When Repairs Need to Be Done Taking Responsibility

When you live in a Manhattan co-op or condo, one of the things that you need to be aware of is what sort of building systems exist on the property, and more importantly, which of these you are accountable for.

When it comes to most buildings systems, such as HVAC or security, the responsibility falls to the building itself to maintain and repair. But the responsibility for all systems is not so clear cut. Especially for elements like pipes and radiators that are part of a building-wide system, but which terminate in private apartments.

“Each proprietary lease should be reviewed to determine where the cooperative’s responsibility ends and the apartment owner’s responsibility begins,” says David L. Berkey, Esq., a managing partner of Gallet Dreyer & Berkey, LLP, a law firm specializing in real estate law and associated practice areas in Manhattan. “Many leases, over time, have been amended to reflect the actual construction of an individual building and the terms of one lease can not be relied upon as a form for all buildings.”

There are many variations, both in the language of the proprietary lease and in the policies adopted by boards regarding repairs. That’s why it’s vital to clarify who is liable for repairs, upkeep and maintenance for all building systems before something happens and you’re left footing the bill for the damage.

Up to the Building

“The typical cooperative is responsible for every portion of the building except that which is specified to be the obligation of the shareholder,” says Marcie Waterman Murray, an attorney with the co-op/condo law firm of Deutsch Tane Waterman & Wurtzel, PC in Manhattan. “The typical condo is responsible for those building portions designated as common elements—roof, building walls, elevators, public hallways—depending on the language in the declaration.”

Common elements may also include apartment windows and apartment entrance doors, and all of this should be clearly laid out in the bylaws or governing documents of the building.

“The building systems that service more than one tenant-shareholder are usually the responsibility of the cooperative to maintain and repair,” Berkey says. “These include, HVAC, plumbing, electricity, elevators, compactors, intercoms and similar systems.”

The standard rule of thumb is that anything inside the walls of the apartment is the responsibility of the shareholder and outside the walls falls to the building.

“But as a building, you can’t just turn you back if someone has a leaky faucet that is using corporate funds and you have to address that,” says Alex Kuffel, executive vice president of Pride Property Management in Manhattan. “Communication with residents needs to be specific in the very beginning on whose responsibility [the faucet] is. If it is the residents’ responsibility, you cannot delay in getting it repaired because it gets expensive and can cause greater damage.”

Don’t Get Caught Off-Guard

Most apartment owners are responsible to repair those portions of building systems that are exposed and visible within an apartment. Some examples of this include exposed gas, steam and water pipes attached to fixtures, appliances and equipment to which they are attached, such as exposed pipes leading to radiators, convectors, sinks, toilets, washing machines, dryers, dishwashers and refrigerators as well.

“A typical proprietary lease provision makes the shareholder responsible for the interior of the apartment, including interior walls, floors and ceilings, plumbing, gas, heating fixtures and anything installed by the lessee.” Murray says. “ In the typical condo, unit owners are responsible for everything inside a unit except for defined common elements and structural repairs to certain limited common elements.”

Shareholders are also responsible for lighting and electrical fixtures, appliances, meters, fuse boxes, circuit breakers and electrical wiring and conduits from the junction box at the riser into and through the apartment.

“Additionally, apartment owners often perform renovations to their apartments and replace pipes and fixtures that may have originally been the cooperative’s obligation to maintain and repair,” Berkey says. “Most alteration agreements and many proprietary leases change the allocation of responsibility for maintenance and repair of new tenant installations and place the obligation for future repairs and maintenance of these new installations on the tenant-shareholder.”

Up for Debate

There often is a division of responsibility when a portion of the building system is visible as part of the interior of an apartment, such as the individual convector unit that blows heated or cooled air within an apartment, the intercom handsets, or interior plumbing fixtures.

“The systems and portions of the systems that are not within the apartment or that are located within the walls, floors and ceilings and are not visible, would commonly be the cooperative’s responsibility to repair,” Berkey says. “This obligation shifts back to the tenant-shareholder if the tenant-shareholder damaged the system and caused the need for its repair or replacement.”

Even though the lease might impose the maintenance and repair obligation on the apartment owner, many boards of directors prefer to have repairs of those portions of the building systems that are visible within an apartment to be performed by the cooperative’s contractors, to assure uniformity and quality of repairs.

“Some cooperatives will perform such repairs and replacements at no charge to the tenant-shareholder as a matter of cooperative policy, even though the lease provides that it is the owner’s obligation to make such repairs and to pay for such replacements,” Berkey says.

Buildings vary on what they will take accountability on and what they won’t. Some buildings have even overwritten original documents to spell out why they should now be responsible for something they weren’t in the past.

“Some buildings have a boiler system and amended their house rules because even though the radiator is in one’s apartment, it is still part of the heating system for the entire building, so the building will be responsible for any repair and maintenance required,” Kuffel says. “Other buildings say it’s exposed from the wall and your responsibility. It’s different in every building.”

Kuffel knows of one condo in the city that had this issue surface this summer. “This building uses heat pumps for their heating and cooling needs, and the unit owners are responsible for maintaining and repairing their own heat pump units,” he says. “What happened is one of the air conditioner systems leaked in an apartment, damaged the floor, and caused problems for the apartment below. The building’s bylaws indicate that only if there is a fire or any other casualty is the building is responsible for repairing the [resulting damage]. The unit owner’s homeowner’s policy however, said the building is responsible for [the leak damage]. On top of that, the building’s insurance policy said that they were responsible—but had to pay the deductible. It doesn’t make sense to me; if you already have someone responsible for repair and maintenance, why is the building responsible for it? It’s a very gray area that needs to be sharpened up.”

Making it Clear

Obviously there have been some mighty big arguments through the years over who’s responsible for things that have gone wrong, and therefore it is vital that people understand their responsibilities when they first move in.

“When our firm reviews a cooperative’s proprietary lease, we interview the board carefully to determine how the cooperative has charged for repairs and replacements of portions of building systems located in apartments in the past. [We also look at] what the board members believe is the optimum policy for allocation of such expenses in their building; and what the likelihood is for tenant-shareholders in the building to approve a change in allocation of responsibility for repairs,” Berkey says. “We then suggest improvements to the repair clauses of the lease which allocate responsibility between the cooperative and tenant-shareholder. We always suggest that the alteration paragraph of the proprietary lease require the tenant-shareholder to sign the building’s form of alteration agreement as a condition of obtaining board approval for any changes.”

The board should communicate with the building’s tenant-shareholders and advise them of their building’s policies regarding repairs, replacements and apartment alterations. This will avoid claims that tenant-shareholders were not aware of their obligations.

“Certainly the best way to avoid conflict and confusion regarding responsibility is to have the responsible party designated in the proprietary lease or condominium bylaws,” Murray says. “It helps if the co-op/condo is consistent in its treatments of the situation each time it arises and it is useful for the applicable responsibility to be communicated to all shareholders/unit owners in writing.”

In a co-op where a lease amendment has not been passed, the board could pass a house rule interpreting the lease so that everyone is given notice as to who is responsible for a given item.

“We like to put together a building information sheet which is a general guide to the fundamentals of the corporation,” says Kuffel. “Communication is key so that there are no misunderstandings.”

Keith Loria is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor toThe Cooperator.

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  • is a leaky valve located inside the wall usually considered the building reponsibilty
  • I am interested in buying a coop apartment in nyc. Where do I find the building with vacancies and income criteria?
  • I am an owner of an Upper Eastside condo. Who is responsible for the repair to a damaged window frame in the absence of a "maintenance and repairs" section of the building bylaws?
  • hectorcupey3486@aol.com on Monday, September 12, 2011 2:56 PM
    i am a shareholder of a co-op apartment .my living room radiator is spitting lots of water. management says i have to fix problem.i thought is management is responsible.
  • What is the situation when the coop has modified its standard form proprietary lease to make the tenant-shareholder of one apartment responsible for all repairs of the roof and parapet? Can that general burden be legally transferred to a single shareholder?
  • I am a coop shareholder of an apt in Queens. The electrical wiring of the apartment and the building was never upgraded since 1955. Isn't this the responsibility of the Cooperative Owner ?
  • We bought a coop apt in which the former shareholder replaced the original radiator. It does not give enough heat and we need to replace it again. My question is if the Bd approved the replacement and the heat we receive is below code regulations who is responsible to pay for the needed new radiator, us or the coop?
  • @Mary, you bring up an interesting point on the radiator. The previous Shareholder-tenant replaced the radiator and it is no longer the original equipment that was installed in the building. In a normal situation where it is the original equipment, I would lean more towards this being an integral part of the building's heating system and should be a Cooperative issue to ensure proper heating throughout. As you mentioned this is a replacement radiator to begin with, so the previous Shareholder took the Cooperative out of the line of responsibility as it shouldn't be the Coop's responsibility to care for and ensure proper performance of an upgraded or replaced part. Hope that helps.
  • We are renting in a condo apt in lower manhattan. The heating/cooling system in the apartment is the original system. The AC does not work in the living room and did not work from when we moved in. We just found that out when we tried to run it and it blew hot air. The unit owner refuses to pay to fix it, though he paid for the company to come look at it and give an estimate cost of repair. The property manager tells me it is the unit owners responsibility yet he still refuses. what can I do?
  • i am planning to buy a unit on the top floor [3] of a building. 'my unit' has a patio which has a roof built on it by a previous owner [not part of the original construction] in order to provide shade. the roof is not connected to the outer wall of the unit. there seems to be some water seepage along the wall to the units below, however no damage to the other units has yet been reported by their owners. i am planning to have the roof of the patio fixed so that it is up to code and drains correctly. my question is - who is responsible for any damage that may have been caused [by the leaking roof on 'my patio'] but has not yet been detected? thanx!
  • I recently moved in to a co-op and everything seemed fine. I purchased walls-in insurance as required by the co-op board. I was informed that any repairs I made to plumbing or electrical needed to be performed by licensed, insured tradesmen. Three days after I moved in, my toilet began leaking in to the unit below me, causing significant damage. It appears the owner before me had a friend (not approved) do plumbing work which turned out to be sub-standard. Now the management company is billing me close to $3,000 for repairs. What are my options? Obviously, the co-op board and management company did not vet the vendor. Should I challenge the management company? Sue the previous owner?
  • We bought a co-op and apparently all the wiring to the intercom, for all 12 apartments are in our apartment, in my closet. Every time that someone's intercom does not work, management starts calling me and sends annoying workers who start knocking on my door to fix someone's intercom. It's a serious nuisance. One time someone's intercom broke, management sent 4 different workers to fix and I had to be home to let them in. Is that even legal? Shouldn't the intercom system be in a public space and can I sue to get it removed from my apartment? Me and my husband were not aware of this issue until after we bought the apartment.
  • I live in a coop and it is undergoing concrete restoration. They are working 7 days a week until 800 pm. Is thus allowed as when we do construction in our unit it is only 6 days a week until 500 pm. Please help. I see nothing in my bylaws about that.
  • I'm a shareholder in a co-op built in 1933 in Brooklyn, NY. We needed to re-wire our entire unit due to the original brittle wires. Because the wiring is in the walls should the management company be paying for the work? In the end, they will be better off for what we are currently doing.
  • The convector leaked in my LR. after they installed a new boilier The wood floor came up. I had a floating floor installed on top of the wood flooring. I had to remove the floating floor . The inspector informed me that he could put down a new floor that would not come up. My question is who is responsible for paying to have my floating floor reinstalled/ which will cost about 400 .00. I live in coop city located in the bronx