Combining Apartments in New York City

With almost 28,000 people per square mile, to say space goes for a premium in New York is no understatement.  Unless you live in the outer boroughs or commandeer a hefty salary, chances are your apartment is probably a one or two bedroom—more spacious apartments are simply too expensive.  As it turns out, bigger apartments can actually go for twice as much per square foot than smaller ones.  Consequently, many people opt to buy two smaller apartments and combine them instead of buying a single, equally big apartment for a heftier price tag.  While this route can definitely save homeowners money in the long run, the process often isn’t as simple as knocking down walls.  Welcome to the world of New York City’s many building codes!

Kitchens

Firstly, regardless of how much or little work you envision doing on the combined apartments, one thing is for certain–you’ll be demolishing a kitchen.  Most people probably would rip the second one out anyway for more space, but if for some reason you weren’t planning on it, now you are!  Per the city’s building code, an apartment can only have one kitchen.  You can keep a refrigerator and washer, but the stove must go.  Combining or expanding kitchens can be tricky, too, even if you have the space.  The law requires that kitchens bigger than 80 square feet have natural ventilation, which many apartment kitchenettes do not.

Windows

If you plan on tearing down a lot of walls and resizing rooms, you’ll need to keep your window size in mind.  Per the City’s building code, all bedrooms must have at least one window with an area at least 10 percent of the area of the floor (i.e., a 500 square foot bedroom would have to have at least a 5 square foot window).  On top of that, not all windows in the room may count towards the requirement.  Side windows above a neighboring building, otherwise known as lot-line windows, aren’t actually considered legal windows.  Should the neighboring building ever build upward, those windows would be blocked.

To accommodate this code, many combined apartments end up with L-shaped bedrooms.  While this works for many apartments, this may lead to dark hallways in some layouts–something that may not be bothersome to you, but perhaps to potential buyers down the road.  Not a fan of the L-shape?  Some homeowners sidestep this window requirement by labeling the room as something else, like a studio or office, for permit approval purposes and then using it as a bedroom anyway afterward.

Placement of Bathrooms and Kitchens

There isn’t any actual government regulation about this, but it’s worth mentioning anyway because it’s such a common issue.  Many buildings mandate that kitchens are built over kitchens and bathrooms over bathrooms, just to minimize flood damage if it occurs.  It’s best to check with your building before renovating to determine whether your renovations would be affected by such a rule.

Structural Hindrances

Sometimes it’s more than just a few walls separating adjacent apartment units.  In some cases, there may be pipes, plumbing, risers, or even shear walls in between the two.  These sort of utilities and structures can’t be removed, so homeowners will simply have to build around them as best they can.

Time and Disruption

Before any construction work you plan to do can even begin, it has to first be approved by the DOB, and, if your building has landmark status, the Landmarks Preservation Commission as well.  Even under the best circumstances, the approval process can take several months.  Once approved, construction can only take place during certain hours during the day and the noise must be kept to a minimum.  If neighbors take issue with the noise, they can file a complaint with the Department of Buildings to put a halt to your project.