How to Spot Illegal Apartments -10 Tips for Apartment Seekers

Illegal ApartmentsDo you know what the NYC DOB is? You should – The DOB is a great resource for apartment dwellers:

The NYC Department of Buildings ensures the safe and lawful use of over 975,000 buildings and properties by enforcing the City’s Building Code, Electrical Code, Zoning Resolution, New York State Labor Law and New York State Multiple Dwelling Law.

Alas, the DOB website is rather hard to navigate and their tips rarely reach the light of day. Well, DOB, let us give you a hand. Here are DOB’s ten tips on how to recognize illegally converted apartments.  While they are specific for New York City, it’s a great checklist for renters anywhere.

  1. Know the market. Be wary of units that advertise significantly lower price points relative to comparable apartments in the area.
  2. Beware of the words “basement” or “attic.” Advertisements that reference these words often lack adequate exits.
  3. Avoid apartments that have rooms without windows or very small windows. These are often found in illegal cellar or basement apartments. Landlords will sometimes describe the ones with very small windows as “sunny” to entice renters.
  4. Beware the word “flex.” “Flex” implies that the apartment can be converted into a multi-bedroom unit using pressurized walls. The installation and/or construction of a wall without the proper permits from the DOB are illegal.
  5. “Utilities included” is a red flag. A landlord may not want utilities under another name connected to the property because those residents would violate the legal occupancy of the building.
  6. Avoid apartments with odd layouts. They are often described as “unique” or “interesting” and are oddly situated (e.g., a shower installed in the kitchen).
  7. Be cautious when a landlord refuses to disclose the exact address. Landlords advertising illegal apartments may ask to meet a potential renter before exposing the address to possible regulation or penalty.
  8. Beware of apartments where you can’t have mail delivered. Landlords advertising illegal apartments will often request that tenants obtain a separate post office box.
  9. Beware of no-lease apartments. Be suspicious of a landlord who declines to draw up a lease, requests a month-to-month agreement, or requires cash payment.
  10. Check for adequate means of egress and look out for locked doors in the unit. A tenant should be able to access all available exits either directly from the unit or via a public hallway.

All are good tips, thought they seem to be of varying levels of importance. For example, tip #1 will save you time/money while #2 and #10 could save your life.  And check out #4, if you are planning to install a wall to carve out another bedroom.

But, unlike the DOB, I don’t have issue with apartments with odd layouts, if they let you afford living in this expensive city. A friend has a shower in her kitchen – and she sees it as an opportunity to multi-task, if ya know what I mean!

In the meantime, find out more about the DOB (and check out additional info) on its website. Or, you can follow them on Twitter (for realz!):)

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Author My First Apartment

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I've lived in apartments in 6 cities (including 2 foreign countries). Does that make me an expert? As of now, my ceiling isn't leaking and I don't have rodents (knock on wood) -- so I'm going to say yes . . . but ask me again tomorrow:) These days, I'm enjoying life Chicago style, but my years in Brooklyn are never far from my mind. P.S. By day I work at, but these opinions are totally, 100% my own.

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  1. Avatar Joy

    My sister will be moving to another city because of her job and my dad thinks she should rent an apartment. It was mentioned here that when looking for an apartment for rent, she should make sure that it has windows. In addition, the apartment should also be able to receive mail.