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Conversion FAQs

Must a church be decon­secrated before you move in?
Not if you strip out the godly stuff.

Catholics and Episcopalians have no specific liturgical ritual for converting their sanctuaries into nonecclesiastical spaces beyond removing objects considered sacred (crosses, vestments, chalices, the altar, etc.), says Dr. Maureen A. Tilley, a theology professor at Fordham University. “Even though the walls of the church may have at one time been consecrated, once the building is no longer used for sacred rituals, it’s not considered perpetually consecrated.” (Roman Catholic canon law 1212, in fact, states that “sacred places lose their dedication or blessing if they have been destroyed in large part, or have been turned over permanently to profane use.”) Protestants also needn’t perform rites to prepare their churches for residential living. “Most Protestant denominations do not think of their buildings as having been an especially sacred space, because they think of the whole world as sacred,” says the Reverend Dr. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary. Many church officials will, however, have a closing worship service that allows the church community to mourn its passing. There’s no rite or ritual for synagogues, either, though actually deciding whether one can be sold is determined on a case-by-case basis by senior leaders.


Where Does One Find a Property to Convert?
Because Craigslist doesn’t exactly have a glut of abandoned churches.

If it’s a house of worship you’re after, you could always start by contacting the various dioceses of New York, though be aware that those properties almost always hit the market through brokers, as do post offices, garages, and the like. LoopNet.com, a commercial-property database, and Massey Knakal (masseyknakal.com), a local brokerage firm, are both known for peddling convertible properties. If you prefer a city-owned building—say, a school or firehouse—the agency selling the space will put out an RFP (request for proposal) on the EDC’s website (nycedc.com). Before you fall hopelessly in love with a project, though, make sure you’ll actually be able to convert it into a legally livable space; you or your broker can check the City Planning Department’s zoning-map table to see how it is currently zoned. If it’s not intended for residential use, your architect or engineer will need to obtain a certificate of occupancy from the Buildings Department by filing floor plans that meet safety and zoning regulations for use as a home. You might need to have sprinkler systems put in place, as well as an up-to-code kitchen and bathroom.


Are There Any Features You Can’t Keep, Post-Conversion?
A spot of bad news for firehouse buyers.

A fire pole is seen as a fire hazard because it can allow smoke and flames to travel easily from one space to another, says Paul Grissett of Rand Engineering & Architecture. The Buildings Department has specific construction guidelines that homeowners must follow to minimize the spread, which usually involves ripping out the pole and sealing over the opening. If you’re still wedded to the idea of keeping it, apply for a waiver from the DOB commissioners’ office to change the certificate of occupancy. Just don’t expect an easy sell. “The architect needs to explain why it has to be left as it is,” says Grissett, adding that aesthetic preference usually isn’t enough to convince them.


Is a Conversion a Good Investment?
Insight from real-estate appraiser Jonathan Miller.

“A property that can be differentiated from others stands out from the market,” says Miller. But when the market is tight, that same property may be shunned for more traditional spaces. “Consumers tend to give greater weight to conventional layouts, because the purchase doesn’t represent a risk on resale.” As for how much of a premium a conversion can carry, it ranges from 5 to 20 percent of the total value. “There are no real rules of thumb,” says Miller. “By definition, these projects are all unique.”


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