What makes an apartment illegal?

Not all apartments in New York are legal. New York City zones buildings to be residential or commercial and there are laws dictating specifications for bedroom size, heat, gas, water, and sanitation issues.

So what makes an apartment illegal?

For starters, the apartment is illegal if the space is used in a manner beyond what the building permit specifies. For example, commercially zoned units cannot be rented as residential spaces. Cellars, commonly found in single family homes, are not zoned as residential dwellings and therefore are illegal to rent out. Basements can be legal apartments but they should raise a red flag and you should proceed with caution.

If your electricity comes from extension cords or your door locks with a padlock, you should check to make sure it’s legal.

Red Flags

  • The apartment is in a basement (or less common for NYC, an attic)
  • No inside plumbing, bathroom, or cooking area
  • If the bathroom or kitchen are separated. (This could look like a toilet and a shower in different rooms or a fridge and stove in different areas.)
  • No windows
  • No secondary exit
  • You operate on one gas and/or electrical meter with other people

While cellars are always illegal space to inhabit, basements can be legal. Here is the important difference between them.

Basements and cellars differ in their amount of height above curb level. A basement has at least one-half of its height above curb level, while a cellar has less than one-half of its height above curb level.

Basements in a residential property can only be lawfully rented or occupied if its conditions meet the requirements for light, air, sanitation, and exits. The Department of Buildings also must approve the spaces.

If you’re wondering if your apartment is illegal, you can check with the Department of Buildings. All buildings built after April 1929 have a certificate of occupancy which will tell you the ways the building is permitted to be used. It will tell you how many apartments it can have on each floor, which can help you determine if your basement apartment is legal.

There are also laws regarding bedrooms specifically. So if you’re living with roommates, or looking to share an apartment, you should know what qualifies as a bedroom in NYC.

  • Bedrooms must be 80 square feet in size and no dimension should be less than 8 feet. However, if the apartment has three or more bedrooms, half the bedrooms can have a minimum dimension of 7 feet.
  • They must have an 8 foot ceiling height. If they are in the basement the ceiling height must be at least 7 feet.
  • There needs to be at least one window that opens to a street, or a yard, garden, or court.
  • Bedrooms cannot serve as passage to another room.

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