Considering Renovations? Why It Matters If You Own a Co-Op, a Condo, or a Townhouse

In New York, home buyers have four general options: a cooperative apartment, a condominium apartment, and a townhouse – or, outside Manhattan, sometimes a free standing house. Aside from some obvious differences, what are some of the less visible differences?

Renovation Considerations for Co-Ops

First and foremost, in a cooperative apartment you will be buying not “real estate” per se, but shares in a corporation that give you the right to live in a particular unit subject to the rules of the corporation.

While these rules can make your daily life easier, they can also present challenges when embarking on an architectural project. The first set of rules you will encounter is usually called the Proprietary Lease and the Bylaws, and these apply to all owners at all times. Additionally, in order to protect itself from liabilities and bad decision making by individual cooperative owners, contractors, and outside vendors, the boards of cooperative corporations create additional sets of rules that apply to almost any renovation work. The most important of these is usually called the Alteration Agreement, and may be accompanied by a set of House Rules and/or Building Rules. These rules affect almost every aspect of getting work done: you will not be able to start work until you have fulfilled all the obligations listed in the Alteration Agreement, its requirements will inevitably affect the price of the work, and the building will typically charge you a large security deposit as a guarantee towards your adherence to all the rules. In addition to the above, the building will also typically hire its own architect or engineer to review all your plans, at your expense, as well as to inspect the progress of the work as it moves along. And not least, many cooperatives will charge you fees as long as your construction lasts, and might even penalize you for overshooting your schedule. As the name implies, living in a co-op requires cooperating with a larger number of people than you might otherwise imagine when you begin to think about renovating.

There is an upside! Co-op maintenance fees pay for building staff that a busy city dweller may find useful. Building staff not only repair and maintain the building, but aspects of the apartments as well. Some helpful services include: receiving packages, providing basic security, cleaning public areas, mediating with bad neighbors, and being on call in emergencies (floods, fires, and so on). They are there to deal with the general business of owning a building in New York.

Renovation Considerations for Condominiums

The most basic difference with a condominium apartment is that you are actually buying a small part of a larger building, and you will own that piece of “real estate”. This means that you will pay your taxes directly to NYC rather than through your maintenance. Although a condominium board could impose the same burdensome rules as a co-op board, in practice the rules are a bit looser. There will still be an Alteration Agreement, and Building Rules, but typically a bit easier to navigate than in a co-op. There will still be a building architect or engineer to protect the building’s interests, but he or she may be somewhat more inclined to help you achieve your renovation goals. If you keep in mind all the issues that could apply to a co-op renovation, you won’t be caught off guard in a condominium.

Like co-ops, condominiums also have maintenance fees which can cover a range of services, from the most basic to virtual maid service. The list of services available in some of the newer condominiums puts a new definition on luxury.

Renovation Considerations for Townhouses

In a townhouse, or standalone home, the homeowner becomes the building manager. When something breaks, you need to figure out how to get it fixed and you pay for it. You take your own trash out and you clean up the sidewalk after SantaCon. If the Environmental Control Board (ECB) issues you a violation for something, you need to figure out how to resolve the problem.

But for those who can afford it, owning a townhouse has a significant advantage when it comes to renovations: you can skip most of the aggravating reviews and regulations that co-op and condo owners face with a renovation project. You will be subject to the rules and regulations of the New York City Building Department, and you will have to have an architect file for any permits that the City may require, but you will have no board to deal with, no building engineer inspecting your work, and no neighbors to complain about your construction. Even more importantly, your construction schedule can be as long as you are willing to endure it. This gives townhouse owners a great deal of freedom to design their interiors in any way that suits their lifestyle. Very occasionally there will be issues to settle with the neighboring houses, but if work is planned properly, this should be a rare occurrence.

Your approach to a renovation or remodel will need to be slightly different depending on your home type, and it’s important to have architects and contractors who have experience in that home type so the project is as successful as it can be. We have worked extensively across all home types, and would be happy to discuss the best approach for your situation.

6 Steps to Selecting the Right Contractor

A really good contractor is critical to the success of your project. Without the right contractor, your exquisitely designed dream home risks becoming a nightmare. If you’ve never commissioned a co-op, condo or apartment, how do you go about selecting the right contractor for your project?

1. Understand who you are.

Architects approach projects in a particular way. We generally recommend a thorough and careful design period in which we document the entire design before construction begins. We give you the drawings, material samples, and time you need to understand what will be built before we start. Because this process is so detailed and organized, change orders and cost escalations from unforeseen problems are usually very limited – we typically see overages of less than 5% when a careful process is followed. For many clients, this process is ideal and meshes well with how they tend to approach other aspects of their lives.

The type of contractor for this approach is thorough and experienced, and generally has several staff both in the field and in the office who help to schedule trades, delivery of materials, and generally help the staff to deliver. Ability to stick to budgets, timelines, and plans is paramount.

That may not be your style, though. You may be more comfortable making decisions as the structure is being built, so you can easily visualize what’s at issue and what the outcomes might be. The “paper” design phase that is key to the architect’s approach may leave you frustrated and be something that you want to get through as fast as possible. This approach requires knowledge and flexibility, and comes with a certain amount of risk – which can be managed if you have the right people involved. This approach can require a different kind of contractor, and often the best outcome will be from a team that isn’t necessarily super organized, but is definitely trustworthy, affable and willing to absorb or negotiate in good faith through the unexpected.

2. Ask for referrals.

Your architect, friends, family, the building super, and the building manager are all good resources to mine for information. Be attentive to any complaints that are raised and try to understand why conflict, if any, occurred (it’s not always the contractor!). Direct references are good, indirect references are even better. If approached reasonably, most former clients will give a fairly honest recap of how their project went.

3. Look at prior work.

Try to look at examples of work done by the contractor on a scale similar to your planned work. After two or three years, is the work holding up? Does the AC work reliably, are the cabinets wearing well, do the doors operate smoothly, is the paint nice and neat, nothing requiring major repairs? Is the contractor still helpful with the inevitable odds and ends that do need repair – and if not doing them with his team, did the contractor help to find proper support?

4. Meet face to face.

As your architects, typically we will be working with your general contractor on a day-to-day basis while your project is being built. However, the GC’s contract is with you, and you pay the bills. You should meet the GC as well as his field representative before they are hired, just as you would with any substantial vendor. If there is anything about the GC or his team that leaves you questioning or worried, try to get to the bottom of it with your architect. The process of completing a project is difficult enough that you need to feel comfortable with your team and able to have difficult discussions if, or when, needed.

5. Ask lots of questions.

You should feel free to ask whatever questions are on your mind, the way the contractor answers you will help you build an understanding of how they will work with you and the rest of your team, some good things to ask:

How many people compose the project team?
Who from the team will be directly focused on your project?
Can I meet the foreperson and/or the project manager who will be at the site every day?
How long have they been with the company?
Who will be the main subcontractors?
How long has the GC been working with them?

6. Review – and make sure you understand – the contract.

It’s typically part of our role as your architects to review the GC contract with you and point out any issues or problems. But as the client and owner, it is a very good idea for you to read through the entire contract with us and with your contractor to make sure that you understand all of the provisions. This is also the case with the set of drawings that forms the basis for the contract – if you’re aware of what is and is not included in the scope of work, you won’t be surprised by misunderstandings later in the process.

Every building project hits some kind of snag, but if you go through these steps to establish clear expectations and a firm relationship with your contractor, you have a much greater chance of a successful outcome.

Looking for help defining your project needs? Contact us today for a complimentary assessment of your project.