Before you sign a residential lease, you should do this

I’m still worried about Charanna Alexander and the anxious time she wrote so eloquently about in the Metropolitan Section of the Sunday New York Times.

I’ve been thinking that the New York real estate market, especially for rentals, is so frantic nowadays—the city vacancy rate is like minus 2—apartment seekers wouldn’t think to check up on the landlord of the building in which they’re hoping to rent.

We complacent owners tend to shake our heads unsympathetically when we hear about open houses for rental apartments, with lines of more than 20 people salivating about getting in.

We also hear about anxious renters showing up at empty apartments brandishing cash and ready to sign leases without a tremor. Or a lawyer.

Charanna Alexander’s experience, though, should warn everyone: don’t sign a lease without doing some research.

Before you rent an apartment, there are a few easy things you can check up on, and fast. So say you’ve brought your laptop to a vacant apartment and an agent or whoever is pressuring you to produce money and sign. Here’s what you do:

  • Go to www.nyc.gov. In the left column, there is a scroll-down menu of NYC agencies, called “Jump to City Agency Web sites.” First, scroll to Finance, the agency that has jurisdiction over properties, and click. You will see a link called “Property.” Click on that.
  • Now, in the main box, you’ll see “Bills and Payments.” Under that, you’ll see “Property Tax Bill Information and Payments.” Click. Scroll down a bit to…
  • A menu of links starting with “Download/Print Your Property Tax Bill.” Click on that, then click on “view your account history.”
  • This page is called Your Property Information. It says, “If you do not know your BBL [that’s borough, block and lot numbers], click here to search by address.” Click.
  • Type in the borough, house number and street name and apartment number, if you’re considering a condominium.
  • At the top of the page is Your Property Information. Here you will see the owner of the building. This is important in case the place you’re trying to rent or buy has a different owner’s name on it.
  • Under that is a long series of links called Statements List. Click on Account History. Scroll down to see if under the column labeled “period balance,” there is a balance. (“Period” means quarter—real estate taxes are calculated and billed quarterly.) If there’s a big balance, like more than a year’s worth of taxes due, take careful note. Do you want to rent or buy from someone who owes real estate taxes?
  • Now go back to www.nyc.gov.  Use that left side column “Jump to City Agency Web sites” again, and go to “Buildings.” On the left side toward the bottom, there will be a place to enter the borough and address of the building you’re thinking of renting and/or buying in. Put that info in.
  • Now you will have the main page for that building in the Department of Buildings web site. On the left side toward the bottom, you’ll see a short list of “Complaints, Violations-DOB, and Violations-ECB (DOB).” “Complaints” will probably exist on any building because all sorts of tenants and owners will call 311 to complain about problems with hot water, heat, etc. The list of complaints is useful only in a comparison with the actual violations. Often, a complaint to 311 just means that a landlord takes care of the problem. (Although if there are a lot of complaints about “no hot water” or “no heat,” take it under advisement; you might wind up shivering.)
  • Now click on the links to the violations themselves. Take a good solid look at them, to see how they are rated by the DOB (are they hazardous?), whether they have been addressed by the building owner, whether fines have been levied. If you’re negotiating with a real estate broker or agent, bring these to his/her attention. If they are serious violations, I wouldn’t buy or rent in that building. If the violations don’t seem too serious, well, that’s your call. But at least you’ll know what you’re moving into.
  • Now go back to www.nyc.gov. Go back to the “Jump to City Agency Web sites” list and hit Housing (HPD). Scroll down on the right column toward the bottom is “Complaints, Violations & Registration Information.” Under that heading, put in the borough and address. Up will come…
  • A sort of blank screen, with a bit of info at the top. Go into the left—purple!—column. If you’ve haven’t already found out who the owner is, click on Property Owner Registration. This will give you a complete run-down on who the owner is, who the managing agent is, what the mailing address is (which might be different from the building address).
  • Now go back into the purple column and hit “All Open Violations.” The top of the page will read “Building Registration Summary Report.” Scroll down the page for the entire list of violations. And if it’s one apartment you’re looking at, there’s a place to put in the apartment number, so you can see if that apartment has particular violations of its own.

You will be informed about the place you might move into. Maybe the crush out there is so intense that even if you learn that building has tons of violations and tax problems you’ll sign a lease anyway.

But, unlike Charanna Alexander, you won’t be caught by surprise if an eviction notice appears in your building. And if it does, you’ll know exactly what to do: Go to Housing Court, 111 Centre Street, 2nd Floor and ask for help.

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