Most leases have a clause stating that tenants can only make upgrades with the written consent of the landlord.

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Question:

Over three decades ago, I received permission to renovate my rent-stabilized apartment. I recently asked if I could make repairs to the floor I put in, but was told there was no record of the work ever being allowed. Can I still go ahead and make the repairs myself? And can the owner raise the rent because of the improvements I've done?

Answer:

Some tenants can make minor upgrades to their apartments with the landlord’s written permission, but if you can’t get that now, you shouldn’t alter the floors yourself, says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer at the firm Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben & Joseph who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations.

“Look at the terms of your original lease, if you still have it,” Himmelstein says. “Almost every residential lease has a clause stating that tenants may not perform any repairs or alterations to the apartment without the landlord’s express written consent in each instance.”

Tenants do not need their landlord’s permission to make decorative changes, like painting the walls or hanging pictures, but they do need it for more significant alterations, like replacing the floor or cabinets. This permission must be for each change the tenant wishes to make, and they must get it in writing. And they can’t do any work that requires a permit unless the landlord approves and applies for the permit.

However, if you can’t track down the written permission your landlord gave you to make those changes 30 years ago—or you never got it in writing—your current landlord still can’t give you any legal trouble for it.

“If a tenant does non-structural improvements that don’t require a permit, such as electrical or extensive plumbing work, and six years go by without the landlord objecting, any case the landlord might file would be barred by the statute of limitations,” Himmelstein says. “The landlord can’t then sue for eviction based on illegal alterations once six years have passed since the work was done. And the six years runs from when the work was done, not when the landlord finds out about the alterations.”

So you’re not at risk for any repercussions for the alterations you’ve already made, but you should proceed with caution before undertaking any more improvements to the apartment yourself, since the language of most leases requires the landlord’s approval. And if the floor you installed is in disrepair, your landlord is obligated to fix it.

“The landlord has an obligation to make repairs, and if they don’t want to let the tenant handle it themselves, they have to do it,” Himmelstein says. “They can’t have it both ways.”

Whoever makes the repairs, your rent shouldn’t go up as a result. In the past, landlords were allowed to institute rent increases when they made improvements to rent-stabilized tenants’ apartments if the tenant consented in writing, but these rent hikes were outlawed as a result of changes to the rent laws in 2019.

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Read all our Ask a Renters Rights Lawyer columns here.


Sam Himmelstein, Esq. represents NYC tenants and tenant associations in disputes over evictions, rent increases, rental conversions, rent stabilization law, lease buyouts, and many other issues. He is a partner at Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben & Joseph in Manhattan. To submit a question for this column, click here. To ask about a legal consultation, email Sam or call (212) 349-3000.

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