In 2004, Meggan Berley and her husband, empty-nesters in Dobbs Ferry, ditched their longtime rental and bought a new condominium on Spencer Street in Brooklyn. Then the headaches began. On move-in day, the floors weren’t finished and the kitchen cabinets had no doors. The Berleys lived amid construction for weeks. Then came winter, and the pipes burst. Every time they ran the washer, the walls thundered. Berley’s laptop plug kept burning out, and she heard buzzing from the outlets. Three years later, her building has lost its temporary certificate of occupancy, in part because it’s four stories taller than is legal. “I’ve been completely ripped off,” she says. (The developer, Mendel Brach, did not return New York’s request for comment.)
From Harlem to Bed-Stuy to Williamsburg, buyers—especially in fringe neighborhoods—say they’re living with bad ventilation, leaky roofs, thin insulation, insufficient fireproofing, and other egregious screwups. Travis Orr, who just settled a lawsuit with the developer of his condo, Williamsburg Mews, says he spent $10,000 on repairs after construction debris left in the plumbing caused a flood. He and his neighbors have spent more than $50,000 on lawyers during their four-year fight. Attorney Adam Leitman Bailey has seen many such cases: “Imagine spending millions [for] twelve-foot ceilings and they give you seven feet,” he says. “Seven years ago, we had one client that was a homeowners’ association. Now we have at least fifteen cases and 30 buildings.” Lawyer Kevin McConnell of Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph says he has had more calls in the past three years from condo buyers than ever before.
First-time developers lured by the gold rush and hurried construction may account for some complaints. Other builders may be cheaping out. “They’re trying to cut corners,” accuses Berley’s neighbor Sara Runser (pictured), whose floors have been replaced twice in three years. But the biggest factor may be the city itself. The Department of Buildings relies on self-certification—a process in which architects and developers swear that their plans comply with codes and zoning, usually proceeding without inspections until the project’s completed (and things like wiring and insulation are hidden). The DOB also spot-checks, auditing 23 percent of self-certified buildings in 2006, according to spokesperson Kate Lindquist, and has added zoning reviews to keep up with all the building. Many outsiders, notably activist Evan Thies, say it’s overwhelmed; though Lindquist calls that idea “simply not true,” she confirmed that just 142 examiners reviewed nearly 75,000 plans last year.
What would help? Oliver Rosengart, a lawyer formerly of the state attorney general’s office, suggests that developers could be required to guarantee their product (currently, only buildings five stories and under come with warranties) and to hold money in escrow until the DOB signs off. For now, McConnell suggests that shoppers have an engineer scrutinize plans. Berley wishes she had: “I have friends who bought a prewar and I think, They’re smart. They’re much better off.”