2007-01-11 / Top Stories

DOB Advises Homeowners On Legal Basement Apts.

By Dara Mormile

Department of Buildings' John Gallagher speaks at FUBA meeting.Department of Buildings' John Gallagher speaks at FUBA meeting. Nearly a hundred residents seeking information about legalizing their basement apartments gathered at Temple Shaare Emeth for the first Friends United Block Association (FUBA) meeting of the year last Thursday.

John Gallagher, a coding and zoning specialist with the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB), addressed the process and informed owners how to convert a two-family home to a three-family home.

"The first thing you have to determine when you decide to legalize your basement apartment is whether it is, in fact, a basement or whether it's a cellar," Gallagher said. "In most cases, you cannot legalize the apartment if it's a cellar. A cellar is characterized by damp, dark and air-restricted conditions.

"That type of environment isn't healthy - nor is it intended for human occupancy. You should consult a licensed surveyor to determine whether you can convert the cellar into a legal basement apartment".

Gallagher also reviewed building code requirements, which are examined when a basement is considered for being converted into an apartment to rent.

"We look at where windows face, whether the rooms are too small. If the ceiling is less than eight feet from the ground, it's not habitable," he said. "The zoning laws that apply to your homes were probably implemented when the houses were built - most of them in this community were built in the 1960s and 1970s. Those laws were written to protect the quality of life in the neighborhood, as well as keep the character of the community.

"But if you have someone living in your basement and we receive a complaint from a neighbor, you could get a fine for various violations if you don't have a permit for it," he explained.

The legalization process includes hiring a licensed architect to evaluate the property and then hiring licensed plumbers, electricians and contractors with permits and insurance/liability.

"Once you have the permits, we'll conduct an inspection survey. We look at such conditions as fire hazards and adequate ventilation. After that, you must obtain a new Certificate of Occupancy, which certifies the legal use and occupancy of a building," Gallagher said.

"I can give you general information, but everyone's circumstances are different and you should consult an architect to see if the building codes apply to your situation. You may already have a basement apartment set up in your home when you moved in, but you're still responsible for the legal conditions of the house. If there was a basement apartment already situated there, you need to have us inspect the conditions and then apply for a new Certificate of Occupancy," he said.

For more information on DOB services, call 311 or visit NYC.gov/buildings.

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