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Unlawful Dwellings

Laws differ by location, so you can protect yourself by researching the building and its local ordinances. One starting point is simply to Google the building’s address (with quotation marks around it for best results), which might turn up reports of prior or outstanding violations. If you’re suspicious about something, it’s also worth checking your local department of buildings or building safety, which will have the certificate for your building before you move into a rental, if you suspect something’s up, here are some features that are red flags.

You’re Renting a Basement, Cellar, or Attic

Basement apartments might seem quaint and cool, but in New York City, in fact, basements are the most usual form of an illegal apartment, and cellars and attics may not be far behind. (What’s the difference between “basement” and “cellar” for lower-level spaces? A basement rises at least 50% above street level, while a cellar has the majority of its space below street level, and different laws can apply to each.)

Current housing experts estimate that over 75% of basements are being rented illegally. Department of Buildings and Department of Housing and Preservation still by and large discourage renting basement apartments with some extremely limited exceptions, namely if they have legal ceiling heights, proper waterproofing, and other safety measures in place.

You’re Renting a Loft or Converted Warehouse

You may like the industrial vibe of living in a loft or converted warehouse space, but you’d better check local zoning ordinances and codes. Many of these former factories weren’t legally converted to residential units, or they aren’t adequate in terms of safety and fire codes. So, ask the landlord for a residential Certificate of Occupancy, and beware of lofts where typical residential amenities like bathrooms, plumbing, and electrical seem hacked into the layout in a way that seems less than safe. Some warehouse conversions are done without regard to fire codes. Red flags are living spaces that seem crammed in a haphazard manner, if electrical wires are exposed, or if paths to exit are scarce.

You’re Renting an In-Law Suite

In-law suites, also called secondary units, are the common name for self-contained suites in private homes, with a separate entrance, kitchen, and bath. But if you’re considering paying rent to live in such a suite in a stranger’s home, proceed with great caution.

In-law suites are typically not permitted as such, making them illegal apartments. When homeowners add a new residential unit, they often don’t know they need to get permits for this second dwelling—even if a family member is moving in. If you’re considering such a unit, make sure to ask to see permits. They may also be required to provide other features such as a separate electric meter and a parking spot.

Utilities Are Included

This may seem like a great bargain. However, If everyone living in the building is on one gas meter, the building may not be zoned for separate dwellings. It’s a possible sign that the landlord is hoping to hide illegal rental units. Similarly, if you’re told you can’t have mail delivered to the apartment’s address, it may be an attempt to hide you, the less-than-legal renter. But this is not always the case. Landlords often find it less costly to simply include the utilities rather than re-meter and/or separate the utilities. Make sure to ask the landlord for documentation on the number of dwellings allowed in the building to make sure everything’s on the up and up.

There Aren’t Enough Windows or Exits

If you’re renting a bedroom in a larger apartment with other people, make sure that “bedroom” is legal. To qualify as a legal bedroom, in addition to a door, rooms must have a window, but there is some wiggle space here. For instance, a skylight counts as a window in some locations, and the window need not be facing the great outdoors; even a window facing another interior room with a window could pass muster. There also needs to be another exit from the dwelling other than your main entrance. For your own safety, if there are no other doors, the landlord must provide a fire escape.

When it comes to illegal dwellings consult with a tenant defense attorney. There are defenses that can get your case dismissed. Be incredibly careful what you admit to the landlord and his attorney. This information may be used against you.

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