If you’re buying a co-op or condo in New York City right now, you likely have lots of questions, not just about the apartment but also the building and how it is dealing with the pandemic. Residential buildings are as different from each other as their residents, so finding the right one for you will mean asking dozens of questions before you close.
When you’re buying in NYC for the first time, you’ll need some insight into how the process works, the difference between co-ops and condos, and what your closing costs will be. If you plan to renovate you’ll want to find out as much about what you can and can't do, especially in light of the current health risks. Your broker will help you with these types of questions and your attorney will do the required due diligence on the apartment.
[Editor's note: An earlier version of this post was published in August 2019. We are presenting it again with updated information for August 2020.]
But some questions will be specific to your lifestyle and to the current health crisis. For example, most buildings are now allowing moves ins under controlled conditions but you may have questions about how building operations have been impacted by the coronavirus. You’ll want to know what changes to expect as the pandemic evolves, whether you can sublet, and what rules might affect you personally before you commit to the apartment.
Here are the questions you should ask before you sign on the dotted line.
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How has the building been operating during the pandemic?
The coronavirus has complicated many aspects of running a building in NYC. You’ll likely be doing your co-op board interview online and annual shareholder meetings will also be done virtually to avoid people having to gather in large groups. Don’t worry, many board members say it’s easier this way and voting on building matters can be facilitated remotely.
In terms of the day-to-day functions of the building, you’ll want to find out how the building amenities are operating. For example, is there a reservation system or maximum capacity for any outdoor roof space? What are the cleaning protocols for the building? And what will the building do if the new coronavirus infection rate begins to increase or a resident develops symptoms? How the shutdown was handled earlier in the year will be an indicator of how the building will operate as we head into the winter.
Co-op and condo boards can set their own rules and in many cases banned residents from moving in and out when NYC was the epicenter of the pandemic. It makes sense to ask about a building’s move in policy and plan accordingly. You might also ask whether there is a rule on visitors coming and going during the pandemic.
What is the personality of the board?
Is the co-op or condo board liberal or conservative? You can ask to see a copy of the house rules to get a sense of where a board might stand on certain issues. It’s helpful to know if the board welcomes newcomers or prefers to have the same people running things.
Are all of the amenities included, or are there some pay-to-play options?
Many new developments boast a range of amenities from roof decks, to climbing walls, and kids’ playrooms. Shared amenities like gyms have lost their shine during the current health crisis but if your building has facilities for residents, ask when they are expected to reopen and how busy the gym, pool or playroom typically is at the times you intend to use them.
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If the building has both condos and rentals, find out whether tenants are able to use the facilities.
What is the building’s sublet policy?
If you're planning to sublet your apartment at some point in the future, you should be aware that co-ops generally have strict rules on this. Co-op owners are usually only allowed to sublet their apartment for one to two years in any five-to-seven-year period. Find out if there are any fees associated with subletting and what percent of apartments are currently being rented out.
Condo sublet policies are usually more flexible but may have rules against short-term sublets of less than six months.
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What's the source of heat and air conditioning?
If you prefer radiators to forced hot air systems, make sure you ask about how the apartment is heated. Landlords are required by NYC law to provide heat and hot water, but the person responsible for paying for it can vary from building to building.
You’ll also want to find out what kind of air conditioning system operates in the building. Some in-wall systems are attractive and efficient, others are noisy and might affect where you put your furniture.
What are the food and package delivery policies?
If you rely on takeout, find out if food delivery has been allowed during the shutdown. If so, do residents need to come to the lobby to pick it up? Some buildings won’t allow food delivery to your apartment door. When it comes to take out options, make sure there are enough restaurants that deliver to the building.
The demands of sorting and storing packages are an increasing problem for many New York City buildings, even those with doormen. If you regularly receive deliveries, find out where they will be stored and how secure the room is if you won’t be able to retrieve it immediately. Find out whether the building uses any smart tech to manage and monitor packages
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Has the building ever had a bed bug problem?
There are laws to protect renters and buyers from some of the fallout of bedbug infestations and these laws require disclosures. If there’s been a recent problem, ask how it was handled, whether the proper preparations were made for the extermination, and what the current status is.
Even if you don’t want one now, does the building allow pets?
Some buildings are pet-friendly, others are not. If you don’t want to see dogs in the lobby, make sure you pick the right building for you. If you are considering getting a dog, it’ll be important to know if there are any restrictions on the number, breed or size.
If you have a dog as an emotional support or service animal, a board will need to accommodate you, but you may still want to find out about the building’s broader pet policy.
If your apartment doesn’t already have one, are you allowed to install a washer/dryer?
Some buildings have restrictions on whether washer/dryers can be installed. This often comes down to the building's plumbing. Find out ahead of time whether you’d be able to add this type of appliance if that’s a priority for you.
You’ll want to know the board’s policy on this and beware of any answers to your renovation questions that include the words “the board approves this on a case-by-case basis.” It’s easier to work with a policy that’s transparent for everyone.
Are there any nuisances on the block, like a nightclub?
You can’t pick your neighbors but you can check out your neighborhood for loud bars and nightclubs. And if you are working from home, like many people, consider what is open nearby during the day. If getting a good night’s sleep is a priority, you might want to steer clear of an apartment next to a firehouse or noisy restaurant.
Try and check out the apartment at the appropriate time of day to see if the location will work for you.
What is your neighborhood’s public elementary school?
Even if you don’t have kids, your next buyer might, so it’s worth asking about the local school. Fair Housing Laws mean your agent won’t be able to discuss nearby schools, but you can investigate on websites like InsideSchools and GreatSchools or stop by the local playground to ask a few parents. Brick Underground’s guides to the best neighborhoods for families in Manhattan and Brooklyn have lots of information about in-demand schools.
What kind of people live in the building?
Fair Housing Laws also prevent your agent from talking about the presence of families, retirees, or young party animals in your building—so if this is important to you, ask the doorman or sit outside for a while to watch who comes and goes.
Where is the apartment located within the building?
Try to determine whether the apartment you’re interested in is located in a less-than-ideal spot in the building. Ask questions about where the elevator or compactor shafts are so you can avoid vibrations. If you’re looking at a unit down the hall from the community room or playroom, find out what the hours of operation are and be prepared for foot traffic and noise. Consider the pros and cons of a ground-floor apartment.
Are there any offensive odors, like cigarette or pot smoke, cat pee, or strong cooking smells?
If the windows are wide open when you view the apartment, think about why. If you can, visit the unit a few times. Find out if the building is smoke-free or what might happen if you find a neighbor’s smoking or cooking habits are affecting you. Remember, everything smells stronger in the summer.
How is garbage disposed of?
Find out if you leave your trash on the service stairs for pickup, throw it down the chute, or bring it down to the basement—or to the outside bins. The same goes for recycling and composting. The city’s composting program is currently on hold because of the pandemic but may be reestablished in the future.
Are there rules on stroller use or storage that might affect you?
Are strollers allowed in the elevator or relegated to the service elevator? Find out where you are allowed to store a stroller and if you need to fold it up when it's not in use.
Is construction planned nearby?
There’s rarely a lull in construction activity in NYC, even in a pandemic, and no one wants to wake up to jackhammers on a Saturday morning. Ask whether windows are sound-proofed and walk around the neighborhood to identify whether there might be building work planned on the block. There are lots of online tools to track building projects around the city.
If the apartment comes with a tax break, when does it expire?
Some new condo buildings benefit from a 421-a tax abatement, which lowers your monthly bills for a limited time. It’s not easy to establish what you’ll be paying when the perk runs out and that could affect the resale value of the unit.
Are there enough elevators to accommodate all residents?
Residents in many buildings are being asked to respect social distancing rules and not share an elevator with anyone from a different household because of the possible health risks. As well as knowing the cleaning protocols, you’ll want to know if all the elevators are “local” or whether there’s an express option to speed things up.
If you plan to renovate at some point, you’ll want to know if there’s a service elevator that might make your project run more smoothly.
You might also want to find out if there are any service issues with the elevators and whether one or more might need replacing or if a shutdown is planned.
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