If you own property in NYC: “The building code exists for a reason…”

From the January 3, 2013 New York Times’ real estate question and answer column:

The Joys of Homeownership

Q. If I buy a property that the previous owner renovated without permits, and the Department of Buildings finds out about the renovations, am I liable?

Crown Heights, Brooklyn

A. Welcome to homeownership. If you own a property, you are responsible for all of it, even if you didn’t put up that illegal wall. According to the Department of Buildings, if there has been an illegal modification you have two choices. You can legalize it or you can restore it to its original condition.

If something seems fishy, call an architect, who can determine whether renovations have been done to code. You or the architect can check city records to see which modifications (if any) have been filed with the city and which ones haven’t. Remember: This is more than a question of liability. The building code exists for a reason, and illegal changes can create safety hazards. So you want to make sure that your new home is safe.

As Walter C. Maffei, a Brooklyn architect, put it: “If they moved a gas stove, who’s doing the plumbing? People die from gas leaks. That is an issue that is of great import.”

The same rules apply to co-op ownership, except that the situation is more entangled: the value of safety of your apartment depends upon the other shareholders’ attitude and compliance with City agencies’ rules and regulation.

The Departments of Housing Preservation and Development and Buildings have codes for a reason, as the columnist and Mr. Maffei make clear. If a shareholder in a co-op ignores these codes and gets violations, not only does he endanger the well-being of the building’s residents, he seriously affects the value of the entire property — and your property in particular.

As one property manager wrote to the shareholders of a co-op building that had just received a violation, “The violation will hamper the building in obtaining future permits, and other areas such as refinancing (building and/or individual)…”

That is, if your building has City agency violations — even those not incurred by you — you may not be able to sell your apartment at all, never mind at market value.

You can check your property’s status regarding violations at the New York City Department of Buildings site. Plug in the address of your property and you’ll see whether it has Department of Buildings, Environmental Control Board and Landmarks violations. (The DOB web site collects all these violations.) And notice in particular that a violation that has not been taken care of promptly will also carry a fine. One such fine on only one violation in my building is $8,000.

If you buy a property with violations and fines, the process to remedy the violation isn’t as easy as the NYT column makes it sound, and is a lot more expensive than just paying the fine.

You can also check the Department of Housing Protection and Development web site for maintenance violations.

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