20 Questions Apartment Buyers Forget To Ask

We’ve seen it time and time again — even when searching for our own places. You think and think about all the things you want to know about an apartment before you see it, but the instant you step over the threshold, your mind goes blank. There’s so much to look at, an agent who’ll
probably be talking to you, and all the general hubbub of an open house.

We get it. That’s why we’re offering up this list of tried and true questions to ask about the apartment’s building in one handy place so you don’t have to worry about forgetting anything.

1. What’s the elevator situation? Are there enough? Even in rush hour? If it’s a tall building, consider whether there’s an “express” option. If religious law is important to you, do you need to know about a Shabbat elevator?

2. What’s the sublet policy? How about Airbnb? What restrictions are there on your ability to sublet the apartment? Are there any fees?

3. How about heat and A/C? If the heat and air conditioning are centrally controlled, what time of year does the building switch over? Note: you can check up on a building’s 311 complaints here.

4. How does food delivery work? Can meals be delivered to your door or do you have to go down to the lobby to get them? Are there enough restaurants that deliver to the building? (Check restaurant-delivery website Seamless.)

5. How are packages handled? Over the past few years, the explosion of grocery delivery services, meal delivery services, Amazon shopping and all other forms of online shopping have severely strained the ability of even full-service doorman buildings to store and/or deliver to residents. Some have banned certain types of delivery altogether, so be sure to inquire. If there is a package room, be sure to ask to see it so you can gauge whether things appear to be safe.

6. What amenities are included? (And how much will they cost you?)

7. What’s the Board personality? Is the board liberal or conservative? (For clues, ask to see a copy of the house rules.) A board’s personality will influence your day-to-day existence and can even affect resale values. Also, note that there is no “right” way for a Board to act (so long as they act legally) so if you prefer an active or vigilant Board to a chill one, know this up front.

8. Check your flood zone and evacuation zone: Post-Hurricane Sandy, it’s important to be aware of your building’s vulnerability to flooding. Find out whether the building was affected by Hurricane Sandy. If it was, you and your attorney need to make sure the damage was fixed properly, by professionals, and find out how the building will address vulnerabilities going forward (and how much your share of that will cost).

You should also check to see if it lies in a FEMA-designated flood zone. If it is, you will need to be prepared for the possibility of future disruption and if you are taking out a mortgage, you may need to purchase flood insurance on your apartment, even if it’s on the 15th floor.

Finally, determine whether your building lies in a NYC flood evacuation zone. There are no insurance consequences to being inside a NYC evacuation zone, but you may be ordered to evacuate in another severe storm.

9. Has the building ever had an issue with bedbugs? Has the building had a bed bug problem within the past year, how was it handled, and what is the status? Red flags include a long term problem (6 months or longer); an infestation that is centralized in the apartment of a ‘hoarder’, notoriously difficult to control or even gain access to; a recent bed bug problem in your own unit, or any unit in an adjacent cloverleaf pattern (above, below, beside your prospective apartment).

10. What are the pet rules? Even if you don’t want one now, does the building allow dogs or cats? If so, are there any restrictions on number, breed or size? Will you need to pay a fee to keep a dog, use the service elevator or even carry your dog through the lobby?

11. Ask to see the laundry area and find out its usage rules: If your apartment doesn’t already have one, may you install a washer/dryer? (Don’t take the seller or broker’s word on this, and beware of any answers to your renovation questions that include the words “the board approves
this on a case-by-case basis.”) Do the machines look like they are in good condition? Is the room clean and tidy? Do you feel safe?

12. What about the neighborhood nuisances? Are there any nuisances on the block, such as a nightclub that gets going at midnight every night, or a restaurant that exhausts cooking smells into your apartment? (Come back and check at the appropriate time of day.)

13. What’s the smoking policy? It’s not just restaurants, bars, and public parks that are smoke-free these days: Some apartment buildings have declared smoking off-limits inside apartments, not just within the public spaces of the building. If you hate smoking, does the building enforce
rules about smoking near entrances?             

14. How about the schools? What public elementary schools are in your zone, and are they considered “good”? Even if you don’t have kids, your next buyer may care. Fair Housing Laws preclude your real estate agent from discussing schools, but you can investigate on websites like InsideSchools.org and GreatSchools.org and stop by the local playground to ask a few parents about the schools and any scuttlebutt about future rezoning initiatives.

Before you sign any papers committing you to a new apartment, confirm and reconfirm that the building is in the school zone you think it is. In theory, you can find out which school a building is zoned for by calling 311 or checking the Department of Education website but due to continual rezoning, this information has not always been accurate. We suggest calling the school principal’s office to confirm that your building falls in that school’s zone.

15. What are your potential neighbors like? What kind of people live in the building? Fair Housing Laws prevent your agent from talking about the presence of families, retirees, or young party animals—so ask the doorman and/or sit outside the building to watch who comes and

16. Do you care about family friendly? Life with small children can be much easier in a building that is truly “friendly” to families, and parent friends (and potential playdate partners) in the same building are a major plus. On the other hand, if you’re single or your kids are all grown up,
you may not want to live next door or beneath young children.

Brokers aren’t allowed to discuss the composition of the building, but the doorman or super can. Other tips: Sit in the lobby or outside the building and look for yourself, particularly before and after school. If there’s a bike room, look for little bikes. Buildings with up-to-date playrooms and those with predominantly larger (2+ bedroom) apartments tend to have more families, particularly in highly regarded school zones.

17. What does the building smell like? Be alert to any objectionable odors, ranging from cigarette or pot smoke to cat pee to strong cooking smells and make sure they are something you can live with. Are stairwells and elevators pleasant enough?

18. Who holds sponsor control? If more than 50% of the apartments are owned by the developer or sponsor, you and your neighbors will not be able to make key decisions about the biggest investment in your life until the sponsor owns a minority stake and residents take control of the board. There may also be issues with financing: Banks are reluctant to issue mortgages in buildings with high investor or sponsor ownership, meaning you may have to pay all-cash–and resale values may be depressed because the pool of potential (all-cash) buyers is small.                                  

19. How is trash handled? How is garbage disposed of—for example, can you leave it on the service stairs for pickup or do you have to bring it down to the basement yourself? What about big items? How does the recycling work?

20. Stroller policy: Are strollers allowed in the elevator or relegated to the service elevator? Size matters: How big is it really, and is there room to grow?

Because of the high transaction costs involved in buying and selling apartments in New York City, you should buy an apartment with room to grow over the next 5-7 years. So if you’re newly married and planning for children, you may want to keep renting rather than buy a one-bedroom
starter apartment.

Do not rely on anyone’s claims about square footage of a particular apartment. Bring your own tape measure and run the numbers yourself.

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