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How To Live Next To A Construction Site And Remain Sane

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Curbed University delivers insider tips and non-boring advice on how to buy, sell, or rent a home or apartment. Additional questions welcomed to tips@curbed.com. Today's topic: living next to a construction site!

If you live in New York City, at some point or another, you'll probably find yourself living beside/above/next to/down the block from/catty-corner to a construction site. Whether it's your upstairs neighbor renovating her co-op or a developer erecting a new 20-story condo building on an adjacent lot, people in this city are constantly changing the built environment, and sometimes, those changes can make bad things happen for the neighbors. But by pre-planning and maintaining good communication, construction jobs can avoid becoming hell on earth?and, you know, making you lose your sanity and/or cause your house collapse.

You learned a renovation is starting on the brownstone next to yours. What should you do first?
a) Panic
b) Move
c) Sabotage the site and foil the plans
d) Remain calm and talk to the people doing the project.
If you chose answer d, congratulations. You're already on the road to staying sane.

We talked with attorney Robert Banner of Ingram Yuzek Gainen Carroll & Bertolotti, who specializes in construction law, and he stressed that pre-construction surveys are extremely important for all parties involved. If the owner of the brownstone next to yours is starting work, introduce yourself and find out what the plans are. "You have to recognize that your rights are somewhat limited because they are entitled to build on their property," says Banner. "But on the other hand, you have certain leverage and the ability to obstruct them a little bit if they don't jump through the proper hoops."

One of these hoops is a pre-construction condition survey of your property by a structural engineer. To document the state of your home before work begins, professional photos should be taken and everything should be recorded in a written agreeement. This way, it will be clear to both parties if damage occurs from the construction. Additionally, Banner notes that it is in the interest of the homeowner doing construction to name you, the neighbor, as an additional insured on his policy. Otherwise, they could have personal liability to you. "It's one of those few situations where everyone's interests are to a large extent aligned," says Banner. "It's pretty easy to then create an agreement that works for both sides if people are rational." The last thing the neighbor wants is for his house to collapse, and the last thing the renovating homeowner wants is to wreck someone's home and have the DOB issue a Stop Work Order for six months that ruins his schedule and blows his budget.

It's often helpful to hire a construction lawyer to work out the agreement for you. "You're not getting a lawyer who is threatening to sue and stop the project," says Banner. "You're getting a lawyer who's trying to work constructively with the people next door. If you approach that way, it should be a win-win."

What if the construction is not a brownstone renovation but rather the development of a large apartment tower? Does the developer have the same interests?
"Typically, they do," says Banner, largely for the same reasons as a homeowner. Larger buildings need stronger foundations, which often require going deeper into the ground. If this is happening, a developer will want to know what's under the surrounding buildings, as well as the state of their foundations to determine what kind of reinforcement will be required. Individual property owners don't have that much leverage against a larger developer, but the developer has enough of an interest in insurance costs to talk to the neighbors and name them on their policy. "They have a great degree of interest in the pre-construction survey," says Banner. Developers are a "deep pocket," so there's always the possibility that some guy living on the corner will think he can get a free ticket to rebuild his house by blaming damage on the construction project?something that is much more of a concern if there was no pre-construction condition survey. However, there is no law that requires developers to inform the neighbors or do structural surveys.

What if you live in a condo or co-op building and construction happens in the unit adjacent to yours?
The building will have created a formal alteration agreement that will guide what people can do to their units. Banner explains that this stipulates how much insurance the owners and the sub-contractors need, plus it reinforces the building rules, which dictate the hours that construction can occur and how long a project can go on. Once again, though, the best thing to do is be proactive and open lines of communication. "Often you can get a payment that will allow for the relocation of people," says Banner. That way, you won't even have to live there when construction happens.

What are the first signs that something has gone wrong?
Often, the first thing someone would notice are signs that point toward foundational shifts?small cracks in the wall, a door won't close properly, the floor starts to slant. "New Yorkers can get themselves in a tizzy over things that aren't structurally significant," says Banner, "but often, the early things can be very significant."

So what should you do if you start to notice these structural shifts or other damage?
If you don't have one already, this is the moment when you hire a lawyer and/or engineer. "If you call the DOB, they'll come take a look, but they're only going to stop stuff if there's a real life safety issue," Banner explained. "And you may not want to play an 'all or nothing' game like that with the DOB. It could get you evicted, too." Banner stressed the importance of already having open lines of communication with the people doing construction, so you can talk to them the second something happens. "It's so easy to contact the people on the other side! They're right there working," says Banner. "They're not going to ignore you."

After noticing damage, you consult the pre-construction survey and determine that yes, this crack was indeed caused by the construction. Does the party doing the construction pay for the repairs?
"Yes, but not so fast," says Banner. As with all things involving insurance, it's a complicated process. You would submit a claim to your own homeowner's insurance and you would submit a claim to the other owner and the contractor who caused the damage. Banner adds that, "If the people next door are incredibly slow in processing what you're doing, your own homeowner's insurance might pay. Then your insurance company would sue their insurance company." Additionally, if it's really obvious that the construction caused the damage or if the damage is minor, the homeowner doing the project can get the contractor's insurance to pay. "But the timing of it can be tricky," says Banner. "There's no magic cure of 'Ok, I wrecked it, here's your check.'"

And of course, there's always 311.
Obviously calling 311 for a crack in your basement wall is probably not the best idea, but it's city's job to make sure construction sites are safely maintained. Excessive dust, dirt, and noise are all grounds for complaints to the DOB, as are unsafe scaffolding and improper disposal of construction materials. All of the above can result in fines or stop work orders, so if you take this route, you may not be invited to lounge on your neighbor's newly constructed rooftop cabana.
· Robert Banner's Bio [IGYGCB]
· Department of Buildings [nyc.gov]
· Coping With a Neighbor's Renovation [NYT]
· All Curbed University [Curbed]