I was in the middle of renovating my apartment when the board stopped the work with no explanation. I literally have no bathroom. What can I do?
In this situation, your priority is to find out why the work has been stopped.
“The alteration agreement allows you to do the work under the conditions stated. If the board stops the work, it needs to point to a reason why,” says Steve Wagner, partner at the Manhattan law firm Wagner, Berkow & Brandt, who represents co-op and condo owners and their boards, including resolving construction issues.
“Your project may have been stopped due to damage to the building, or because a structural problem has been unearthed,” says Wagner. “Another possibility is that your work has gone beyond the original scope or you have not complied with the alteration agreement—whether that’s giving notice to a neighbor or doing work beyond the permitted hours.”
Another possible reason is that your renovation work involves demolition or the moving of mechanical, plumbing or electrical lines, and you need a permit from the Department of Buildings. “In these situations, the board is considered the owner of the co-op or condo, so the Department of Buildings requires the signature of the board in order to approve the application,” says Wagner.
Once work has stopped, contractors don’t usually hang around waiting for these issues to be resolved. Neither does the clock stop, so if you’ve agreed to complete the work within a specific time frame you may be responsible for liquidated damages if the work runs longer than the time allowed by your building. This is in addition to the extra cost of getting the contractor to come back to finish the work.
“You need to find out fast what the reason is, and if it is your fault, make sure you correct whatever it is. If it is not your fault or something you’d be responsible for under the governing documents or alteration agreement, you need to make that clear in writing to the board so the stoppage is not held against you,” says Wagner.
How to get your board to respond
“If your board is unresponsive, you may need to hire an attorney to articulate your rights, the board’s responsibilities, and the potential cost to the building,” says Wagner. “Very often, reminding the board that they are responsible for additional costs if they do not have a valid reason for stopping the work is enough to get the wheels of communication spinning.”
Wagner represented a co-op owner recently when renovations had been stopped on a Manhattan co-op and no explanation was given. In this case, he was able to work out a compromise where the work could continue with revised plans and a lawsuit was avoided.
In another situation, an architect for the tenant shareholder filed a post-approval amendment with the Department of Buildings that included unapproved work. Wagner recognized the amendment did not violate any of the condo’s rules and was able to negotiate a resolution that did not require a full review of the amended plans by the condo’s architect or board, which would have been costly. The unit owner agreed the work would be code compliant.
An experienced lawyer with knowledge of construction issues and building costs can help negotiate a resolution by creating an alternative path to settle the dispute with a compromise.
“It’s very difficult when everyone who is trying to resolve the problem has a stake in the outcome,” notes Wagner. “The board and managing agent don’t want to make a mistake or approve something that is not legal, while the unit owner wants to safely complete an approved renovation. Since lawyers are not personally involved, they are often able to negotiate practical solutions that take into account all of the facts without violating the law.”
Wagner says he likes to involve the architects in resolving these types of disputes. He points out construction is not something that goes in a straight line; there are field conditions that can change the work that needs to be done, and sometimes owners decide they’d like to do things differently during the renovation. Having an attorney who understands this is helpful.
“A lawyer familiar with construction might be more able to understand the compromises that would work, understand what the board or managing agent is asking for and work with the architect to reach a solution,” Wagner says.
New York City real estate attorney Bonnie Reid Berkow is a founding partner of Wagner, Berkow & Brandt with more than 30 years of experience litigating in state and federal courts in New York state, including cases involving breach of contract, fraud and breach of fiduciary duty, in addition to real estate disputes and commercial actions. To submit a question for this column, click here. To ask about a legal consultation, send an email or call (646) 780-7272.
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