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What kind of renovations do—and don't—require co-op board approval?

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Question:

I just bought a co-op, and want to make some changes to my apartment. (Painting, adding a new toilet, changing the bathroom tile, etc.). How do I know which kind of updates I need the board's blessing for, and which ones I don't?

Answer:

While certain cosmetic upgrades like painting may not require board permission, policies vary depending on the building, and it's wise to check in with the management before moving forward with the kind of plans you describe, say our experts.

"Don’t think that just because you’ve paid dearly for your co-op apartment, you can make changes to your home as you wish without checking with the board," says Compass agent Shirley Hackel. "Alteration guidelines vary from building to building, so it’s critical to understand your co-op’s particular procedural policy before you begin any work, or your project can be halted indefinitely, and your workers denied entrance to the building."

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Standard: The quality of the finish is acceptable with attention to detail but reliant on big-box store sourced cabinetry, MDF etc. 

Mid Range: The quality of the finish is good (grade A) with attention to detail but reliant on big-box store sourced cabinetry, MDF etc.

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Low: Simple design, no layout or structural changes, elevator in building.

Medium: Average design, moving of some systems and/or structural changes, no elevator in the building.

High: Complex design, complicated engineering, lots of logistics (e.g. boom lifts, suspended scaffolds, etc.), dangerous working conditions.

Small: Changes to surfaces only (e.g. painting, tiling).

Medium: Small + Changes to the finishes themselves (e.g. removing plaster, replacing flooring etc).

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To find out where you stand, contact the co-op's managing agent, who can provide you with the most recent version of the building's alteration agreement—a standard contract between the shareholder and the building laying out your responsibilities in a renovation. This document should outline what kind of jobs require approval, as well as other factors including licensing and insurance requirements for your contractor, potential fees, security deposits, work schedules (some buildings only allow summer renovations, for instance), requirements for use of the building's service elevator, requirements to file with the Department of Buildings, and other pertinent information. 

As a rule, you can expect your co-op to require any contractor you bring in for a project to be appropriately licensed and insured, says Thomas Usztoke, vice president of Douglas Elliman Property Management. "Don’t accept a contractor’s say so on what needs to be filed or not without speaking to the building agent who can better determine what work is straightforward and what work rises to the level of board involvement," Usztoke advises.

"The simplest way to start is to ask the building management if there is a written policy regarding repairs and renovations," suggests Dean Roberts, a co-op and condo attorney with Norris, McLaughlin, & Marcus. "Many co-ops have detailed policies and as well as renovation agreements that shareholders are required to prepare." (This is information you should have found out at closing, particularly if you bought with an eye to renovation, but these documents are updated frequently, so it's always wise to get the most recent version, or simply ask what the process is for the work you have planned.) 

If you're still not clear on what this means for your planned upgrades, "send a letter to the board of directors outlining the proposed work and ask the board whether any consent would be required," adds Jeff Reich, an attorney with Schwartz Sladkus Reich Greenberg Atlas LLP.

As for what kind of work needs to be disclosed what doesn't, it will depend on your building. You may not need permission for cosmetic work that doesn't involve major systems like electrical or plumbing, but some co-ops have more regulations, or what's known as a "decoration agreement."  

"Most commonly, paint and floor work and minor cosmetic things such as that do not require board approval but they do require some sort of greenlight that is sometimes called the 'decoration agreement'," explains Corcoran broker Deanna Kory. "It also requires that the contractor be licensed and insured up to a certain dollar amount and that the insurance names the co-op as one of the insured."

For this type of smaller job, says Kory, "usually that work is just approved through the managing agent, and then coordinated with the resident manager on site at the building. It's generally very smooth and many contractors and painters are used to going through this." While it varies by building, this kind of small scale approvals process shouldn't take more than a few days, at the most.

Bottom line: If you're unsure if your planned work might require approvals, ask the managing agent, and they should provide you with all the information you need.

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