permit varies on a case-by-case basis. A qualified architect and contractor will also be able to offer guidance.
Note that if you are adding a bedroom, the DOB has strict requirements around dimensions, egress, and natural light and air for making it legal; your architect will be able to advise you (and see links below).
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Renovations that do not need a buildings permit
Generally speaking, a DOB permit isn’t required for “cosmetic” or surface upgrades. This includes painting, wallpapering, and floor resurfacing.
In a bathroom renovation, you would not need a permit for installing new tiles or flooring, lighting, and plumbing fixtures (toilet, tub, sink), so long as those fixtures are staying in the same location.
The same goes for a kitchen redo where you are swapping out appliances, surfaces (countertop and backsplash), fixtures (sink and faucet), and even cabinetry––so long as you are not shifting their placement.
That said, you may still need a Limited Alteration Application (LAA) when modifying or replacing gas or plumbing lines (such as when replacing a tub with a shower), but those can be obtained by a licensed contractor or plumber rather than having to hire an architect or engineer.
Note: Some boards will require you to get a permit even when the DOB would otherwise not mandate that (check with your property manager).
Professional certification alternative
The standard certification process involves filing plans, waiting for a DOB review and subsequent comments or objections, and resolving those issues to obtain final approval.
To avoid a continual logjam, the city gave architects the ability to sign off on their own plans for common home renovations (but not in landmarked buildings or when applying for a new certificate of occupancy). In this self-certification (also known as “professional certification”) process, professionals effectively state that the plans they are filing with the DOB comply with applicable laws, thereby eliminating the need for certification by the city. End result: You can get a permit the same day rather than weeks.
Not all boards allow self-certification though, so be sure to find that out. And some architects may not feel comfortable self-certifying a project, especially if they are unfamiliar with the city’s codes. Keep in mind that one of every five self-certifications are audited (randomly) by the city, and if the DOB finds any issue with the initial plans or the final conditions, it will conduct a full review and can require changes, potentially long after your work has been completed.
If your architect does self-certify your project, make sure they complete the process, which means closing out all the permits when a job is done.
During the construction phase, the city will conduct plumbing and electrical inspections to ensure compliance with the filed plans. This can often involve multiple site visits between ConEd and the DOB.
Once all of the construction is complete, a final inspection is conducted in order for the DOB to sign off the job and close the permit.
A contractor can choose to self-certify the final DOB inspections. These are subject to random audit (similar to architect self-certification) and subsequent inspection by the DOB.
Here’s where your final walk-through with your architect or contractor is key in going through a “punch list” of items that need to be addressed before the construction team leaves (and the DOB inspection takes place).
What the DOB will be checking is that all the renovations are code-compliant, which includes seemingly minor things like having enough space between a washer/dryer and the ceiling as well as ADA rules for egress in a bathroom (for example, if you installed larger fixtures without expanding the square footage).
Other problems crop up when the inspections were not completed during various project stages (such as electrical and plumbing), or when the final work deviates from the original plans. In that case your architect or contractor will have to submit revised as-built plans for approval by the DOB.
Another potential approval problem: Illegal work by previous owners.
In reviewing your plans, the DOB might see red flags based on prior work and not only reject the application for a permit but charge you a fine. Then you’ll have to remedy that illegal work before resubmitting new plans (and hoping nothing else turns up).
In other instances the illegal work is discovered by the contractor or subcontractor (say, a gas pipe has been installed without any record of such) during one of the site inspections. In these instances the DOB will stop the work until the problem is resolved, which may involve multiple inspections (especially if it involves a gas line).
You can try to avoid these unpleasant surprises before you buy by making sure your attorney does the requisite due diligence regarding prior alterations. You can even include language in the contract where the seller has to certify that they only did legal renovations.
You would be wise to also look for permits yourself. All permits for work done after 1993 should be on the DOB’s website. For work done before then, ask the co-op or condo board to provide you with their records.
Paying for an architect to join the pre-purchase inspection can also be a good way of avoiding trouble later on especially if you plan to renovate.
Assuming all the inspections have passed muster, the DOB will officially close the work permits. This is an important step that should not be overlooked. Open permits can pose problems down the line, such as if you (or subsequent buyers) embark on another renovation. You won’t be able to get any new permits until the old ones are closed out, which may not be easy or inexpensive to do—building regulations change all the time. Even though the work was properly completed at that time could now be in violation of newer codes.