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Avoid a Renovation Fiasco: Know Your Home's Permit History Before Starting

By Amy Zimmer | April 26, 2016 6:14pm

BROOKLYN — Picture this: you've saved up for the renovations that'll finally make your home perfect. But as you're about to take a sledgehammer to some sheetrock, a host of previously-existing repairs and renovations that were done before you moved in come to light, and guess what: you're responsible for all the fines that come with the illegal work.

That's what happened to a couple in Cobble Hill who after spending $1.375 million on a three-bedroom co-op in a pre-war limestone walk-up last summer, decided to upgrade the guest bathroom and add a shower to the master bedroom's half bath.

The couple, who asked to withhold their last name to stay on good terms with their co-op board, anticipated it would be a relatively simple renovation, but when they went to file permits with the Department of Buildings, their troubles began. 

Previous renovations by past owners were done illegally, unbeknownst to the new owners. The prior work raised red flags for the DOB, resulting in a string of rejected permits and even a fine for the new owner.

Applying for the permits, which should have taken several weeks, drew out over several months.

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A worker from Bolster contractor Aaron Borenstein working on the Cobble Hill apartment renovation. (Photo courtesy of Bolster)

“With the real estate market in New York the way it is, you don’t really have the time to look into an apartment’s history that way,” said Adam, one of the owners.

After getting the OK from the board of his nine-unit building to do renovations, he hired an experienced architect for the roughly $300,000 job, along with a reputable contractor through the start-up Bolster, which aims to transform the renovation experience by guaranteeing projects never go over budget. The team also included a seasoned expeditor to help move along the permitting process through the DOB, and without whom, the process would have likely taken even longer.

When permit application is submitted to the DOB, its plan examiners review the paperwork to ensure the projects conforms to construction codes and the city's zoning resolutions. If there are red flags, the owner must make revisions and resubmit the plans. Once a permit is granted, construction begins. When the work is completed, an inspector visits the site to sign off on the project.

Adam was determined to follow this process to the letter, but was frustrated that the examiner kept unearthing new issues on each visit.

“The system was difficult to navigate,” he said.

Here’s what happened and tips to avoid such complications when doing a renovation.

A new owner can be on the hook for illegal work that was previously done.

The initial permits, filed in mid-October, were denied because there wasn’t enough clearance over the washer and dryer in the master bath, the examiner said.

So Adam’s team fixed that. But during the next round, the DOB examiner then noticed the bathroom had a different flaw: its window led to a fire escape — which is a no-no for a point of egress, it turned out, and there were no permits on file to legalize that.

The half-bath was added to all of the units when the building was converted from a rental to a co-op in 1983, Adam explained. To hunt for possible past permits, his team tried calling the plumber who did the work, but he had passed away more than a decade ago. The architect of that project was also nowhere to be found.

Ultimately, they had to redesign the bathrooms so the fire escape wasn't in it and then returned to the DOB with new drawings.

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Images from work underway in the guest bathroom at the Cobble Hill apartment. (Photo courtesy of Bolster)

This time, the plan examiner noticed something unrelated to the bathroom was problematic: the entire layout, with the current configuration of bedrooms, was different from the layout the DOB had on record.

Because of that, the examiner again rejected the bathroom application and fined the owner $5,000 to legalize the layout.

The permits were finally approved in January.

“You can’t necessarily count on having a consistent experience with every plan reviewer,” said Bolster's David Yum, the architect for the project, who’s worked in the city for more than 20 years.

The plan reviewer for this project was a newbie, Yum noted.

“He probably was overcompensating by being very detailed,” Yum said. “I think technically the comments were very valid, but it was sort of using the precision of a heart procedure for a tiny cut on the finger.”

Before you buy, look at previous permits filed for your apartment.

The layers of an apartment’s history can sometimes be hidden, even to professionals, and can be especially complicated in pre-war buildings that were renovated decades ago when they turned into co-ops, experts said.

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Images from the master bathroom after its simple renovation plan turned into a more complicated one. (Photos courtesy of Bolster)

When purchasing old apartments in co-ops, be sure to ask when the apartment was last renovated and find out whether it was granted a permit, advised Fraser Patterson, Bolster’s CEO and founder.

If work was done after 1993, the DOB’s website should list previously filed permits. If the work was done before then, ask the co-op board to provide you with hard copies of drawings and permits. If they don’t have the permits, you can order the original microfiche from the DOB, Paterson said.

Have your lawyer look into previous alterations.

Ensure your attorney does due diligence on previous alterations — and require an affidavit from the seller with recourse, Patterson suggested.

“Usually when you buy a new property,” he noted, “the contract has a statement asking the seller to certify that they have only conducted legal renovations to the best of their knowledge.”

He added: “Attorneys are very picky when someone doesn't make that statement and will raise a huge red flag.”

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A worker from Bolster contractor Aaron Borenstein installing molding on the Cobble Hill apartment. Though the molding work didn't need permits, the bathroom work did — and opened a Pandora's box for the project. (Photo courtesy of Bolster)

Have an architect inspect the property.

Yes, it may cost about $1,000 for a few hours of the architect’s time, but it’s important do a site visit to check if blatantly illegal conditions exist before beginning the renovation, Patterson said.

Also have the architect, or a code consultant, review the permit history to see if a deeper dig might be merited, he advised.

While it can be difficult to ascertain whether a property has illegal work, reviewing as much as possible should be part of the process before the design is in place, he suggested.

“The price to pay an architect for a few hours is nothing compared to the problems and costs you may encounter legalizing an apartment during a renovation,” Patterson said.

The DOB makes staff available every Tuesday to answer homeowners questions.

Every Tuesday, from 4:30 to 7 p.m., the Buildings Department holds a "Homeowners' Night" in each of its borough offices where staffers are on hand to answer questions about home construction projects.