When Halstead Management Company’s Paul Gottsegen arrived at a meeting with one uptown co-op board last Tuesday, a new item was on the agenda: Are our balconies safe? In his 25 years as a property manager, Gottsegen had never fielded that question before. But according to the previous morning’s Times, the city had just cited sixteen buildings that, according to Buildings Department commissioner Robert LiMandri, “pose a risk to public safety.” The review came on the heels of an accidental death back in March, when a resident of a Murray Hill tower leaned against a railing and it gave way.
Gottsegen was able to reassure residents that none of his 80 buildings are on the list, but the tenants of 300 East 75th Street were not so lucky. One of them says he’s eager to find out from the management what this ruling means—that is, whether the risk is immediate. At least one of his neighbors has vowed to stay off her balcony indefinitely. At another cited building, on York Avenue, a resident says the management sent in its own team to look over her balcony, and that she’d been given the all-clear.
As it turns out, you can’t really do much more than ask your management company whether it’s safe. A proper inspection, explains Gottsegen, involves putting up scaffolding, pulling out bricks, and sometimes even drilling into the façade, which a tenant can’t very well order up independently. Otherwise, the most an engineer can do is size up any cracks and maybe tap here and there with a hammer, looking for weaknesses.
Balconies have traditionally held an odd position in the real-estate business. Many buyers want one, and will pay extra for it, yet often that expensive little space goes unused, accumulating soot and old bicycles. Walk down Second Avenue, where many postwar buildings are studded with little concrete shelves, and you’ll see that barely any are occupied. (Halstead’s Leah Blesoff notes that many buyers “think they’ll use it more than they actually do,” and appraiser Jonathan Miller agrees, suggesting that it’s like having a gym on the premises: People just want the option.)
So are apartment buyers pulling back from the edge? Although Miller says that “in a housing market trying to recover, this is something sellers don’t want to hear,” and repairs can get expensive, it’s not a deal-killer. Marilyn Korn, whose office is representing buyers for an in-contract listing at a West 70th Street co-op that’s on the DOB’s list, says the clients are “cautiously waiting and moving forward.” Another broker working in the same building says she disclosed the problem to a buyer at a recent showing, and he put in an offer anyway. (They’re still negotiating.) Blesoff, who has yet another listing in that building, says her sellers just signed a contract for more than their asking price, “and that had everything to do with the fact that it has a balcony and has the views that it has.” She insists that all will be well. “It was a concern, but we knew it would be handled. It’s not like the balcony can’t be reinforced.”