2:24 PM 02/28/2013
We just got an offer accepted on a Brooklyn townhouse, but it has some issues and we are not sure what to think of them. We are not even sure that all of them are building code violations per se, but I'm afraid that's just wishful thinking ;)
The house was built in 1899 and there's no C of O, nor are there registered permits for anything at DOB.
We would be extremely grateful to anyone willing to give us some informed opinion or advice on the following issues:
Kitchen + one full bathroom are in an extension of the main building, on the lowest floor of the house, at same level as the yard, completely below grade (you have to go down some stairs to access this level from the street), in what I guess would otherwise be considered as a basement, although there are full windows on both ends of this floor.
Are the kitchen and full bath on that level a violation of building code or does the fact that the house is used as a 1 family would make it ok to install them under ground? Or would the only way to make it up to code be to move the kitchen to the ground floor and turn the full bath into a half?
A shed in the back of the yard has been turned by current owner into a "guest bedroom" with split AC/heating, but no bathroom, without filing the job at DOB. Our lawyer says it's an illegal conversion and would have to be pulled down or returned to previous shed condition to avoid potential issues.
However, we just found on the DOB website that 2 buildings are registered for this lot, the second building being probably the shed. Wouldn't the fact that it appears on the DOB website mean that the space is legally recognized and that it would be possible to get a permit to add a bathroom to it and turn it into liveable space?
We are afraid that code violations will prevent us from asking the DOB for any authorization for future improvements, for fear of DOB discovering these issues during site inspection. It seems that a lot of people these days would simply redo a bathroom or add a deck without asking for permits. But isn't there a lot of risk involved in that? Are fines very high if you get caught after building/renovating without proper authorization? Are contractors willing to work without a permit actually serious and reliable? What if an accident occurs during construction: are you more liable when the work as not been authorised by DOB, even if contractor is insured?
Our lawyer is very reliable, but does not seem to have definite answers to code violation-related issues. Whom should we ask to make sure we get the right answer? Would the right expert be an architect? An engineer? Some other building code violations specialist? Any recommendations (names)?
Sorry for all the questions, but as much as we like this house, we'd hate to get carried away and pay for our mistakes further down the line...
Thanks to all for your precious help and advice!
It sounds like you have an illegal use in the cellar. Is it more than 1/2 in the ground from the front?
If it is a cellar, the the kitchen is not allowed. This is a way to get the full bath legalized.
Get rid of the use in the shed. You will need to do research to figure out if the 2nd building is the shed or maybe something that was removed illegally in the past. The shed would need to be of the proper construction and respect all setback, so maybe yes, maybe no. I would think no.
4:19 PM 02/28/2013 | 2 Votes
I'm confused by your post. You say that the kitchen and bath are at the same level as the yard, but then say they're completely below grade. Is the street level significantly higher than the level of the rear yard? Is the kitchen the only one in the house? And is the bathroom the only one on the lower 2 floors?
If the kitchen is more than 50% above the grade of the rear yard, the the only one in the house, and you don't have to travel through a cellar storage area to get from the it to the associated living spaces above, then DOB probably won't have an issue with it.
If the bathroom is the only one on the lower 2 floors, you might be ok. But DOB may well make you convert it to a 1/2 bath.
BTW, if a floor is more than 1/2 way below grade, it's a cellar. more than 1/2 way above grade, it's a basement. The distinction is important, as you can legally have habitable space in a basement, but not in a cellar.
The shed itself may be legal, but the conversion to residential was not. The fact that the DOB lists 2 buildings means that you can legally keep the shed, not legally keep an illegal conversion. If you meet code and zoning requirements, it is legal to have 2 residential buildings on one lot, but it's 99.9% likely that you won't be able to meet the requirements - they're not intended for a brownstone type situation, but for larger lots.
Future DOB inspections may mean that you have to take out the kitchen/bath/shed renovations. Many people are comfortable having work done w/out a permit. But that was much less risky 10 years ago than it is now. We live in more of a NIMBY age, and an age where the internet allows people to know if a permit's been pulled for the work whose noise is bothering them while they try to take a nap, and where 311 allows them to call in a complaint very easily.
I have no idea about not having a permit increasing liability...that's a question for your lawyer.
James Cleary Architecture
4:25 PM 02/28/2013 | 1 Votes
Thanks to both of you for your comments and useful questions. There is so much information to process and things to think about...
Jcarch, the backyard level is pretty much lower than the street level, however the kitchen and bathroom (the only ones in the two lower floors) are exactly at the same level as the backyard: you walk directly to the backyard from that floor, no stairs or anything. Outside stairs only needed to walk up to the street from that level. From the kitchen to the two upper floors, there is a full staircase, no other cellar to walk through. On the floor above the kitchen level (i.e., the street level) is the main front door of the house.
This means that it is 100% above yard grade and 100% below street grade. So, jcarch, do you think that this would qualify as habitable space? If so, why would the DOB ask to convert the full bath into a half (assuming they have no issue with the lowest level being used as habitable space)?
Thanks again for your precious help!
7:31 PM 02/28/2013 | 1 Votes
I am not a professional, but I will caution you that things can get very co,plex when dealing with renovations on these old houses...never presume what the DOB will do or allow. We are in the midst of a gut renovation of a historic brick house....the DOB woould not accept our estimates and made us up the amount by about $75,000 which translated into higher permit fees (not much though). Then because the house is awaiting city landmark status, there was an automatic 40 day wait before we could get plans approved. The plan for the cellar had to be revised - one is not allowed to have walls subdividing cellar into individuals and we were not allowed to have a 3=piece bath in cellar, only 2 piece because DOB is concerned about illegal basement rentals. Although the building has no CO, we had to get copies of an original survey to prove that the porch from the first floor existed when the house was built. In order to reconstruct that porch one cannot use combustible materials because the house is attached...the reason I am mentjoning these things is that there may be many pitfalls you will encounter...so my advice would be to do research before you sign the contract and /or make sure that the contract has a loophole for you to get out.... oh, and since we were doing a gut renovation on a house considered investor property, we could not get a mortgage, but had to secure unconventional financing, andf have had diffisulty getting and possibly keeping fire insurance on the house....What we did that we think was useful was to hire an expeditor to deal with the DOB.
11:27 PM 02/28/2013 | 0 Votes