Converting Basements Legally in New York City

In a city where space goes for a premium, people are willing to live just about anywhere—even underground. According to the New York Times, as of 2002, there were about 45,000 basement units housing 110,000 people—an estimate the Times admitted was probably conservative. Renting out one’s basement might sound like an easy way to monetize unused space, but not necessarily! In order to legally rent out your basement, you’ll need to convert it first, a process that’s both expensive and governed by a litany of building code specifications.

Converting your basement? Cover the basics first.

The first step to basement conversion is making sure it qualifies as a basement under NYC building codes. Although basements and cellars are interchangeable terms for many people, for the government, they are not. Basements, which the Department of Buildings specifies as a floor with more than half of its height above curb level, can be legally rezoned and rented out. Floors with less than half of its height above curb level, however, are considered cellars and cannot be rezoned.

NYC Basement Renting Requirements

In order to be lawfully rented, the basement must meet several requirements set out by the Department of Buildings. Firstly, like any other above-ground apartment unit, the basement must comply with the Housing Maintenance Code’s requirements, such as access to running water, appropriate heating, and minimum room size. In addition to having its own entry and exit, the basement must be able to accommodate a toilet, tub, and sink. Every room must have at least one window, and the bottom of the yard or any other open space must not be higher than six inches below the window sill. Depending on your lot’s subsoil conditions, the Department of Housing Preservation & Development may require the walls to be damp- and water-proofed. Finally, ceilings must be at least seven feet high.

It’s important to note, however, that even if your basement meets all requirements, your building may not. Buildings designated as two-family houses cannot rent out a basement; the owner must apply for a new certificate of occupancy and change the building status to a multiple dwelling. In doing so, the owner must ensure the building complies with the Multiple Dwelling Law’s provisions.

Covered the code? Hire a pro.

If you meet requirements for zoning and building structure, the next step is to hire an architect or engineer to draw out proposed designs and submit an alteration application to the Department of Buildings. If your application is approved, you will receive appropriate work permits and can start the renovation process! Once the work is done, you must petition the Buildings Department for a new Certificate of Occupancy. Should your new basement conform to the plans the DOB originally approved, you’re free to rent out!

Although the process of getting approval from the government before doing work might seem unnecessarily cumbersome, it’s a necessary evil. If you renovate your apartment without proper certification, the DOB will not only levy heavy fines, but will require you to restore your home to its original state—tearing out walls and plumbing and all!

For more information about how to legally convert your basement, or for other building  code questions, feel free to get in touch.

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