Who’s Responsible for Repairs?
Board and Owner Maintenance Responsibilities
By Raanan Geberer
Say you’re in bed and you hear what sounds like the shower going, but it’s late, and you’re tired, so you pay it no mind. You wake up at 4 a.m. to get a glass of water, and find half the rooms in your apartment flooded— you forgot to turn the shower off! You throw blankets and towels on the floor to soak up the water, then you call your building’s maintenance staff.
With the aid of a dehumidifying machine, they’re able to get most of the moisture out of the flooded areas. But the wooden floor tiles themselves are heavily damaged—and a fair amount of water seeped into your downstairs neighbor’s unit, damaging the ceilings, walls, and some artwork. Who’s responsible for restoring the flooring? And what about the water that poured into the apartment below?
Finding out what systems and features in a shareholder’s co-op or condo unit are the owner’s responsibility and which are the building’s or association’s responsibility can be a very complicated subject. Many principles are universal but other details can vary from building to building, depending on the rules of that particular community.
According to the experts, within the individual unit, shareholders and unit owners are basically responsible for whatever’s within the four walls, and from floor to ceiling. Or, in another way of putting it, they’re responsible for whatever they can see. Unfortunately, this would likely include those wooden floor tiles, unless your building administration decides to be generous.
One exception, however, is the electrical wiring inside the walls, says Carl Borenstein, president of Veritas Property Management in Manhattan, which manages about 80 buildings. “The building is only responsible for the electrical wiring up to the circuit breaker box,” he says. “Even though you don’t see the wiring after that point, it’s the responsibility of the shareholder” or the unit owner.
Then, what is the building or development responsible for? “While every building is different,” says attorney Leonard Ritz, of counsel, at the law offices of Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C. in Manhattan, “the general rule of thumb is that the building is responsible for everything in a common area of the property, and any building system—or portion of the system—that serves more than one apartment.”
This would include the hallways, lobby, elevators, basement, boilers or rooftop A/C, plus the electrical wiring from the point it enters the building from the street to the point it enters the circuit breaker or junction box.
Attorney Ronald A. Sher, founding partner of the law firm of Himmelfarb & Sher in White Plains, mentions a difference between condos and co-ops as far as responsibilities for repairs is concerned. In co-ops, he says, windows are the responsibility of the co-op; in condos, of the unit owner. HVAC units are the responsibility of the building in a co-op, but the responsibility of the unit owner in condos (the owners are responsible from the horizontal connections into the unit and the heating and cooling equipment).
As in everything, there are some gray areas when it comes to who’s obligated to fix what in a multifamily building. Places at the intersection of the wall and a piece of equipment are a frequent source of conflict, such as window replacement and repair, plumbing risers and valves (such as the valve under the sink that turns the water off), air conditioning equipment, and air conditioning sleeves within the walls.
Borenstein mentions the toilet as an example of how complex the situation is. “The tank, seat and flushometer belong to the owner, but the lead bend [the large, bending pipe under the toilet] belongs to the co-op. The toilet sits on a wax ring on the floor, which creates a seal. Sometimes the seal is compromised, the water begins to leak and causes damage.” This is another area of conflict, depending…