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5 Illegal Rentals You Might Be Living in Right Now


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You, holing up in an illegal rental? Never!

At least, that’s what I thought before I was kicked out of my own illegal rental when I was, oh, about eight months pregnant. Worst of all, I had no idea my cellar apartment was illegal. That’s a horror story for another time, but it has a universal takeaway: Knowing what’s legal in your rental market can save you a boatload of trouble in the long run.

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 (in my city, it’s viewable online).

So before you move into a rental, if you suspect something’s up, here are some features that are red flags.

1. You’re renting a basement, cellar, or attic

Basement apartments might seem sweet, but watch out—as I learned in my cellar fiasco, unusual often means illegal.

In New York City, in fact, basements are the most common 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.)

To be declared legal, a basement, cellar, or attic apartment has to meet criteria like having a minimum ceiling height (in New York, it’s 7 feet) and being zoned as living space. So if the space is mostly below street level, if its ceiling seems suspiciously low, or if its windows are tiny, definitely do more research on whether this space is legal to rent as a residence.

2. You’re renting a loft or converted warehouse

Love the industrial vibe of living in a loft or converted warehouse space? 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 up to snuff 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. As the deadly Ghost Ship fire proved, some warehouse conversions are done without regard to fire codes. If living spaces seem crammed in a haphazard manner, if electrical wires are exposed, or if paths to exit are scarce, look elsewhere.

3. 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.

“What we typically find is that in-law suites were never permitted as such, making them illegal apartments,” says Robert Pellegrini, president of the PK Boston law firm. He explains that 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. So 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 meters and a parking spot.

4. Utilities are included

Great! How can you go wrong with free utilities? Here’s how: 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. “Often, it is less costly for landlords to simply include the utilities rather than remeter and/or separate the utilities,” points out Pellegrini. So go ahead and ask the landlord for documentation on the number of dwellings allowed in the building to make sure everything’s on the up and up.

5. 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 legit. To officially qualify as a 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.

“If there are no other doors, the landlord must provide a fire escape,” says Pellegrini. “Failing this, there is no way you can rent there.”

Laws differ by location, but in New York, you might have a wrought-iron, balcony-style fire escape or emergency stairwells. Newer buildings may even have evacuation elevators.The old adage to never take an elevator in case of a fire may no longer apply across the board.

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