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Renovating in New York: Let ’Er Rip? Not So Fast

Building Rules

When contemplating a renovation, “the first thing you should do is contact the managing agent of the building to get a copy of the alteration rules,” said Steven R. Wagner, a partner in the law firm Wagner Berkow, which works with more than 50 buildings in New York.

Those rules, typically detailed in a multipage document, could have serious consequences for your renovation plans. Most buildings have blackout periods that prohibit work on weekends and over holidays, and some are much more restrictive.

“Some buildings will only permit work to be done, for instance, between July 1 and Sept. 1, when the building is more empty,” said Stuart M. Saft, a partner of the law firm Holland & Knight, and chairman of the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums. “Of course, it’s very difficult to do an entire apartment in two months. It’s difficult even to do a kitchen in two months.”

Sometimes buildings limit the number of renovations happening at any one time, so as not to overwhelm elevators and staff. This means that if renovations are allowed only in the summer months, the sooner you submit your plans, the better your chances are of moving ahead with your project and not having to wait until the next renovation season.

Once your contractor begins the job, the building usually has a deadline for completion — and fines for missing the boat. The owner/shareholder is responsible for paying them. “There are typically liquidated damages, like a daily payment, if you go over that time period,” Mr. Wagner said. “It may be $100 a day or $250 a day.” He has seen figures as high as $1,500 per day.

There are usually rules related to plumbing as well, Mr. Wagner said. For example, if you modify any plumbing, you’ll be required to replace the branch lines all the way back to the main water lines, an additional expense. Many buildings also have strict rules prohibiting wet-over-dry situations, meaning you can’t move your bathroom or kitchen above a downstairs neighbor’s living room or bedroom.

Selecting professionals

Most, but not all, apartment renovations require a work permit from the city’s Department of Buildings. And if you need a permit, you’ll have to engage a licensed architect or a professional engineer.

“The only time someone does not need a permit is if they’re doing ordinary repairs,” said Michael Zenreich, a New York architect who has reviewed alteration plans for dozens of buildings and who offers code compliance consulting services. Ordinary repairs include cosmetic upgrades such as replacing bathroom plumbing fixtures and kitchen cabinets in their existing locations. In those cases, plans drawn up by a contractor or designer may be good enough.

But if you intend to demolish an existing wall, erect a new one or move plumbing fixtures, Mr. Zenreich said, you’ll generally need a permit.

The most common way to find an architect is through recommendations from family and friends. But if you don’t know where to start, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects will have a roster of all of its members, along with the type of work they perform, said James Walbridge, chairman of the group’s custom residential architects network.

Websites like Houzz and Architizer are also good starting points, Mr. Walbridge said, because they offer online portfolios for architects. Look at previous projects and call references, he advised. “But the ultimate test is when you meet for the first time,” he continued, to see if your personalities mesh, because you will be spending a lot of time with this person.

Architects use a few different models for billing, including a percentage of total construction costs, an hourly rate with an estimated total provided up front, and a flat fee for the entire project.

Finding a contractor may be a little easier. Recommendations are invaluable, and experienced architects usually have a list of contractors they like to work with. Building superintendents frequently have recommendations as well.

“Some buildings have published lists of approved contractors,” Mr. Wagner said. “If there’s a contractor who has done a lot of work in the building, and is already familiar with the rules, that helps.”

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